Uhuru Kenyatta: following in his father's footstep

PHOTO | FILE Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (centre) and his son Uhuru.

Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding president, takes up his father's mantle to become head of state despite facing international charges of crimes against humanity over election violence five years ago.

Uhuru, meaning "freedom", and Kenyatta, the "light of Kenya" in Swahili, carries his country's aspirations in his name, but brings with him controversy.

Kenyatta, 51, and his deputy William Ruto, 46, face trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity over their alleged role in having orchestrated 2007-08 post-election unrest.

Last month Kenya's Supreme Court ruled that the March 4 polls were valid, with Kenyatta sworn into office as the country's fourth president at a ceremony Tuesday.

He was born in 1961 shortly after the release of his father Jomo Kenyatta from nearly 10 years' incarceration by British colonial forces, and two years before Kenya's independence.

Fifty years on, the outgoing deputy prime minister and former finance minister is one of Kenya's richest and most powerful men, with the Kenyatta family owning vast swathes of some of the country's richest lands.

The Kenyatta family business empire also includes major banking and media interests as well as Kenya's main dairy business.

Educated in the United States at the elite Amherst College, where he studied political science and economics, he is viewed as the top political leader of the Kikuyu people, Kenya's largest tribe making up some 17 percent of the population.

However, he also appeals to Kenyans from different ethnic backgrounds, able to mingle not only with the elite he was born into but also with the average Kenyan, cracking jokes using local street slang.

With permanent heavy bags beneath his eyes and well dressed in pin-stripe business suits, Kenyatta exudes an image of power and entitlement.

But while a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable described him as "bright and charming, even charismatic", it also noted that he "drinks too much and is not a hard worker".

In the 1990s, he joined with the sons of other independence heroes to call for reform but gradually drew closer to autocratic former president Daniel arap Moi.

"He went into politics partly because Moi asked him to, and probably because it was a good way to protect his family's interests at a time of political transition," said Daniel Branch, a professor at Britain's Warwick University.

"Until recently, politics never mattered as much personally for Kenyatta as for Raila," he added, referring to his key rival he beat in the election, outgoing Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

One of Africa's richest men

In the December 2007 election Kenyatta threw his weight behind then incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.

The polls rapidly descended into chaos and left over 1,100 dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Delays in the 2007 vote count saw violence erupt over suspicion that Kibaki was stealing the election from Odinga, and killings mainly targeting Kikuyus spread across the country.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights has accused Kenyatta of attending meetings in early 2008 to plan for retaliatory violence by the Kikuyu.

ICC prosecutors say he mobilised the Mungiki -- a sect-like Kikuyu criminal organisation known for skinning and beheading its victims -- to attack opposition supporters.

The Kikuyu launched reprisal attacks in which homes were torched and people hacked to death in the worst outbreak of violence since independence in the east African nation.

Kenyatta, listed by Forbes magazine as one of the richest people in Africa, faces five counts including orchestrating murder, rape, forcible transfer and persecution in the polls' aftermath.

His trial at The Hague-based court is due to open on July 9.

Kenyatta has repeatedly said he will cooperate with the court, even though it could mean he will be absent from Kenya for long periods, with the trial expected by many to stretch for several years.

"I will be able to handle the issue of clearing our names... while at the same time ensuring that the business of government continues," Kenyatta said in reply to a question about how he and Ruto will juggle court appearances and run the country.

Kenya, as a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, would be supposed to act on any arrest warrant issued by the court should the pair refuse to attend trial.

Kenyatta, who insists his "conscience is clear", has said that he and Ruto "understand and recognise the rule of law and we will continue to cooperate so long as we are signatories of the Rome statute".

His supporters hail him as a hero, but he divides opinion as he prepares to lead his country and face an international trial.