Deputy President William Ruto has been put in a tight spot by the saga revolving around former Cabinet Secretary Rashid Echesa and a fake military procurement deal allegedly sealed in his office.
While the DP struggles to extricate himself from the murky saga, he will be acutely aware that a reputation already tarnished by allegations of rampant corruption has taken another terrible hit.
This might raise questions about his suitability for high office, and up the ante in the now open feud with President Uhuru Kenyatta that has divided the ruling Jubilee Party down the middle.
The DP’s allies, who have jumped to his defence — such as Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot, Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen and Presidential Strategic Communications Unit staffer Dennis Itumbi — have readily spun the narrative that the entire Echesa saga was stage-managed by his foes in the Office of the President, the Ministry of Interior and the Police Service.
In social media posts, public statements and TV talk shows, the DP’s defenders have openly asked why, when there were similar breaches at State House by peddlers of fake government tenders, no one directly pointed a finger at President Kenyatta.
Although they blame the media for casting unfair attention on Mr Ruto, the real pressure, according to the them, are powerful figures around the President, who have been mobilised to derail the DP’s ascent to power.
They include Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, his Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho and the two at the head of the anti-corruption war, Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti and Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji.
It follows that the high-ranking officials supposedly responsible for the DP’s problems cannot be acting on their own, but presumably on the President’s instructions.
The Echesa saga is likely to be a long drawn-out affair which, in coming weeks and months, will serve to accentuate the strains in Jubilee, and hasten the inevitable split.
It is just the latest in a series of happenings that have illustrated the deep divisions in the ruling party, and specifically what could be irreconcilable differences between President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto that will have a direct effect on the 2022 succession.
The fake arms saga exploded onto the scene just after the postponement of a long-awaited Jubilee Parliamentary Group caucus indicated that attempts to broker a truce between the President and his deputy had hit a dead end.
A brief statement released by party Secretary-General Raphael Tuju attributed the cancellation of the February 14 meeting to the mourning period for former President Daniel arap Moi.
In a cruel twist of fate, Mr Tuju was involved in a road accident on his way to Mr Moi’s funeral on February 12, leaving a vacuum at party headquarters.
Mr Itumbi was quick to suggest in a social media post that Deputy Secretary-General Caleb Kositany, a Ruto ally, should be in charge in Mr Tuju’s absence, but Jubilee headquarters countered that Executive Director James Waweru, a virtual unknown, was filling the breach.
The Jubilee meeting had been called amid rising indications that the party was set to cancel internal elections slated for next month, which were expected to precipitate a showdown that could have been fatal for the governing party.
That the party MPs were meeting at last was considered a positive step, and was seen as the ideal launching pad for a reconciliation effort designed to halt the divisive row between supporters of the President and Deputy President.
The cancellation raised eyebrows as Mr Ruto’s supporters had been pushing for a party meeting and elections, while President Kenyatta’s grouping was wary of any forum that would give the DP a platform to flex his muscles.
Responding to queries from the Nation two days before the accident, Mr Tuju denied that the postponement had anything to do with the party infighting.
He explained that in setting the February 14 date, the party had overlooked the fact that many MPs would have travelled to Nakuru for President Moi’s funeral on Wednesday, and it would be unfair to have them rush back to Nairobi.
Asked about plans to postpone the Jubilee elections, he responded, “You are hearing too many things,” but he did not give a straight yes or no answer.
He explained that the secretariat was going ahead with putting everything in place, ensuring conformity with requirements of the Registrar of Political Parties rules, and keeping the leadership updated on progress.
A pronouncement would soon be made on the issue, he said, without divulging if the polls would be held on schedule or postponed.
The meeting was also supposed to set the stage for a united party approach to critical issues of the day, notably the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and presidential succession fallouts.
Cancelling the party elections was expected to put on hold a divisive battle for control of Jubilee between the Kieleweke grouping, which supports President Kenyatta, and Mr Ruto’s Tangatanga faction.
In the run-up to the party meeting, Mr Moi’s death was being cited as justification for postponement of the elections.
The real reason, according to knowledgeable sources, was realisation that a leadership contest in the midst of the increasingly bitter rift between the two factions, as well as the duel between the DP and opposition leader Raila Odinga over the BBI agenda, could cause irreparable splits.
The meeting of Jubilee members of the National Assembly and Senate was expected to agree on cancellation of the party polls and agree on a ceasefire that could involve a halt to the BBI campaign rallies that were moving the two sides onto a collision course.
The divided Jubilee has not held a Parliamentary Group meeting since President Kenyatta’s re-election was confirmed at the repeat presidential election in October 2017.
NEED FOR PG
It was after taking office for the second term that the President Kenyatta-Deputy President Ruto rift started becoming apparent.
It broke out into the open when the President and opposition rival Raila Odinga buried the hatchet with their famous handshake of March 2018.
Since then, the DP’s supporters have been pushing for a Parliamentary Group meeting in vain, a gathering rejected by the President’s men who have publicly expressed fear that Mr Ruto might want to exploit his supposedly superior numbers to mount a putsch, or at least mobilise party legislators against the dalliance with Mr Odinga and the BBI.
Although it has often been reported that they hardly ever meet privately since their re-election, President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto had a marathon one-on-one session on Monday, February 3, lasting nearly five hours, where the deal to finally hold a Parliamentary Group meeting was struck.
President Kenyatta flew out of the country for the US later the same day, and was still in the air when word came through that his political mentor, former President Moi, had died in hospital.
The meeting was to take place in President Kenyatta’s absence, and would have been chaired by Mr Ruto who, according to impeccable sources, had been tasked to calm his restive troops and also help craft the agenda for a substantive PG meeting that would be chaired by the President later on.
Moi’s death threw the timetable into a spin, but the mourning period also exposed the fact that President Kenyatta’s allies were opposed to a party conclave chaired by the DP who, they feared, would use his numbers to push through his own agenda.
The party leadership was looking to calling the much-awaited party elections in June or July, hoping that by then the BBI rallies will have come to an end.
It was also hoped that in the interim, the deep gulf over the BBI proposals, really more of a political contest than serious differences on the proposed reforms, would have been bridged.
June is being looked at as a target date for publishing of final BBI resolutions, setting the stage for a likely referendum.
Some of these issues were expected to be thrashed out at the Jubilee meeting, as well as apparent divisions in government following Moi’s death.
President Kenyatta was reportedly unhappy that the final journey of his political mentor served to accentuate the reported rift between him and the DP, on one hand, and the strained relations between the latter and the former president’s family, especially Baringo Senator Gideon Moi, on the other hand.
Following Moi’s death, newspaper reports had noted the apparent isolation of the Deputy President as Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i took centre stage in the President’s absence.
It is Dr Matiang’i who was the face of the government during the period.
His visits to the Moi family home, media briefings and funeral committee meetings had him accompanied by Public Service Head Joseph Kinyua, Defence Cabinet Secretary Monica Juma, Chief of Defence Forces Samson Mwathethe, Inspector-General of Police Hillary Mutyambai, Interior PS Karanja Kibicho and a host of security, administration and State House officials.
An incident at the Lee Funeral Home where Mr Ruto was unable to view President Moi’s body was seized upon as evidence of bad blood.
It was explained by the funeral home’s management that the DP could not be allowed to view the body at the particular time because it was undergoing preservation.
Former State House Comptroller Franklin Bett explained the same thing, and dismissed as malicious any insinuation that politics was at play.
Although the DP also made light of the issue and accused the media of blowing things out of proportion, it was actually some of the MPs in his entourage who complained to the media about him being mistreated.
It does appear that reports of Mr Ruto’s isolation have partly been based on erroneous readings of the Constitution, as in the conclusion that the DP should have automatically taken the reins in the absence of his boss.
Absence or incapacity of the president does not refer to a few days away on an overseas visit.
There also have not been any details given on specific functions that the DP has been sidelined, as he would hardly be expected to chair a funeral committee.
The rifts could still have huge ramifications on the political arena in the coming weeks and months.
It is instructive that President Kenyatta had travelled to the US in the company of ODM leader Raila Odinga, where the two were feted for the famous ''handshake'' that stilled the 2017 post-election tensions and set the stage for a national conversation touted as the answer to Kenya’s history of electoral violence.