As I landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from a trip abroad at 7.15 a.m. last Sunday, the only pressing thing on my mind was a working dinner that evening with Prof George Saitoti and his close advisers to air-brush the “Saitoti2013” campaign plan.
On that fateful day, nothing in the air or in my senses forewarned me that, in slightly over an hour, my dreams and those of many Kenyans would crash into the Kibiku area of the scenic Ngong Hills with the helicopter that carried “my future president”.
In November 2011, Prof Saitoti declared that he was in the race to succeed President Kibaki.
At the beginning of the year, I was greatly honoured when ‘GS’ — as we fondly referred to the minister — asked me to serve as campaign manager and chief strategist for his presidential campaign.
I gratefully obliged, even as I knew that this was no less than air-diving from the more pristine world of academia to the murky waters of Kenya’s electoral politics.
Upon my coming on board, Saitoti intimated that by the end of July 2012, we must have assembled the most powerful and well-oiled “campaign machine” in modern Kenya consisting of the best of skills and talents among Kenyans at home and abroad, and out-sourcing world-class professional services.
This “machine” was to be fuelled by the most exquisite and benign of ideas and strategies on the art of politics. We must not crudely pursue the raw power agenda of merely winning the 2013 elections, he advised.
The quest for power must be firmly anchored on the “ideology of peace” to ensure that Kenya remained a cohesive and peaceful society to avoid a return to the brink or tipping over.
To Saitoti and his team, peace was the only guarantee for sustainably moving the current socio-economic progress to the next level.
With this in mind, I re-read Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War, presently considered a masterwork in the re-making of a wiser, peaceful and tolerant society. I also bought and read cutting-edge texts on the “art of politics”.
Among these was the recently published strategy memo, How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians (2012), based on the advise by Quintus Tullius Cicero to his elder brother, Marcus, who was seeking election to the highest office, the Consul, in Rome in 64 BC.
I had come to know Saitoti as a knowledge enthusiast and an avid reader, who always anchored his most profound projects on a solid thinking.
So, I bought and autographed a copy of Quintus’ practical guide on electioneering for him, considering the text a quick and rewarding read.
I knew the “ten secrets” of political success suggested by the text would provoke heated in-house debate. But this was necessary to help tighten our campaign ideas, strategy and plan.
I was almost sure that upon reading the text, Saitoti would warm up to eight of the 10 choicest gems in Quintus priceless advice to his elder brother:
(1) Make sure you have the backing of family and friends; (2) Surround yourself with the right people; (3) Call in all favours; (4) Build a wide base for support;
(5) Communication skills are key; (6) Don’t leave town, stick close to Rome; (7) Know the weakness of your opponents — and exploit them; and (8) Give people hope.
But he would have doubtlessly dismissed two of Quintus’ down-and-dirty pieces of advice on how to sway voters and win office: (9) promise everything to everybody; and
(10) flatter voters shamelessly. It is the shameless deployment of such dirty tactics in 2007 that contributed to the lowly state of politics and pushed Kenya to the precipice.
By June 10, the Saitoti2013 campaign was low-key for obvious reasons. The minister was wary that by plunging into the campaign too early, he would sacrifice his responsibilities as the MP for Kajiado North and his crucial Internal Security docket at the altar of his presidential ambition.
As a conscientious and loyal member of President Kibaki’s inner circle, he considered it imprudent to appear too eager to jump into the shoes of his principal who also doubled up as the leader of his party — the Party of National Unity (PNU).
When I asked him when we were likely to unveil our campaign, he replied: “We are in for a long haul. This campaign is a marathon. We need to have a smooth take-off and sustain the momentum to the end.”
This is not to say that Saitoti was not getting his ducks in a row. The strategy was to work like a duck, still at the top, but busy below. He set up a state-of-the art secretariat in Nairobi’s Westlands area.
He assembled a lean team of young professionals and some of the most gifted and trusted staff from his days as vice-president; a think-tank of diverse expertise, local and international consultants and organisers of lobbies and networks of special interest groups.
But Saitoti also knew that his chances of becoming president rested in a genuine political coalition. He embarked on serious networking with the prime movers of Kenyan politics.
He always reminded his peers to imbibe the wisdom of the Maasai herdsman who ensures that none of his animals strays out of the herd and gets into harm’s way.
But he was also practical: “We need to first comply with the Political Parties Act. Only then can we embark on bringing like-minded parties into a winning coalition.”
As his campaign picked with earnest from May, his message became crystal clear. Harking back to his famous “there come a time ...” March 18, 2002 speech, Saitoti chose for his yet-to-be-unveiled campaign manifesto the title: “Time to Put Our Country First.”
When I asked him what colour he wanted to brand and define his campaign, his answer was instantaneous: “White, the colour of peace”.
With this, we designed his campaign mascot, “the White Road” (to peace and prosperity) designed by a little-known Kenya graphic designer, Amos Agiro, and inspired partly by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign logo, “the Rising Sun”.
While convinced that his time to be at the helm was at hand, Saitoti was keenly aware of his vulnerabilities. None of Saitoti’s peers doubted his qualities as an astute, wise, humble, non-threatening and non-polarising leader.
Nonetheless, in the horse-trading games that characterised ethnic coalition-making, he was often cynically and cruelly ridiculed: “What is George bringing onto the table?”
Saitoti had earlier lost the war to succeed President Moi in 2002 to his feeble ethnic power base. As a man of humble origins with a weak ethnic muscle, Saitoti and his team believed that Kenya was his platform.
He had to steer away from the stifling politics of ethnic populism, and popularise a pan-Kenyan identity and vision. As with Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Saitoti’s ace card was his transformational leadership.
As a result of his skilful peace making and management of social relations and resources as MP for Kajiado North, he succeeded in transforming the formally remote and under-developed constituency into the fastest growing, wealthiest and peaceful multi-ethnic area in Kenya. It is this model that he sought to replicate on a national scale.
Heading Saitoti’s secretariat, I had come to envision the post-Kibaki presidency as one hoisted on an ideology of peace. This presidency would skilfully manage the myriad fault-lines that put our society at risk.
The Ngong Hills tragedy may have taken away my future president and an agent of progressive, practical and peaceful change that Kenya badly needs. But, like old soldiers, great ideas never die, and Saitoti’s Kenyan dream lives on.
Prof Kagwanja was the manager and chief strategist of the Saitoti presidential campaign.