President Kenyatta on Tuesday moved to regain a firmer control of his government and save his legacy projects in an intricate power play that has left a trail of casualties on his deputy William Ruto’s side.
In a Cabinet purge that saw Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri — a self-confessed DP supporter — shown the door and others moved to less influential posts, the President appeared to be keen to remove from office ministers who have openly come out to politick, especially in favour of his principal assistant.
Being one of the senior politicians from the vote-rich Central region, Mr Kiunjuri — the former party leader of the Grand National Union that was among the outfits that merged to form the ruling party — is considered a possible pick for a running mate by DP Ruto in 2022.
His daredevil approach in the last few months smacks of an individual who has his cards fashioned out.
To win over the Central Kenya vote, Mr Ruto is keen to team up with an influential leader from the region.
A source familiar with operations in the Office of the President told the Nation that by getting rid of Mr Kiunjuri from the Cabinet, the President was not only guarding against “negative energy from spreading to the rest of the ministers”, but also sending a clear warning to his former colleagues that there was only one centre of power.
“For Kiunjuri, the die had long been cast. You do not bite the very finger that feeds you and expect a smooth ride,” the source said.
In what operatives in the Office of the President (OP) described as the last straw that broke the camel’s back, Mr Kiunjuri appeared alongside Mt Kenya MPs in Parliament Buildings to state their stand on the Building Bridges Initiative, an initiative of President Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga. This was taken as a slap in the President’s face, given the ultimatums they issued.
The leaders said the BBI task force must fully cater for the interests of Central Kenya people before they could extend their support.
Following his sacking, Mr Kiunjuri said that for every action, there would be reaction. In the same statement, he said the sacking did not come as a surprise to him.
The crackdown on leaders perceived as defiant is said to have begun in the first week of December when President Kenyatta received a situational report from the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
The report voiced concern that the country was dangerously and prematurely getting into a political mode, mostly orchestrated by members of his own government, to the detriment of the economy and service delivery.
His handlers believe the report compelled the Head of State to act.
The changes also saw him outline a number of measures to revive the limping agriculture sector and the economy at large following increasing complaints from farmers.
There was also an urgent need to fill the vacancy at the crucial National Treasury left after the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Noordin Haji proffered abuse-of-office charges against then Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich. Acting CS Ukur Yattani was confirmed to the position.
The same report is said to have warned of a real risk of a lame duck presidency setting in earlier than anticipated, with more than two years to the next General Election, as politicians scramble to make the President irrelevant.
In his address, Mr Kenyatta did not hide the role of the NIS going forward. He said it would be relied upon in unearthing the rot in government. It is the first time the President made direct reference to and publicly given instructions to the institution.
“I direct the NIS to undertake a rigorous review of all cartel groupings that have become leeches sucking away the blood and sweat of hardworking Kenyans. I want the review to pay particular attention to cartels operating in the public systems of budgeting, procurement, regulation and the illegal rigging of markets. It should also put the agricultural sector under the microscope. Once this review is completed, I further direct the DCI to take the necessary action, working alongside the DPP, to confront these cartels with every instrument available,” he announced.
While Mr Kiunjuri already appears to be flashing the persecution card to portray himself as a victim of fierce Kenyatta succession politics in Central region, his lacklustre track record in office may, however, hold him back.
“In this world we are born with nothing and depart with nothing. We wield power for a time. And leave it to others. And, even in the wilderness, God provides,” he said.
To mollify the Mt Kenya constituency, Mr Kenyatta brought into Cabinet Mr Mutahi Kagwe, a former minister in the Kibaki regime. He also handed allies of Mr Odinga, and other opposition figures — Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi — principal secretary and chief administrative secretary positions. The DP’s footprints were glaringly missing from the list.
Coming at a time his Mount Kenya backyard is restive, blaming him for presiding over a policy that has killed the economy and made life unbearable coupled with torrential raids by DP Ruto who has been promising them better times should they support his State House ambitions, Mr Kenyatta targeted the region with deliberate decisions to shore up the fortunes of dairy farmers and those in coffee and tea sectors.
One of the beneficiaries of the reshuffle was Trade CS Peter Munya, who replaced Mr Kiunjuri at Kilimo House and was added more portfolio.
“I have moved the State Department of Co-operatives from Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade, Enterprise Development and Co-operatives to Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries,” Mr Kenyatta said.
With a presence across the country, Mr Kiunjuri used the ministry to boost his presence at the grassroots. Mr Munya has now been handed the platform to popularise himself, perhaps as one of the possible Kenyatta successors in the larger Mount Kenya region.
Appointed Agriculture minister in 2008 by President Mwai Kibaki in the coalition government, Mr Ruto utilised the infrastructure as the springboard to market himself across the country.
Like has become the norm since the political truce between Mr Kenyatta and ODM leader Odinga, DP Ruto was nowhere near when his boss made the changes.
Only last week, the second in command was locked out of his official residence in Mombasa, signalling the worsening of relations between Harambee House and Harambee Annex, the President's and DP’s offices correspondingly.
Mr Simon Chelugui, another close ally of the DP, was moved from Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation to that of Labour. Analysts say this was a case of demotion.
The changes also saw Ambassador Raychelle Omamo becoming the Foreign Affairs CS, swapping places with Dr Monica Juma, who moved to the Defence ministry. There had been murmurs of a frosty relationship between Dr Juma and her Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau.
Notably, and save for the Transport and Housing Ministry’s James Macharia, all the Cabinet Secretaries charged with delivering the Big Four agenda on food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare were moved and one sacked.
Mr Munya, taking the place of Mr Kiunjuri, is now expected to lead the effort to make the country food secure.
Former Health CS Sicily Kariuki — now in charge of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation — had occasional run-ins with governors on both the piloting of universal healthcare in counties and running of the docket.
Mr Kagwe will now be at the helm of the ministry.
Ms Betty Maina, Mr Kenyatta’s Cabinet nominee for Industrialisation, will now, upon approval by Parliament, oversee manufacturing.
The subtle power struggle between Mr Kenyatta and his deputy keeps intensifying. While the boss controls the State and its instruments, the second in command has an upper hand in politics of the ruling party (Jubilee) and, deploying these, each of them is out to gain advantage over the other as the party crumbles.
Only time will tell how this will end but, certainly, there will be major casualties.