President Uhuru Kenyatta today (Wednesday) begins confronting possibly the biggest hurdle to managing his succession as he faces the hostile Mt Kenya region, which has rebelled against him and banked on his insubordinate deputy, William Ruto.
A year after the last meeting at Sagana State Lodge, where he crushed the resistance against the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and its proposals to amend the Constitution, and hence forced county assemblies from the region to swiftly pass the Bill, the President returns to the theatre of Mt Kenya politics during his tenure, albeit for a much harder task.
After ignoring his deputy, who has camped in the region for most of their second term in office, the President this month declared time is ripe to mount a fightback — whose outcome could either be triumphant should his preferred successor prevail, or a humiliating power transfer after the August polls.
The mission at Sagana III today will be nostalgic for the outgoing president as it rekindles his tribulations two decades ago when Mt Kenya resisted his anointment by then President Daniel arap Moi as his preferred successor, and instead sided with Narc’s Mwai Kibaki in the 2002 transitional election.
In the next decade, Uhuru marched from an underdog to the region’s kingpin, subsequently taking over power from President Kibaki in 2013, but on the road to winning acceptance in his home turf he had to make major concessions. After a dalliance with the breakaway faction of Narc led by Raila Odinga that went on to form the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Uhuru, then Leader of Official Opposition, would back President Kibaki’s re-election in the disputed 2007 polls, which set off events that would culminate in his installation as the region’s kingpin.
By foregoing his presidential bid to back the besieged incumbent, Uhuru endeared himself to Mt Kenya and set himself on the path to succeeding Kibaki.
President Kenyatta is an interesting fellow.
When he stands behind the microphone he transforms spectacularly from the thoroughbred son of a president to a charismatic, ebullient character with charm to boot. He is cheery, too. And quite convincing. So convincing that you’d not want to get into an argument with him, especially while he is in his element and in his backyard.
He speaks fluent Kikuyu punctuated with metaphors and imagery straight from the Mau Mau era, and the allegories he throws on the campaign trail seem to have a mellowing effect on his audiences. That has worked for him before, but will it today?
Leader of the community
In the run-up to the 2013 elections, Kibaki’s firebrand minister John Michuki proclaimed Uhuru as the leader of the community, warning that anyone who wanted to negotiate with Mt Kenya had to do so through him.
But in an unsettling poetic justice, President Kenyatta’s succession plan now faces a threat from his home turf, where Ruto, the man he successfully ran together on a joint ticket to defeat Mr Odinga twice in 2013 and 2017, has succeeded in turning the region against him. And Ruto has boasted that he holds the key to Mt Kenya, placing the President in what would have been an unthinkable predicament 10 years ago: a spirited battle to assert his authority in the region.
To signal the gloves are off, the Deputy President and his allies are not welcome in the meeting that the President’s side has projected as a forum for the Head of State to explain his achievement and undo the “lies” peddled in the region.
“There is no way some people can be going around disrespecting the President and still expect that he will sit down and have a conversation with them. This is for those who support the President and his ideologies,” Kieni MP Kanini Kega told the Nation.
But just how did Mt Kenya slip away from the son of founding president Jomo Kenyatta, who had a stranglehold on it, and on whose coattails most politicians from the region hung to win seats in the last two elections?
Some argue his deputy began plotting the hostile takeover in the lead up to the 2017 elections. Jubilee vice chairman David Murathe is one of them, and he has said before that after the bungled Jubilee nominations, Dr Ruto was tasked with overseeing the repeat exercise but, unbeknown to the President’s camp, he had other plans.
And so, it is claimed, as the President whiled away his time in State House, Nairobi, the foot soldier he had sent to undo the damage of the nominations fiasco quietly but efficiently planted key people to positions of power and authority.
Dr Ruto, it is argued even though no evidence has been given other than the circumstantial finger-pointing, interfered with the nominations to rig out those from the region he considered a threat to his power ambitions, among them the then Kiambu governor William Kabogo.
The DP is also accused of overseeing the installation of current leaders from the region who have defied the President and advanced the former’s presidential quests in Mt Kenya. Some have claimed the fallout between the President and his deputy can be traced to the run-up to the 2017 elections, and that Uhuru’s truce with Mr Odinga only aggravated an already bad situation.
There have been reports of a hard-line wing within the President’s circle that attempted a running mate change for the 2017 elections, and it is argued that the plan was discarded after it became apparent it would backfire and lead to a loss in the polls.
Perhaps lending credence that the fallout dates way before the 2017 elections is a curious statement by the DP’s office when his security was withdrawn, citing a gun attack incident at his Sugoi home among cases of alleged demeaning of his office by powerful figures in government.
The DP’s camp has capitalised on the President’s rapprochement with Mr Odinga as the genesis of the troubles in Jubilee because of its potential to create a siege mentality in Mt Kenya, where voters have been hostile to Odinga’s past presidential bids.
And a line of attack Ruto himself has repeatedly hammered is whether there was no worthy candidate from among the eight million Jubilee supporters who voted for Uhuru that he would opt to back Mr Odinga, who has been roundly demonised in the region in the past.
In January last year, ahead of the President’s Sagana meeting to whip the region to support the BBI, 41 Mt Kenya MPs allied to Dr Ruto authored a scathing letter to the Head of State.
Forthright and daring
In it, they were forthright and daring, telling the President: “We must be direct and truthful with you: We cannot sell Raila Odinga in our region or, indeed, any other imposed presidential candidate. You blame the leaders and people of the Mt Kenya region for being reluctant to accept the Handshake and the BBI. It is not their fault. The successful effort you made to persuade the people and render Raila Odinga unacceptable in Mt Kenya cannot be undone in your lifetime.”
The letter was as scathing as it was shocking. The region’s elected leaders were telling their king that he was naked, and that the choices he was making would be resisted with vehemence. President Kenyatta, naturally, did not take these words kindly, and soon afterwards launched a successful offensive against the anti-BBI brigade that saw the proposals sail through without as much as a whimper.
The Deputy President has tactfully distanced himself from Jubilee policies that have been deemed anti-business in the region, like the crackdown on counterfeit goods that affected traders in Nairobi’s Nyamakima suburb. To the President’s dismay, this noble campaign to protect local industries from cheap and fake imports became one of the grievances around which his critics incited the rebellion.
Granted, the crackdown became an avenue to extort traders with threats to declare their imported merchandise counterfeit unless they parted with bribes; and it cut the supply from China that offered a lifeline for those traders. The situation was further worsened when the ban on consolidation of goods drove some businesses under.
Limping and groaning
“Today, economically speaking, Mt Kenya is limping and groaning,” the Mt Kenya MPs allied to Dr Ruto wrote in the letter to the President last year.
“People are crying bitter tears. In Nyamakima, Gikomba, Kamukunji and on Taveta, Kirinyaga and River roads, businesses have closed as besieged traders relocate to the rural areas to dress their wounds. This personal and communal suffering is a direct result of the policies of your Excellency’s administration. Import and export trade, which employed millions of traders from our region, was viciously disrupted when merchandise that formed the mainstay of countless enterprises was branded counterfeit. It was impounded, seized, destroyed and set on fire. Our people literally saw their lives’ savings and lifetime investments go up in smoke.”
At some point, the discontent was brought to the President’s attention and he personally went to inspect the process at the Inland Container Depot at Embakasi, where traders complained a logjam of imported containers was killing their businesses.
With the brewing discontent, gruelling campaigns in the region by his deputy and the ruthlessly effective propaganda campaign by his critics, who have portrayed the President as having abandoned his support base to court his former opponent Mr Odinga, the Mountain has been slipping away from the president’s grip.
But can he turn the tide? His supporters believe he has the charisma to undo what they brand a campaign of lies waged over four years by the DP’s camp. They argue that whenever he has come calling, he has always got his way, citing his last Sagana meeting when he quelled the rebellion against BBI that saw all the Mt Kenya county assemblies pass the constitutional amendment bill.
The President’s supporters also cite the fact that Uhuru has won all the contests against his deputy in Parliament despite Dr Ruto’s claim that he has the numbers.
From the purge of Ruto-allied leaders in House leadership positions to the passage in Parliament of the BBI Bill to amend the Constitution — it was only scuttled by the courts, and the Supreme Court is due to decide on its final fate — Uhuru’s supporters say the Deputy President made inroads because he wasn’t facing any resistance.
But the President has declared it’s now time for politics and he will campaign to ensure Jubilee Party, which Ruto and his team abandoned for the United Democratic Alliance (UDA), regains political influence as it seals a deal with Mr Odinga’s ODM as part of measures to cobble a broad-based coalition.
“We said when the time for politics comes, we will come. The time for politics is now and you will hear us. Everybody has political freedom, those who started early and those starting now,” Uhuru vowed recently.
And then Sagana III happened.