If there was one big take-home from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s meeting with leaders from his Mt Kenya backyard, it was that he no longer has the bully pulpit.
The long-awaited gathering came against a backdrop where the president has been progressively losing his political base to Deputy President William Ruto, whose aggressive early campaign for the 2022 presidential elections seems to have roped in a majority of Mt Kenya Members of Parliament.
The meeting came a few days after the President inexplicably skipped a much-awaited fund raising rally in Murang’a County whose timing clashed with Dr Ruto’s campaign jaunt in the same neighbourhood.
Although the DP had already cancelled his Murang’a visit amid fears of a likely political clash, the President still made his a late no-show, with crowds already gathered.
His office cited engagements with foreign leaders in Nairobi for the International Conference on Population and Development, but that seemed more like a convenient excuse than the real reason, and only added to perception that he was avoiding his strongholds.
The Sagana meeting also just a day after Dr Ruto tellingly referred to ‘Uhuru’s Jubilee’ in the latest instalment of a remarkable twitter tirade following on the war of words with ODM leader Raila Odinga’s supporters since his candidate MacDonald Mariga lost the Kibra parliamentary by-election.
The angry tweet was in reference to Mr Odinga, whom he accused of using deceit to destroy other political parties, and concluded by pledging to stand firm with Uhuru and Jubilee. However, the earlier reference to the ruling party as ‘Uhuru’s’, in contrast to the past references as a partnership, was not lost on observers.
Dr Ruto and his entourage of Tangatanga MPs have kept up a hectic schedule of campaign rallies across the country in defiance of the president’s constant pleas for an end to premature electioneering at the expense of the Jubilee government’s development agenda.
Many of those rallies have been used to hit out at the Building Bridges Initiative championed by President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, with some of the MPs often firing direct broadsides at the president as Dr Ruto looks on.
With the Building Bridges task force expected to release its delayed report any time now, it has been expected that the president would have to meet MPs and other political leaders from the Mt Kenya region to rally support for the initiative.
He has been aware of the hostility to his dalliance with Mr Odinga, which many in the Jubilee Party fear will be used to renege on the pledge to support Dr Ruto as his successor come 2022.
Apart from MPs abandoning him to queue up behind Dr Ruto’s cash-rich political machine, President Kenyatta has also had to contend with the fact that the ground in central Kenya, as in the rest of the country, has turned hostile as frustrations rise over the dire economic situation.
He has had to contend with accusations of neglecting his political base, hence the import of the Sagana State Lodge gathering against a backdrop of a disgruntled backyard and uncertainty over his relationship with Dr Ruto.
It was expected that President Kenyatta would use the occasion to assert his authority, read the riot act to defiant MPs, and signal unequivocal support for the BBI initiative.
Instead, those present at the closed-door meeting saw a president fully aware that he no longer has the clout to browbeat politicians into submission.
His entire address was not about enforcing his will, but about pleading for patience, understanding and support so that he can serve out the remainder of his term in peace and focus on his development programme without distractions.
He used the occasion to explain why he reached out to Mr Odinga for a peace deal in the wake of the 2017 post-election tensions, drawing parallels with the way President Mwai Kibaki had 10 years earlier struck a pact with the opposition boss to bring an end to the 2007-08 post-election violence. He also referred to his own 2013 partnership with Dr Ruto that not only propelled the Jubilee duo to power, but also bought peace between their warring communities.
President Kenyatta did not, however, push unqualified support for BBI, pleading that he has not read the report and would like everyone else wait to first study it before making a decision. He mentioned his own expectations that it would be about equitable development and share of resources, peaceful elections and an electoral system fair to all, security for all and systems that lock the corrupt out of leadership positions.
Tellingly, he did not refer Mr Odinga’s pet proposals for a parliamentary system and a constitutional referendum, the issues that make Dr Ruto’s brigade see red.
He, however, did refer to the outcome of the recent Kibra by-election, which turned out to be a Raila-Ruto contest, as a product of BBI.
He argued that despite all the narratives about a violent election, it was a relatively peaceful poll as not a single person was killed or house razed to the ground.
This is an interesting position given that the Jubilee candidate was handily defeated by Mr Odinga’s ODM contender Imran Okoth; and Dr Ruto and his supporters have since been on a serious offensive accusing the opposition boss of winning through unchecked electoral violence.
The DP’s supporters led have gone to the extent of accusing the Office of the President of orchestrating the alleged violence; and though the finger has been pointed at Interior CS Fred Matiangi and Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho, it could be extended to President Kenyatta.
Another key issue broached, though not directly, was his support, or lack of support, for Dr Ruto’s 2022 presidential bid. According to the Prersident, it was too early to talking about 2022 when the focus for central Kenya leaders should be on the development agenda.
In a dig at Ruto supporters, he chided the leaders for ignoring previous pledges to focus on tea, coffee, miraa, pyrethrum and other economic drivers; and instead getting diverted into premature 2022 campaigns. Even the matter of whether he will support Dr Ruto, he dismissed as a non-issue for now, dismissing those raising the issue as "burying me when I’m still alive".
President Kenyatta, according to those present, was in good spirits, unlike past occasions when he has reacted angrily to challenges from his backyard.
He talked off-the-cuff and interspersed his address with jokes and wry observations, but the entire proceedings probably provided a one-sided picture:- His most virulent critics never got a chance at the dais, with opportunities seemingly given only to those of moderate persuasion.