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Echoes from the past in Uhuru-Ruto cold war

Sunday August 4 2019

William Ruto

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) chats with his deputy William Ruto during the launch of National Defence and Gender policy documents at the National Defence College in Karen on May 3, 2017. The President has limited space to manoeuvre in a showdown with his deputy. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KAMAU NGOTHO
By KAMAU NGOTHO
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Two months before President Daniel Moi sacked his first Vice President Mwai Kibaki in April 1988, then-leading political newsmagazine Weekly Review ran a cover story headlined “Kibaki Factor”, and where it predicted the VP would be dropped after a general election scheduled in a month’s time.

The VP would be axed, reported the magazine, because of perceived lack of loyalty and show of disrespect to the head of state.

Uncharacteristic of him, VP Kibaki called a press conference the same day where he angrily termed the Weekly Review story “a tissue of lies” and a “wicked” job.

But, tellingly, he described the magazine “as an otherwise reputable publication”, but working at the behest of an external hand in that particular story.

There was no guessing who the “external hand” was when the media unit attached to the VP’s office – the Vice President’s Press Unit (VPPU) – boycotted a press conference called by their own boss!

Such insubordination could only have happened on express instructions from one person. You don’t need say who.

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Weeks earlier, Mr Kibaki had presided over a fundraiser in Voi, Taita Taveta district, at the invitation of area MP and Cabinet minister Eliud Mwamunga.

The area District Commissioner and the Coast Provincial Commissioner gave the function a wide berth. So did majority of leaders from the region.

The following day the Cabinet minister who invited the VP was sacked through the one o’clock radio news bulletin.

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STRATEGY

Rewind back: Few months before Vice President Jaramogi Odinga abruptly resigned citing frustration from his boss, first President Jomo Kenyatta, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda came to Nairobi on a state visit.

The VP wasn’t asked to accompany the president in welcoming the guest at the airport.

Not long after, the president sent a Cabinet minister to read his speech on the occasion of the UN day, even though the VP was in attendance.

When the minister rose to read the presidential speech, he declined to recognise the presence of the VP though seated next to him.

In the same week, the VP attended a private party at the home of a foreign diplomat. The following day the diplomat was expelled out of the country without explanation.

In cutting down to size their first deputies, Jaramogi and Kibaki, respectively, presidents Kenyatta and Moi applied a tactic well familiar in the animal kingdom – isolate, then pounce.

Walking the path trodden by his predecessors is perhaps illustration that President Uhuru Kenyatta kept good notes on how old dad and mentor, Uncle Dan, navigated the terrain.

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Interestingly, the Jomo/Jaramogi political camaraderie has such striking similarities with the UhuruRuto dalliance.

In both cases, it had begun on equal sharing-holding where nobody felt beholden to the other, but symbiotically held together by necessity and common purpose.

Jomo and Jaramogi jointly campaigned hard to win the independence elections and form a Kanu government, with Jomo as prime minister and Jaramogi the minister for home affairs, and the undisputed No.2 and heir-apparent when the time came.

In the same understanding, they proceeded to be sworn president and vice president, respectively, when Kenya assumed full republic status in December 1964.

At the beginning, Jomo and Jaramogi acted the part, giving the signals it was a collegiate presidency.

They would appear in same attire – beaded Luo caps and fly-whisks, just like UhuRuto once appeared in similar white shirts, red neck-ties, and holding hands.

UhuRuto too began as one, to the extent they said there was no office of the president and that of deputy president, but just one outfit they called the presidency.

Like in the Jomo/Jaramogi arrangement, there was to be no debate on who was next in line in the event of Jomo’s exit.

IDEOLOGIES

But unlike in the UhuRuto case, where cracks waited until they were into their second term, in the Jomo/Jaramogi affair, friction began almost from the word go.

Political scholars have it that the parting of ways came so soon because of ideological differences - Jomo looking West as Jaramogi turned East.

However, insider accounts say the big two parted ways sooner than later when Jaramogi sought to establish his own power base within Kanu so soon as to arouse suspicions in his boss as to what his real intentions were.

Similarly, insiders divulge UhuRuto ship began to leak when Mr Ruto appeared in great hurry to create separate centre of power so soon into their second term - even before the boss had mapped out and got bearings on what he wanted his legacy to be.

Jomo advisers were of the opinion that Jaramogi be dehorned immediately he showed his head.

However, the boss overruled them in favour of a calculated plan where Jaramogi would be isolated step by step and finally neutralised. He wanted him frustrated until he quit on his own, not chased away.

The first strategy was to strip the office of vice president of responsibilities and stature and reduce it to a mere shell.

MATIANG'I'S ELEVATION

Delegating Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i to chair Cabinet meetings and coordinate government projects has been seen in the same light where DP Ruto is now like a cowboy with a hat but no cattle.

Next after emptying his bag in the Cabinet, Jaramogi influence in parliament was whittled when Jomo’s faction in Kanu ganged up with formerly opposition Kadu to reduce Jaramogi wing in Kanu to a lame duck.

The final stroke came when Jaramogi was made irrelevant within Kanu after his position of party vice president was abolished. At that point nobody needed tell him go. He walked out on his own.

Unlike Jomo and Jaramogi, Moi and Kibaki never were compatible right from the word go.

In the first place, Mr Kibaki wasn’t President Moi's choice for the job. His personal favourite was Cabinet minister Gikonyo Kiano, but political exigencies of Jomo Kenyatta succession dictated he pick Kibaki.

Moi/Kibaki differences weren’t personal but more in their chemistry and background.

Moi is a born politician who thrills in political combat and intrigue. To the contrary, Kibaki is more of a bureaucrat with considerable contempt for raw politics.

KIBAKI STRIPPED

But while Moi was comfortable to live and let live as long as Kibaki betrayed no intention to rock the boat, the more paranoid in the president’s inner circle saw Kibaki as potentially great threat to their designs in the long haul. Perhaps they were right.

One, Kibaki came from the populous Mount Kenya region. Secondly, he’d massive support of the business community and the elite who saw him as most safe pair of hands to secure and enhance their interests.

Moi’s inner circle was all the more alarmed at the rising and bolder clamour for democratic space even as the president was tightening screws and drifting more to authoritarian rule.

With fears that the budding underground opposition movement would come to coalescence around Kibaki, a decision was made he hang around as No.2 for purposes of monitoring him from close quarters, but reduce his influence to zero.

Sacking him outright, Moi strategists feared, would make him a martyr-figure for the opposition.

By the time President Moi finally came around to dropping Mr Kibaki as his deputy, his stature had long been reduced to literally vice president only in his Othaya constituency, which is why Cabinet minister Mwamunga was instantly sacked for daring give the VP a platform outside Othaya where the boss wanted him confined.

NEW ORDER

In clipping DP Ruto’s wings, however, State House strategists must reckon with four crucial factors lest they end up with an egg on the face.

Foremost, the terrain has radically changed since the days of one-man rule/one-party state, when Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi could easily vanquish their deputies and not significantly upset the apple cart.

In the new order, the president has limited space to manoeuvre in a showdown with his deputy.

Tied to that is that the DP has a substantive constituency of his own which, if not handled well, can enable him turn tables and surprise his opponents, whatever their best laid plans.

Besides solid backing in his North Rift backyard, Mr Ruto has key allies in key voter regions in the country, including Mount Kenya, Western, Coast, and North-Eastern. Whether such allies have capacity to put votes in the basket is another matter altogether.

The wild card is where Mr Ruto may cunningly exploit themes such as “dynasties vs hustlers” to create a persecution narrative, the way he and President Kenyatta did with the ICC trials and turned tables to win the 2013 presidential ballot.

Thirdly, the DP isn’t an easy tackle. He is a tested and indefatigable fighter with lots of reserve energy.

WAR CHEST

President Kenyatta knows as much having had the DP side by side in winning three presidential elections, and in overcoming trials at The Hague.

Opposition leader Mr Raila Odinga, too, isn’t a stranger to Mr Ruto’s staying power having been with him in the trenches in 2007 presidential elections when they narrowly missed State House.

Coupled with that, the DP has deep pockets. Nobody seems to exactly place a finger on source and size of his war chest, but he is certainly light years from the days he sold kuku-kienyeji in the village.

With ample resources at his disposal, one never knows which secret arrow in his quiver he may unleash on rivals at the last minute.

*****

Postscript: At 39, the Hon. Oscar Sudi is my kid brother, so I will let him into some words of wisdom that came my way in form of leakage in the early days of Mwai Kibaki presidency.

Newly-elected Baringo Central MP Gideon Moi – he too was 39 at the time – happened to be at a place called Mochongoi in his constituency when he made some personalised attacks on President Kibaki, then on state visit to Mozambique.

Watching the incident on TV that evening, retired President Moi hit the roof. Unable to reach the younger Moi on phone, he asked two close confidants to look for him and take him to the family home at Kabarak the following day.

There, the old man reportedly gave a tongue-lashing to the son ending with the advice: “Much as you’re within your rights to differ, criticise, even not like a person, it is very unwise to make personalised, disrespectful attacks on the person of the head of state” - or on anybody else for that matter!

Apparently the younger Moi, now a two-term Senator, took the advice seriously as he has so well matured in politics. Just as he has upgraded his Kiswahili from the days when “Baringo ya Kati” was to him “Byrengle ya Kyte”.