Breakfast with Uhuru: Demystifying presidency was a worthwhile project

Monday July 15 2013

By MACHARIA GAITHO

Breakfast with President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House. A sundowner at my rather modest local in a less pristine part of town.

It’s called coming down to earth. If I had my head in the clouds after my moment of celebdom last Friday, the fact is that I still had to retreat to familiar territory and carry on with all the humdrum things of life.

The editors’ breakfast with President Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, and about all the Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries and other VIPs who could be assembled was historic in many ways.

It was the first such gathering at State House, we were reliably informed. It was a chance for the President and deputy to mix and mingle freely with the rather pesky fellows they’d ordinarily steer well clear of.

Former President Mwai Kibaki treated journalists with ill-disguised contempt.

His predecessor, President Moi, saw journalists much like the political vermin that crowded his State House looking for handouts.

The UhuRuto duo demonstrated on Friday that they were keen to reach out and craft new ways of engagement with the Fourth Estate.

They were relaxed and mixed easily, exchanging bear hugs, jokes and banter with the assembled throngs, a far contrast from Moi and Kibaki who, even in the secure sanctums of State House, would have been nervous, with mean-looking security men making sure nobody got too close.

After the President and his deputy laid on the charm so effortlessly, I suspect many a smitten journalist might opt to see them in a new light.

Journalists by nature should be suspicious of the political classes. In fact, the more a politician tries to act friendly, the more reason to be on one’s guard.

What does he want of me? What is he trying to hide? What is hidden behind that smile? What is his motive?

These are the mandatory questions any self-respecting journalist would ask the moment a politician became too friendly.

Yet journalists are also human beings. They can be disarmed by a quick smile and a friendly pat on the back.

I would be lying if I claimed that I did not come out of the State House with a new insight into Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto.

Both are politicians I have covered since their formative days in politics. I have watched them grow from baby steps to the titans they have become, but always keeping the mandatory distance.

Of the two, Mr Ruto is the one I have interacted with more closely, going back to his to his days with the infamous YK ’92 movement, his estrangement from President Moi, and his recall into the former President’s court in 2002 as one of the key architects of what was dubbed ‘Project Uhuru’.

I have interviewed and interrogated him on numerous occasions. We often had to agree to disagree, but kept our distance and retained a healthy mutual respect.

Mr Kenyatta has always been more difficult. From early on, after that doomed presidential election campaign of 2002, he seemed to have developed a particular dislike for the media that he felt had contributed to his defeat.

He also seemed to have singled out certain journalists, including yours truly, whom he supposedly believed had coined the ‘Project Uhuru‘ moniker.

It seems that Mr Kenyatta came out of the 2002 campaign deeply suspicious of the media, and determined to keep it at arm’s length.

This trait was evident during the last presidential campaign when he seemed to have erected a barrier around himself that only a favoured few could penetrate.

His media advisors were mean and uncivil with the media, behaving more like the charged “believers” that stood out at the campaign rallies.

But then they merely reflected the UhuRuto campaign. It was generally charged and angry, a stark contrast to the easy-going, friendly, laughing, pair we are now seeing.

Maybe the tensions of the campaign period have dissipated, or maybe there is realisation now that it pays more to make friends rather than to make enemies.

How this new engagement with the media pans out remains to be seen, but we must forever be on guard.