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Doubts over peace deal and succession talks rock Jubilee

Sunday October 21 2018

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President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and his deputy William Ruto attend musician Joseph Kamaru's burial in Murang'a on October 11, 2018. PHOTO | CHARLES KIMANI | DPPS 

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By SUNDAY NATION TEAM
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Matching dazzling white cotton shirts, red neckties, grey pairs of trousers and warm genial smiles were what President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto wore when they unveiled their Cabinet line-up on April 23, 2013.

To the battery of journalists gathered at the manicured lawns of State House Nairobi to witness the drama on that sunny Tuesday afternoon, the “dynamic duo”, displayed a sort of chemistry that some would refer to as “bromance” — a close friendship between two men.

To the supporters of the Jubilee Alliance — made up of Mr Kenyatta’s TNA and Mr Ruto’s URP — this was a testament of a bond that cemented victory over Cord’s Raila Odinga against all odds, more so the International Criminal Court cases against the pair.

It was in with the “digital”, out with the “analogue”, and the close ties flourished throughout the first term (March 2013 - August 2017).

MERGER

Significantly, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto engineered a political coup when they merged TNA, URP and smaller friendly outfits into the Jubilee Party behemoth in a masterstroke that some said would annihilate the opposition and ensure the succession plan went according to plan.

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But almost one year into the second term — after an election that was nullified by the Supreme Court last year, a dead rubber October 26 repeat poll boycotted by the opposition, and a toxic political atmosphere, the Jubilee union is facing serious strains.

In private, insiders talk of an unease with behind the scenes factional fights but in public Jubilee is one united, happy family.

Multiple interviews — on and off the record — indicate that politics within Jubilee has in recent months been broadly defined by the unlikely handshake between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, the 2022 succession and the President’s quest to secure his legacy.

But perhaps we should return to a scene at State House on January 5 this year when President Kenyatta announced part of his Cabinet.

CABINET

He appeared alone — no Mr Ruto beside him, not to mention the matching clothes. To those with their hands in the political pulse, it was bad optics.

Claims that the Deputy President (DP) was displeased with the manner in which his boss was handling the reconstitution of the Cabinet were emphatically denied by Mr Ruto.

Even after a full Cabinet was named at the end of January — notwithstanding the fact that a complete team of Principal Secretaries would only come in dribs and drabs over the following weeks — the intrigues did not end.

To Mr Kenyatta’s handlers, the President needed a free hand to put together a team to secure his legacy.

But to Mr Ruto’s allies, the DP needed a bigger say since he would be the beneficiary of a job well done in 2022.

The real picture may be in-between since constituting a Cabinet is not a spectator sport, never mind the horse-trading analogies usually applied.

Perceptions of trouble in paradise are creations of the media, they said and they have stuck to this line even when “it has become publicly apparent that their relationship is significantly strained”, says Mr Herman Manyora, a linguist at the University of Nairobi and a political commentator.

TROUBLE

National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale, a key ally of Mr Ruto, says the union is stronger than it ever was.

“As a key Jubilee leader, I can assure you that our house, which is headed by President Kenyatta, is intact,” said Mr Duale, who is also the Garissa Township MP.

“The President, as our leader, makes decisions on behalf of us all, including the DP, and we abide by all decisions.”

Indeed, Mr Ruto often fashions himself as the “mtu wa mkono” (aide) to the “mdosi” (the boss) — a loyal deputy, much like the vice presidents of old.

It is not a surprising stance for a man with A-plus political instincts but whose influence is more pervasive than he likes to admit.

Despite Mr Duale’s blissful picture, interviews with other insiders, who preferred to speak in confidence, talk of a troubled Jubilee house.

MANIFESTO

Some of their pointers may seem trivial — like the time earlier this year when the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) suddenly stopped posting pictures of Mr Ruto on the President’s social media accounts.

“We thought it was the result of the normal turf wars between our communication teams,” said an official within the DP’s communication team who declined to be quoted. “But we soon realised the problem was even bigger.”

The decision, our source said, followed an order by a senior State House official, meaning it was calculated and not accidental.

Mr Ruto’s attitude to public perceptions of being given short shrift by his boss has been live.

“Kenyans, more so Jubilee, should … focus single-mindedly on delivering our manifesto voted for by the people while allowing the President the space to perform his constitutional duty to assemble the team for us,” he tweeted in January, echoing a line he has repeated consistently.

PEACE DEAL

But if ever there was an earthquake that shook the foundation of the Jubilee house, it must be President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga appearing at the steps of Harambee House on the afternoon of March 9, shaking hands and declaring to work together.

It was remarkable: after a bitter 2017 election campaign, a nullified poll and a controversial repeat, political violence, a brutal crackdown and Mr Odinga’s mock swearing-in as the people’s president.

It was obviously a secretive rapprochement and once again Mr Ruto was not present.

He, however, immediately tweeted a congratulation to the two politicians for the unity pact.

Politically, three is a crowd in a union made by two (Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto) and the entry of Mr Odinga was seen by some as diminishing the DP’s clout.

Mr Manyora reads the purpose of the handshake in a unique way: “It is possible that they (the President and the DP) are playing games by bringing on board Mr Odinga in order to bring the peace they need,” he said.

“It is possible that they have agreed to throw him under the bus when they are done.”

COHESION

Nonetheless, the Building Bridges initiative was born out of that handshake and its stated intention is to heal the political and ethnic divisions in the country that had widened following last year’s elections.

Despite his misgivings about the real purpose of the handshake, Mr Ruto has taken advantage of it to penetrate Mr Odinga’s strongholds, which he would have found difficult previously, particularly the Coast where a number of ODM MPs have pledged to support Mr Ruto in 2022.

“That is one of the silver linings out of handshake,” Mr Duale said.

Political pundits also view the perceived slights by President Kenyatta towards Mr Ruto as another sign of tension.

For example, President Kenyatta’s famous “tanga tanga” jibe he aimed at the DP during a public event in Nairobi in May was seen in some quarters as an attempt to contain Mr Ruto’s movements around the country where he is known to hold harambees almost every weekend.

DEBT

Mr Ruto seems to have successfully turned around this into a positive thing when he told the President he would keep wandering around the country inspecting Jubilee projects.

“We advised him to keep up his schedule,” said his adviser who asked to keep his identity hidden.

“If he had sulked and stayed in Nairobi, then he would have played right into the hands of those who are plotting against him.”

Insiders within the DPs camp trace the genesis of the fallout to comments made in June last year by Jubilee Party vice chairman David Murathe, a long-time friend and political adviser to the President.

"I am very sorry for people if Uhuru gets re-elected,” he said. “Because his agenda will be his legacy issues which will be anchored on law, order, discipline and the fight against corruption."

Mr Murathe was more sanguine when he spoke during a church service at AIC Theta in Gatundu South in August.

"At what point did the President declare that he does not support the DP? Didn't he tell us that after his term the deputy shall succeed him? When did he ever say that he has absconded that pact?” he said.

DETRACTORS

A senior adviser to the DP claimed there was a group of eight individuals trying to foment divisions between the President and his deputy.

In May, Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen claimed in an interview that influential civil servants were out to divide Jubilee.

“There is an actual existence of people who work in the Office of the President who are busy supporting an agenda to divide the President and his Deputy,” Mr Murkomen said.

Mr Ruto’s men claim that the eight — nicknamed the “Putin Group” — are behind the calls for a referendum to restructure and broaden the executive in order to ensure that President Kenyatta stays longer in power beyond 2022.

The group takes its name from the Russian President Vladmir Putin who engineered constitutional changes in 2008 to allow him to serve as prime minister after his two-terms as president came to an end.

The latest cause of friction between Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto is whether the country should hold a referendum to address the shortcomings in the 2010 constitution.

REFERENDUM

While Mr Odinga maintains that it is a foregone conclusion that the country will hold one, Mr Ruto has ranged from lukewarm support to clear opposition.

Mr Duale says that Jubilee members are waiting for the President to give directions on the matter.

Mr Kenyatta had earlier this year dismissed talk of a referendum but has been quiet about the latest push led by Mr Odinga.

Then there is the fight against corruption and Mr Ruto’s battle to project a rags to riches image despite constant questions about his integrity.

Mr Ruto recently told his critics not to politicise the war on corruption, but to let relevant agencies do their job.

In light of revelations of massive corruption at state agencies and parastatals, the President ordered a lifestyle audit while energised directorates of criminal investigations and public prosecutions have been going after high-profile figures.

The sustained fight against graft, said a State House insider who spoke to us, “will change the political landscape” once key political figures are arrested and charged.

FACTIONS

Our source said that a long-rumoured Cabinet reshuffle in which Mr Odinga’s allies are to be brought on board has been put on the ice for now due to what he termed as a hostile Parliament.

The chaos during the handling of the president’s memorandum on the Finance Bill apparently stirred accusations that Jubilee factions were flexing their muscles.

Last month National Assembly Minority Whip Junet Mohamed, a close ally of Mr Odinga, claimed that the deputy President met a group of MPs drawn from both Jubilee and ODM to strategise on how to scuttle the Finance Bill 2018, a claim which was dismissed by the DP’s handlers.

One thing is for sure, with four years to the next election, the political undercurrents in the ruling party are only going to be stronger.