Assertive Uhuru confounds many with his new style of operations

Wednesday March 18 2020
By KIPCHUMBA SOME
By JUSTUS WANGA

After weathering a first term beset by a number of challenges, including a criminal case in a foreign land, insecurity brought about by al-Shabaab militants, a hostile Opposition, and a prolonged, bitterly divisive electioneering period, President Uhuru Kenyatta seems to have finally found his footing.  

Since being sworn-in for his second and final term in office, the President has been more assertive and more calculating in ways that have confounded even his close allies who, having worked with him in his first term, thought they knew him well.

OVERWHELMED

Gone is the President who once attracted public condemnation and ridicule for appearing to lament of being overwhelmed by the runaway corruption and the insecurity.

Signs of the new President Kenyatta emerged during the re-composition of his Cabinet early in the year when it became apparent his deputy William Ruto would play a peripheral role in the exercise.

When they unveiled their first Cabinet in 2013, the President and the DP turned out to address the press at State House dressed in matching red ties, white shirts and black trousers.

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Then, the DP stood behind his boss as he read the names of the men and women to help them deliver on the lofty promises they had made to Kenyans during their campaigns.

Fast forward to January 2018 and the image of the President reading out the names of his partial Cabinet minus his deputy was the surest indicator that he was determined to do things his own way.

STATECRAFT

“He appeared as if he was captive to Ruto in his first term,” said Prof Macharia Munene, a lecturer of International Relations at the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi.

“One got a feeling that the President didn’t like to do anything without consulting his deputy, but Uhuru seems to have shed that image,” said Prof Macharia. His close handlers explained that the President’s new attitude to statecraft was driven by a burning desire to leave a lasting legacy which he couldn’t do amidst the vagaries of his first term.

It is something his long-time friend and Jubilee Party vice-chairman David Murathe hinted at last year when he said “brace yourself for a more lethal, brutal and ruthless President Uhuru Kenyatta.”

“I said these things then and they are unfolding for all to see,” he told the Sunday Nation on phone.

FIRM HAND

Mr Murathe is among those who believe the country needs a benevolent dictator to streamline the management of public affairs.

But not only in the management of public affairs is the President showing a firm hand, sources say it is no longer business as usual in State House. 

Mr Kinuthia Mbugua, who was appointed by the President as State House Comptroller after losing the race to retain his Nakuru County gubernatorial seat, has brought some order and discipline to the House on the Hill.

Mr Mbugua, a former reformist Administration Police commandant is a known disciplinarian. A seasoned bureaucrat, sources say he has “restored the dignity of the highest office in the land”.

Older than the president by about 10 years, Mr Mbugua brings the age advantage. He is among the few staffers, we gathered, who can face up to the President when situations demand and the Head of State listens. 

HERCULEAN TASK

There are those rare occasions he has had to dissuade the President from certain lines of thought, an assignment only few in the inner circle would dare take up.

Jubilee politicians admit that unlike before 2017 elections, securing an appointment with Mr Kenyatta is now a herculean task with information he prefers meetings at his Harambee office.

Besides Mr Mbugua, the President is said to be increasingly turning to the National Intelligence Service (NIS), not only on security matters, but also on advice on how to fight graft and bring the country together.

NIS Director-General Maj-Gen Philip Kameru, who was appointed to the post in 2014 to replace Maj-Gen (Rtd) Michael Gichangi, is said to be instrumental in some of the decisions that the President has made.

Maj-Gen Kameru came on at a time when Al Shabaab attacks were at their peak, a situation that was been blamed on substandard intelligence and poor coordination by the various security agencies.

DECREASED

At the same time the President was appointing Maj-Gen Kameru, he also tapped Joseph Boinett, a principal intelligence officer at NIS, as the Inspector-General of Police, replacing David Kimaiyo.

Since their appointments, the attacks have decreased dramatically and this is attributed to the close working relationship between the police and NIS.

When the President sought a Director of Public Prosecutions to replace Keriako Tobiko whom he appointed the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, he once again turned to NIS again and picked Noordin Haji, a NIS deputy director, for the job.

Mr Haji is expected to play a key role in the President’s stated aim of fighting graft. He will be keenly watched on how he performs in the prosecution of the suspects of the current scandal at the National Youth Service. 

Another security-related person who is said to be playing a key role in the President’s decision-making is Ambassador Martin Kimani, the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center.

MARCH HANDSHAKE

He co-chairs with ODM lawyer Paul Mwangi the secretariat of the “Building Bridges Initiative” which was started by the President and Opposition leader Raila Odinga after their March handshake.

In itself, the surprise handshake not only cooled down political temperatures in the country, it also complicated matters for most Jubilee MPs.

“They would frequent State House or Harambee House with proposals on how to tame Raila, such trips would in the process earn them cash. This is not the case now since Raila is on the President’s side,” a source from the presidency said.

The change of tact is also explained by the fact that Mr Kenyatta has embraced new advisors, such as his longtime friend Alfred Getonga who was in charge of Jubilee’s communication strategies in the last year’s General Election.

It’s from Mr Getonga’s team, the Sunday Nation understands, that the framing of a no-nonsense president originates as his public messages are now thought through by professionals. 

TWEETING

This means that the Presidential Strategic Communication Unit (PSCU), which was blamed for poorly selling the President, assumes a low profile.

Some of its members are mostly operating from Harambee House Annex, DP Ruto’s office.

The diminished PSCU has in turn seen the growing influence of the Chief of Staff and head of the Presidential Delivery Unit Nzioka Waita. He has of late been tweeting most information about the presidency.

There is tighter control of information today with defined clusters of information flow starting with the Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua, an old hand who has been with Mr Kenyatta since his days as Finance Minister, to Mr Waita and then State House Spokesman Manoah Esipisu. An aide told the Sunday Nation that his boss is keen to cement his legacy before the lame duck syndrome sets in.

“He knows that towards 2022, the clamour for succession will dominate the political landscape denying him the latitude to get things done. Expect a more forceful and decisive president in the next three years,” he said. Yesterday Mr Esipisu promised more action from the side of the president.

STATE AFFAIRS

“The President was very clear and emphatic in his address yesterday (Madaraka Day speech). He need not say anything further. You can watch the space for actions to follow,” he said.

And aware time is fast running out, even the frequency of meetings have increased. His allies agree that the political truce with Mr Odinga has given him more time to focus on running the State’s affairs.

“He can have up to five briefings in a day. Other than the normal security briefs, there are those on graft cases, the statuses reports on his big four agenda and many more to ensure he is on top of things. We are seeing a more hands on boss than previously,” another source said.

There are, however, those who see President Kenyatta as not being decidedly different from past leaders. They say if he is acting differently now, it is only because he has realised that the tack of his predecessors worked just fine.

SCEPTICAL

Constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina, one of those sceptical of President Kenyatta’s metamorphosis, says if the Head of State managed to neuter his perennial nemesis, Mr Odinga, he has no excuse in failing to follow through in his promise to fight corruption.

“Mr Kenyatta has done what many thought even harder: matched and checkmated his perennial rival, Mr Odinga. He doesn’t have an excuse for inaction anymore and he has only 1,460 days remaining,” he says.

Corruption is the biggest blot to the President’s record so far. But despite his tough talk, the vice has continued to thrive, as evidence by the second NYS scandal in which more than Sh9 billion is suspected to have been lost.

WEBSITE

However, this is not the first time the President is talking tough against graft. In December 2013, he set up an anti-corruption website for ordinary Kenyans to report cases bribery directly to him.

Nothing much came of the initiative and it died quietly.

In October 2015, at the height of the first NYS scandal in which more than Sh800 million was lost, he ordered that Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) employees be subjected to lifestyle audits as part of efforts to stop rampant corruption in the agency that costs the State billions of shillings in revenue leakages.

LOOPHOLES

A month later, he declared corruption “a national security threat” and vowed to “make it expensive for anyone stealing from Kenyans and denying them services they work so hard to receive from their government”.

He spoke this while giving his State of the Nation address in which he promised to lead a national coordinated effort to bring together all arms of government to seal loopholes used by dishonest people.

POLYGRAPH

In his Madaraka Day address to the nation this week, he announced further measures to curb the vice, among them subjecting all heads of procurements and government accountants to polygraph tests to determine their integrity.

“This are some of the directives President Uhuru Kenyatta has given on the war against corruption in the last five years, all of them have amounted to zero results,” said anti-corruption activist Boniface Mwangi. “To catch the corrupt, audit their lifestyles, assets not their lies.”