On Wednesday, June 22, 2016, TheNew York Times published a story titled ‘The Prosecutor and the President’ by American journalist James Verini.
The story covered the 2007 elections and the aftermath that led to the prosecution of Mr Uhuru Kenyatta and five other Kenyans at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“The ICC embodied the hope of bringing warlords and demagogues to justice,” the story said.
“Then Luis Moreno Ocampo took on the heir to Kenya’s most powerful political dynasty.”
The story would have gone largely unnoticed, had it not been for the official State House reply.
Two days after it was published, the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) responded.
In the response, the directors and senior directors of the unit said TheNew York Times “continues its steady descent into the murky, rancid morass of gutter press and has abandoned all pretence to journalistic decency in pursuit of the prosecutor’s agenda.”
“Whom did the paper contact at State House? Why did they not interview Dennis Itumbi, despite making reference to him? Is the truth on post-election violence going to be dictated by Mungiki, seriously?” the directors continued in the press release, which was published verbatim in at least one leading daily.
The press release also indirectly mentioned former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, according to a Daily Nation article.
Just days before it was published, Mr Annan had said President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto “put lots of efforts and resources into fighting the cases”.
While it was true, the response was not from the Presidency. It was from just a few members of his communications team, who were formally dismissed this week.
Most of the PSCU in 2016 had joined President Kenyatta’s team in or after 2010 and had worked with him during the 2013 campaigns and efforts against the ICC.
But by then, with just a year to the next election cycle, they had embarrassed him and State House again.
Mr Kenyatta was in Botswana at the time. An even greater diplomatic faux pas was that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was due for a state visit the following week.
At State House, Mr Nzioka Waita, who had just been headhunted from Safaricom, revoked the PSCU members’ access and told them to keep away from the office until the President returned.
The PSCU team should have known that TheNew York Times was ready for any eventuality since the story had been worked on for months by sub-editors, editors, fact-checkers and lawyers.
Three days later, the paper responded.
“Throughout this process, Kenyatta’s representatives were informed of the subject of the article and did not at any point address it. A fact-checker for The Times Magazine also emailed Kenyatta’s chief spokesman and received no response,” it said.
At a meeting days after he flew back to Nairobi, the President sat with his charges. In that room with President Kenyatta and State House spokesman Manoah Esipisu was the top brass of the communications unit – Mr Itumbi, Mr Munyori Buku, Mr James Kinyua, Mr David Nzioka and others. They had lofty titles – senior directors and directors.
I hired Manoah for a reason. Either take instructions from him or ship out!”
The directors ganged up against Mr Esipisu, until the President could take it no more.
“I hired Manoah for a reason. Either take instructions from him or ship out!” the President said.
He ordered them to send Mr Esipisu weekly plans and reports of their activities. Mr Kenyatta banned them from media appearances, effectively cutting them off from the public personas of powerful men they had built.
For the team the President had just dressed down, the meeting was a catastrophe. Mr Kenyatta was their friend. A man, as someone once wrote, from whose cigarette pack you could pick a stick.
Unfortunately, they forgot that the man they helped win the Presidency had actually won. That while campaigns have almost no rules, the Presidency is a marathon that demands order, patience and respect.
Sometime in 2010, Mr Kenyatta approached Mr Johnson Sakaja, a budding 25-year-old, with a simple ask – to form a communications team that would help him build his brand and shore up his position for the 2013 election. Mr Kenyatta was the Finance minister and one of two deputy premiers in the Grand Coalition Government. His most formidable rivals at that point were Mr Kalonzo Musyoka, Mr Raila Odinga and Prof George Saitoti.
But he had a plan. And it was from a painful lesson. The first time Mr Kenyatta tried to run for office in the 1997 elections, he lost.
His opponent, one Moses Muihia, created a false-flag operation on Christmas Day, four days before the general election.
The first step, as recounted in Mr Kenyatta’s biography, Hard Tackle by Mr Irungu Thatiah, was a call Mr Muihia’s nephew made to newsrooms saying he (Muihia) was missing.
The next morning, the people of Gatundu woke up to what looked like a crime scene at River Thiririka.
A car that resembled Mr Muihia’s was in the river. There was blood on the banks and signs of a struggle. Newspapers screamed that Mr Muihia was missing. His nephew was preoccupied with media interviews and Mr Kenyatta was clueless.
Mr Kenyatta had commanded a comfortable lead against the surveyor. But he had underestimated the weight of his surname in reminding voters of the sins of the Kanu government.
Mr Muihia appeared in public late on the election day to say he had been hiding from the government. As he voted in the dying minutes of the day, he had already won.
A few years later, Mr Kenyatta lost another election, also bogged down by his surname and the angst against his godfather Daniel arap Moi.
He was leader of official opposition for three years, led a campaign against a new constitution and then jumped ship to the government of the day.
In 2010, he was older, smarter and more careful. He had to carve for himself a name separate from the weight of his family and sponsors.
It was fairly easier because most of the voters were young. He had time and knew the man for the job. Mr Sakaja built a formidable team of writers and experts in digital media, data, branding, photography and videography.
Mr Sakaja was the head, Mr David Nzioka did SMS campaigning, Mr Patrick Ngatia focused on grassroots drives, Mr Marvin Tumbo handled digital media, Mr James Muriithi was in charge of branding while Mr Itumbi was in charge of media and press.
The team’s office was in an ageing two-storey house on Amboseli Lane in Lavington, Nairobi. In the years they spent toiling to build Mr Kenyatta as a viable candidate, they called it “Deep End” and later, “The Dungeon”.
By the time Mr Sakaja left the job to help found The National Alliance party. The team had about 15 young people.