President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have found themselves embroiled in a cold war as internal conflicts rock the governing Jubilee Party.
Barely seven months since re-election, differences in the governing party centre around suspicion and conflicting approaches on matters such as the President’s renewed war on corruption and his truce with opposition leader Raila Odinga.
But ultimately the crucial issue is jitters over the 2022 elections where Mr Ruto expects a free pass for the party presidential nomination.
Although the two Jubilee principals have not been in direct public confrontation, some words have slipped out that illustrate the underlying tension between leaders who have always made a great show of putting their bromance on public display.
An example could be in the President’s casual public description of his Deputy’s early campaign jaunts across the country as “kutangatanga” (loitering). Though he later tried to make light of the matter, the words were noted, and Mr Ruto’s campaign team responded by astutely appropriating a term that could have been taken as a slur, and labelling themselves as Team Kutangatanga.
In the midst of speculation over what exactly the President may have meant, his social media team went to great lengths to project a positive spin, but keen observers may have noted that two competing official Twitter handles adopted differing approaches.
The professional media communications team at State House studiously kept above the fray, unlike the other handle run by a set of controversial bloggers who make up the digital communications team and seem to have gravitated into Mr Ruto’s orbit to the extent of posting unflattering comments on the anti-corruption campaign.
Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto are also no doubt watching with interest the increasingly loud verbal battles being waged by their proxies in Parliament, press conferences and political rallies. The exchanges point to the hostile atmosphere that could come to impact on the carefully-crafted Jubilee succession plan. The Deputy President’s allies have ramped up direct criticism of the President’s pet projects in his new term — the new anti-corruption drive and the ‘building bridges’ initiative with Mr Odinga — which they openly suspect are designed to undermine Mr Ruto.
The President’s men, in turn, are clearly unhappy that his quest to craft a legacy is being undermined by premature 2022 campaigns.
Alarm bells are also sounding in the President’s camp that his central Kenya strongholds are suffering a haemorrhage, as a majority of elected leaders effectively abandon ship and troop to Mr Ruto’s side as they position themselves for the post-Kenyatta era.
Beyond the presidential succession, a related issue is the looming vacuum in central Kenya leadership where there is no clear emerging heir to take the mantle after President Kenyatta’s exit.
A group of power brokers in the region trying to shape the succession are concerned that there is no obvious candidate to either front for president in 2022, or be in good stead to bargain for Deputy President or other influential positions.
President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto were first elected in 2013 on a power sharing and succession agreement where after serving the maximum of two five-year terms, the former would support the latter’s bid for the presidency.
To ensure a smooth transition and eliminate bickering and rivalry amongst their troops, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto entered the 2017 election under the banner of a unified Jubilee Party after merging their respective parties, The National Alliance and United Republican Party, that formed the initial coalition.
This is now the deal that threatens to unravel with President Kenyatta barely settled down into his second and final term, while Deputy President Ruto engages in early preparation for his 2022 campaign. Things appeared to have started souring in March when, out of the blue, President Kenyatta emerged with Mr Odinga out of his Harambee House office for a public handshake signalling a truce that many saw as heralding major political realignments. Mr Ruto had been kept out of the loop on the secret contacts preceding the public unveiling, as had Mr Odinga’s co-principals in the Opposition Nasa Alliance, Mr Kalonzo Musyoka, Mr Moses Wetang’ula and Mr Musalia Mudavadi.
While anger in Nasa was loud and public as the other three hit out at Mr Odinga for cutting private deals and leaving them out, within Jubilee it was more muted but there was no doubt that Mr Ruto and his allies were not impressed with the handshake.
The Building Bridges initiative was ostensibly designed to create a platform for resolution of the many issues that provoke ethnic and political violence with almost every electoral cycle. However, the DP’s group feared it indicated the beginning of a political alliance between the two families and two communities — the Kenyattas and the Odingas, the Kikuyu and the Luo — in an arrangement that would isolate Mr Ruto and also drive a wedge into the Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance.
When President Kenyatta subsequently launched a fresh war against corruption, MPs in Mr Ruto’s camp openly voiced suspicion that it was targeting the DP’s allies.
The first big story on the anti-graft effort has been the spate of prosecutions on the NYS scandal driven by new brooms in the law and order machinery, Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti and Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji.
In swift order followed revelations of massive graft at the National Cereals and Produce Board, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company and other lucrative state corporations in the energy sector, and now the latest drama over contraband sugar.
It so happens that they lie in the departments or dockets seen as part of Mr Ruto’s fiefdoms or areas of interest, and within a short time his acolytes in Jubilee were warning against a witch-hunt allegedly targeting the DP and his allies, or even extending to his community.
In Parliament last Wednesday, for instance, Majority Leader Aden Duale appeared to forget that he speaks for the Jubilee administration, and took the government to task over its handling of the sugar import scandal.
He vowed to stand by his North Eastern Kenya constituents who may have been caught up in the wave of arrests, accusing the government of going after small traders and retailers while leaving free the actual culprits who he suggested enjoyed some form of protection.
While mouthing support for the anti-corruption crusade, Mr Duale pointedly warned the government against selective targeting, seemingly echoing those of Mr Ruto’s Rift Valley supporters who have been alleging that the DP is being targeted.
Some of Mr Ruto’s supporters, like Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi, have also insisted that the anti-corruption campaign and the order for a lifestyle audit on public officers be extended to the fabled wealth of the First Family, going back to the fortune amassed by first President Jomo Kenyatta.
This is a clever ruse as it directly hits the President where it hurts, he being a beneficiary of the family fortune. There have also been pointed suggestions that even today, members of President Kenyatta’s family — including siblings, cousins, uncles and others — are doing business with government and benefitting from crooked procurement deals. The story of an uncle involved in the NYS scandal was released with undisguised glee.
These are the kind of links that would place the President in a tricky situation, for he can hardly push a credible anti-corruption war if those close to him are shielded from investigations, arrest and prosecution.
This might be one ghost, however, that the President might want to banish, alongside the image of a gilded princeling who rode to power on the name and fortune of his father.
Numerous sources indicate that after previous false starts, President Kenyatta this time round is determined to drive the anti-corruption war at whatever cost, including sacrificing relatives, friends and allies who may be caught up in the net, and whatever disruptions it may cause to prevailing political alliances. Already, there is the threat posed to Jubilee unity and very public pledge he made to back Mr Ruto’s 2022 presidential bid.
The 2013 union of the former Kanu allies who drifted apart and were seen as leaders of rival combatants during 2007-2008 post-election violence — hence their arraignment before the International Criminal Court — was not just about individuals, but about communities.
Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto coming back together was supposed to be about healing the deep and bitter divides that sparked violent conflagrations between their respective Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities in the Rift Valley.
Any separation seen as betrayal or breach of promise thus has potential for grave repercussions. Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu is one of the few central Kenya leaders openly rejecting Mr Ruto’s claim to guaranteed Kikuyu support.
He has publicly argued that the Kikuyu cannot be forced to vote for Mr Ruto under threat of renewed violence in the Rift Valley.
He also insists that the Kikuyu are not indebted to Mr Ruto, saying that the fact he is serving a second term as President Kenyatta’s deputy marks consummation of their deal.
Mr Wambugu is virtually a lone voice in central Kenya, where most elected leaders are now firmly backing Mr Ruto.
MPs such as Mr Rigathi Gachagua (Mathira), Kimani Ichung’wa (Kikuyu), Moses Kuria in President Kenyatta’s own Gatundu South constituency, and Tharaka Nithi Senator Kithure Kindiki, have emerged as vocal supporters of Mr Ruto in the wider central Kenya, which is expanded to cover the Meru and Embu regions as well as the Kikuyu diaspora in the Rift Valley.
At a rally on Friday, Mr Kuria enunciated the argument that the people of central Kenya are indeed indebted to Mr Ruto for rallying his populous Rift Valley troops to ensure President Kenyatta’s electoral victories in 2013 and 2017, and are bound to reciprocate.
Few now doubt that a handsome majority of central Kenya MPs solidly back Mr Ruto, and in the event of a showdown between the President and Deputy they would go with the latter.
This includes initiatives in Parliament on anti-corruption effort, or any legal and constitutional amendments that might be proposed from the Building Bridges initiative, which most of them dismiss as a restricted Uhuru-Raila deal of no importance to Jubilee’s post-Kenyatta agenda.
It would provide for a bizarre situation if President Kenyatta was abandoned by his central Kenya troops, leaving him to depend on the support of Mr Odinga’s opposition forces.
Rather than Mr Kenyatta’s State House, Mr Ruto’s Harambee House Annexe office and Karen official residence and office have become the magnets for central Kenya leaders soliciting support for development projects or fund raising efforts.
Leaders from Coast, Western, North Eastern, Nyanza and opposition strongholds that Mr Ruto has assiduously wooed have also become frequent guests.
There is no doubt that the DP is assembling a formidable political machinery and amassing the financial war chest to match, so he can be confident enough to ignore President Kenyatta’s entreaties for leaders to put politics aside and focus on development.
Aware that he might be outflanked in the formal political arena, President Kenyatta is said to be planning to go directly to the people for support on the anti-corruption war.
On strategy for his legacy projects, he is also looking beyond political classes to a machinery in the public service, particularly in the law and order sector, assembled to deliver for that purpose.
Beyond the Big Four agenda of affordable housing, universal healthcare, expanded industrialisation and food security, lies far more complicated initiatives designed to secure the Uhuru Kenyatta legacy.
The war against corruption and the peace deal with Raila Odinga have already run into political headwinds that will be far more difficult to navigate.