At the burial of former vice-president Kalonzo Musyoka’s father on Friday, President Uhuru Kenyatta painted a picture of calmness.
Looking every inch an African statesman, President Kenyatta sat among the country’s top political leaders: his deputy William Ruto, the Nasa brigade of Raila Odinga, Mr Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi.
The image of a relaxed President was the complete opposite of a man who, last year today, was smarting from the humiliation of a nullified presidential election and fighting desperately to salvage a modicum of legitimacy after a fresh presidential election boycotted by the Opposition.
Emerging from a political season in which Mr Odinga, the wily fox of Kenya’s Opposition politics, had stretched him to the limits, Mr Kenyatta’s image as a rough-and-ready commander-in-chief has given way to a meek and mild president, amiable to his erstwhile adversaries and rivals, but firmly in charge of his acolytes.
But if the March 9 “handshake” allowed President Kenyatta the chance to re-orient Kenya’s politics and give him the space to cement his legacy, it also created disquiet among his ardent followers.
By bringing in the ODM leader, President Kenyatta pulled the rug from under his deputy’s feet, disrupting his exclusive access to him and opened more possibilities for an Odinga run in 2022.
The President has spent the intervening months being his own man, talking and acting tough around the question of corruption in high places. But he has also, on occasion, been forced to blow hot and cold — playing Mr Ruto and Mr Odinga — trying to keep the two fierce competitors in a delicate balancing act.
Then there were the early campaigns for his deputy across the country driven by a group of mostly Central Kenya MPs known as “Tanga Tanga”.
It was against this backdrop that on November 1 President Kenyatta came out strongly to affirm that he is still in-charge of the political bureaucracy and that he is not a lame-duck.
This rare, assertion of authority might have been directed at the MPs from his backyard, but it reverberated across the country, providing a glimpse into his dilemma as he races against time to leave a lasting legacy even as politicians around him scheme for a future without him.
“Some people think that, just because I am retiring, I have nothing to say. I will say something at the right time. And some people will get shocked,” the President said, sending shock waves among Mr Ruto’s allies who think it should be a given that the Head of State will back his deputy as per the pre-election agreement that brought them to power in 2013.
President Kenyatta would rub it again on Friday when he declared that Kenyans should decide freely who to support.
In politics, the phrase “lame-duck” originally refers to the 70-day period in the US between a presidential election and the handover. But it has come to connote a period any time into the final term of a sitting leader when he is seen as having less power and influence owing to the public knowledge that he has started his journey out of power.
A lame-duck president can use this period to make hard decisions without fear of consequence. President Kenyatta, for instance, in September rammed through the new tax regime and the controversial housing scheme.
The flip side is that uncompleted projects close to the heart of a President in this stage can fall by the wayside as his influence gets greatly diminished.
Insiders suggest that after members of President Kenyatta’s party nearly succeeded in shooting down his memorandum on more taxes, he is now reluctant to engage Parliament in a direct duel. This, they say, is what could have delayed the much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle as any new member would need Parliamentary approval.
So while the top political brass seems firmly in the President’s corner, his dilemma in the coming months and years will be handling a Parliament which could increasingly get bullish as the centre of gravity shifts politically.
Mr Kenyatta will also have to think about his life after retirement. He will be 61 in 2022 when he is expected to retire. Already, some his aides — most notably the straight-shooting Jubilee vice-chairman David Murathe — have loudly wondered where Kenyans expect the President to go at 61.
Mr Francis Atwoli, the colourful veteran of the trade unions, is one of those campaigning for a referendum whose outcome can give Mr Kenyatta a place in government after 2022. “My point remains that we are amending the constitution before 2022. There will be six positions and President Kenyatta will be free to go for one,” Mr Atwoli said yesterday.
The President has said he doesn’t want his term extended, yet the question has refused to go.
“Final terms are often very tricky. Meaningful agenda is implemented in the first stint. President Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama in recent times were all bogged down by all manner of hardships to get anything going in their final years,” explains Maurice Amutabi, a professor of history who now heads Lukenya University.
He cites the fact that Clinton did not accomplish his nuclear disarmament project. Neither did Bush push through his war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Kenyatta had a taste of this when his government nearly hit a shutdown after Parliament fought his tax laws.
“Barack Obama was able to achieve his vision during first term on healthcare (Obamacare) but failed to do much in his second stint. Kibaki did a lot during his first term and his flagship project — the Thika Superhighway and other roads did well — but he did not have enough time for SGR.”
Prof Amutabi contends that Kibaki lost political gravitas as his party became a shell before the end of his rule. Even the candidates Kibaki supported for lower seats lost including in his own former Othaya constituency.
Some analysts praise President Kenyatta’s dexterity at creating distractions which help delay his lame-duck phase.
They cite the hype around the Big Four Agenda of food security, health, housing and manufacturing as one way of turning focus from succession politics and masking the bigger problems of soaring public debt.
But unlike his predecessors who had known operatives who were the power behind the throne, President Kenyatta has not had a known kitchen Cabinet or shadow state that influences government decisions from behind the scenes or test the waters through public statements as did the like of Nicholas Biwott and J.J. Kamotho in the days of Moi.
Besides his close family members who the President consults, he has largely chosen to play within the State apparatus, relying mainly on key civil servants and the intelligence community which he has cultivated over the years.
Those who cite this shift in power balance point to the central role ex-intelligence chiefs play in the Uhuru administration. This group, analysts say, have the potential to engineer the next politics.
In May 2010 nearly halfway into his final term, Makau Mutua, then a columnist for the Sunday Nation, wrote what in retrospect has become a study in contrast between Kibaki’s style and that of his successor.
Whereas President Kenyatta has employed increased activity and shock therapy to up his power and influence as retirement beckons, Kibaki deployed silence as a potent tool.
“The man says very little, and is cryptic and opaque when he does. This is both a tactic and strategy,” Prof Mutua wrote.
Even when towards the end of his term his handlers showed preference for Musalia Mudavadi, a one-time vice-president, Kibaki’s silence crippled politicians who couldn’t outshine him as they weren't sure where power was likely to be transferred.
Might this be the style Mr Kenyatta is adapting, albeit with a different method? His statement that his choice of a successor will surprise many has sent more confusion on the political stage with some speculating that he is buying time before supporting Mr Ruto, to delay his lame-duck phase.
They argue that were the President to offer his deputy unequivocal support now, there would be the double danger of the latter rendering him irrelevant too early or the DP suffering the fate of past candidacies which ended disastrously after they were endorsed by outgoing presidents. “By the President saying that he wants the next campaigns to be issue-based, he knows our party has a track record. His statements do not in any way undermine the DP,” National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale told Sunday Nation yesterday.
The president’s strategists say that by announcing that he will have something to say and not actually saying it, Mr Kenyatta has made himself relevant to 2022.
“Ideally, he should have been a lame-duck as he is not running again, but he is now even more powerful than he was in his first term. The two leading contenders for the presidency — Mr Ruto and Mr Odinga — have to kowtow to the President, each hoping he will be endorsed,” argued Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata, himself a rising star who has been involved in finding a role for Mr Kenyatta after 2022.
Those who know the thinking of the President suggest that he may actually opt not to name a successor, but make moves behind the scenes which create a certain inevitability.
“For example, he can lend discreet, but tacit support to the referendum movement before things snowball beyond recall. The fact that his government is funding the ‘handshake’ group that is going around collecting views is already enough implied support,” argued Prof Evan Mwangi, a US-based commentator on Kenya’s politics.
For those who have observed Kenya’s politics for long, Mr Kenyatta’s rebuke of Mr Ruto’s campaigners in Central Kenya was not unexpected.
“These MPs who have gone round endorsing the DP for 2022, have committed the original sin of ethnic politics. Ethnic votes are transacted wholesale; not retail. And they are transacted through the regional kingpin. That kingpin for Central Kenya is Uhuru Kenyatta,” a strategist explained.
Mr Duale and Mr Murathe yesterday asserted that President Kenyatta will dominate the politics of Central region for a very long time.
Mr Kang’ata agrees. “As we speak now Mt Kenya region is the single largest voting bloc. That region has no other leader with financial muscle, requisite experience and endorsement by the community other than President Kenyatta.”
Even as Mr Kang’ata insists that his campaign for President Kenyatta to have a bigger role post-2022 is not about the local scene, it’s worth noting that since the advent of multipartyism in 1992 there has not been a single election without a central Kenya candidate.
Analysts agree that for central to pass 2022 without a candidate would take a complete tectonic shift like a constitutional remake, or a deal too sweet to say no to. What this deal will entail will occupy the minds of pundits for the years to come.
Additional reporting by Wanjohi Githae