Nation Prime

Intrigues that built, destroyed president’s communications team

By Morris Kiruga
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Friday March 20 2020

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.

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Dennis Itumbi. KANYIRI WAHITO | NATION

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.

NOT PRESIDENCY

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.

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Manoah Esipisu. DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION

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.

JOHNSON SAKAJA

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.

CRIME SCENE

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.

OPPOSITION LEADER

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.

DIFFERENT ROLES

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.

Their work would eventually help Mr Kenyatta get the top job, overcoming hurdles like the ICC and cases about his eligibility.

On July 10, 2013, President Kenyatta invited the Editors Guild to a meeting at State House where he introduced his communications team.

The head of the unit was Mr Esipisu, who had been headhunted from the African Development Bank.

At the first meeting of the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit, something happened. It would recur.

REPEATED INTERJECTION

As Mr Esipisu set the agenda for the unit, Mr Itumbi repeatedly interjected. He kept saying the President gave him instructions directly.

The team Mr Kenyatta picked from The Dungeon comprised Mr Itumbi, Mr Kinyua, Mr Buku and Mr Ng’eno.

Mr Itumbi had made a name for himself as a whistleblower/blogger at the height of the ICC cases.

He was apprehended several times by President Mwai Kibaki’s administration, including one arrest in 2012 for which he was compensated Sh5 million in January 2018.

KENYATTA'S SPOKESMAN

Mr Buku, a former senior editor at Standard Media, had been Mr Kenyatta’s spokesman at the Ministry of Finance and Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

He was the presumptive State House spokesperson before the President settled on Mr Esipisu.

For his speechwriter, Mr Kenyatta appointed Mr Ng’eno, a former lawyer who had initially been seconded to the campaign by Mr Ruto.

Mr Ng’eno first met Mr Ruto when he worked for him as a researcher and secretary during the 2007/8 Serena negotiations on the post-election violence.

GOOD FIT

The most quiet of the four was Mr Kinyua. He had worked at State House before. Though he did not design things, his eye for detail fitted well into the digital campaign.

Because the four had expected Mr Buku to be made head of the unit, their disdain for Mr Esipisu began on the first day and escalated with time.

It would embarrass the Presidency and make State House look disorganised.

By July 2016, Mr Kenyatta could handle it no more. The trigger was an international incident that should never have become a crisis.

It is difficult to tell when the attempts to get Mr Esipisu dismissed began. But from 2013 to the time he was made Kenya’s ambassador to the UK, he was in a permanent defence mode. He fought back by locking the four out of the President’s international trips and they responded by removing any mention of him in press releases.

CONTROL WEBSITE

The PSCU directors later decided to get control of the President’s website. Through this, they engineered their attacks. When Mr Esipisu called press conferences, they would ensure they were never published on the website.

As the face of the Presidency’s communications unit, Mr Esipisu took measures to gain control of the website.

In mid 2015, he reached out to the ICT Authority and had the IP address withdrawn from the website, secretly had another created and pre-populated with previous stories.

However, the State House Twitter and Facebook accounts would prove difficult.

With the website taken and without access to the official President’s social media accounts, the directors created alternative accounts beyond the “PSCU Digital”, “PSCU Diaspora” and others.

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Eric Ng'eno.

The four created @PresidentKE account, which they packaged as the official account for the Presidency.

The @PresidentKE account would soon find itself in controversy. It posted information that went counter to the official narrative. After the terrorist attack in Yumbis in 2015, for example, the team posted condolences to “fallen security officers” even as the Interior ministry insisted nobody died. CS Joseph Nkaissery warned the four against publishing security issues.

After Mr Esipisu cut the PSCU team off lucrative overseas trips, they sneaked into his office and started releasing sensitive information to the public. The most personal was a letter from a business club asking him to pay the membership fee.

Mr Esipisu responded by moving Mr Ng’eno to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Following Mr Ruto’s intervention, the speechwriter was back at State House.

FAILED REASSIGNMENT

Mr Esipisu also tried to reassign the directors who came from The Dungeon to Ministries. Somehow, they returned.

What followed only made things worse. They did not follow due process when writing or sending press releases, meaning many of them were never edited or fact-checked. They also created parallel accounts such as @PresidentKE, @PSCUDigital, @PSCUDiaspora, and @NexusKE. None of these were properly approved.

One article published May 13, 2014 was about “the now-collapsing and distressing Look East policy”.

The four, together with Mr Emmanuel Talam, began with “We told you …”

Mr Esipisu breathed with relief when he left in 2018. TV anchor Kanze Dena took his position at State House.

BUILD LEGACY

Mr Kenyatta did not need the Dungeon Team anymore. As a President serving his last term, campaigning was done. He was interested in building a legacy.

He built a new team at State House. The President appointed Mr Kinuthia Mbugua, a former head of the Administration Police and Nakuru governor, the State House Comptroller. He made Mr Waita his chief of staff and even appointed a deputy PSCU head and head of the presidential library. The PSCU four were locked out of State House, though Mr Itumbi insisted he could still access the House on the Hill.

They were not dismissed in 2018; they continued to get salaries as the government waited for their contracts to expire this year.

RUTO'S CORNER

The four are a long way from the four years (2010-2013) that built them, where they were part of a team that seemed to perform magic in changing public perception.

With no more fight left in them, the PSCU Four retreated to Mr Ruto’s corner, on the promise they could replicate the 2010-2013 success for his 2022 presidential run.

There too, Mr Itumbi attracted attention and the long arm of the law when he was charged with being the author of a letter alleging a plot to assassinate Mr Ruto.

The letter implicated several Cabinet secretaries. Mr Itumbi denies the charges.