President Uhuru Kenyatta’s first public rejection of the ‘dynasties’ tag shows just how deep a key campaign plank of Deputy President William Ruto personally offends him.
The President was speaking on August 22 during the 41st anniversary of the death of his father, Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta, when he veered into the subject.
"You hear people out there, you know, they talk, ‘Oh, this person, dynasty this, dynasty this,"' he told the congregation at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi, adding:
“Leadership is not about where you were born. It is not about where you came from. It is not about the colour of your skin. It is not about your tribe. It is just about a desire to serve; a desire to do good; a desire to make a difference in the lives of people, and anybody can do that."
Although he did not mention names, it was clear he was referring to a narrative that is aggressively pushed at public rallies and social media by Mr Ruto’s 2022 presidential election campaign team.
The narrative depicts Mr Ruto as a “hustler”, a self-made, streetwise politician who has pulled himself up against the odds; ranged against “dynasties”, the spoilt scions of wealthy and rich parents out to block him from gate-crashing their privileged club.
Mr Ruto’s initial target when the narrative was coined were some of those expected to be his key challengers for the 2022 presidential election, notably former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Baringo Senator Gideon Moi.
Mr Odinga is the son of Kenya’s first Vice President Oginga Odinga, who served as Kenyatta senior’s deputy for three years before breaking away to become Kenya’s pioneer opposition leader in 1966.
Mr Gideon Moi may not seem likely to join the front ranks of presidential candidates, but he is a son of retired President Daniel arap Moi, Jomo Kenyatta’s successor, and is working hard to eat into the DP’s rock solid community support base in the Rift Valley.
It was obvious that pushing the hustler versus dynasty narrative would in time come to be seen not just as directed against Odinga and Moi, but also President Kenyatta who ranks number one in the line-up of Kenya’s political princes.
The spectre of dynastic leaders out to block the self-proclaimed hustler who plays up his humble roots intruding into State House was completed in March last year when President Kenyatta dramatically made peace with Mr Odinga, his principal foe over the last two elections, and launched the Building Bridges Initiative.
Senator Moi also signalled support for the initiative that seems almost certain to recommend constitutional changes designed to make for a more inclusive national leadership structure through reintroduction of the office of Prime Minister and various deputies.
There have also been efforts to rope in Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi, the holdout from Mr Odinga’s 2017 election coalition, Nasa, who has so far been wary of joining a likely new alliance.
A short-lived vice president in the final weeks of President Moi’s regime, Mr Mudavadi is noted as one of the earlier beneficiaries of the culture of political “inheritance” after succeeding his late father as MP for Sabatia in 1989 and being fast-tracked to the Cabinet while still under 30.
He now faces the challenge of taking up the Opposition mantle after Mr Odinga and other Nasa leaders, including another former vice president who leads the Wiper party, Mr Kalonzo Musyoka, were virtually co-opted into government.
Mr Ruto’s wing of the governing Jubilee Party had been openly opposed to the BBI, suspicious that it is designed to create space at the table for Mr Odinga at the DP’s expense.
The launch of BBI prompted Mr Ruto’s supporters to ramp up the anti-dynasty rhetoric, but now with President Kenyatta in the crosshairs as architect of a move they fear works against their candidate.
At Mr Ruto’s regular campaign rallies across the country, politicians have launched open attacks on the Uhuru-Raila initiative as well as the President’s anti-corruption war they claim targets his supporters.
Mr Kenyatta has obviously taken note. Although he has on several occasions publicly indicated his unwavering resolve on the issues that make DP’s supporters see red – BBI and the corruption crackdown – his warning against the ‘hustler versus dynasties’ narrative represented the first time he has openly voiced disapproval of a Ruto campaign plank.
It is instructive that he spoke knowing that the DP was in the audience and hearing him directly deliver a public rebuke.
This indicates that the President has been quietly seething over what he sees as direct attacks against him by the Ruto team.
Mr Ruto did not react directly, but the following day spoke in support of the President’s sentiments, a position which to the uninitiated might seem rather odd as he was the target.
Addressing a fundraising rally in Vihiga County, he said the President’s message was clear and that it should end the ‘hustler versus dynasties’ talk.
“Leadership does not come through tribe, religion, wealth or one’s origin,” he told the gathering. “Leadership comes through vision and that is the direction people want.”
While that seems a clear enough echo of the President, there will be questions over whether what Mr Ruto said can be taken at face value.
It could actually be interpreted in support of the anti-dynasty narrative in that leadership has to be earned, not inherited through origin or status.
It is likely that the speeches at Mr Ruto’s campaign jaunts across the country will be closely monitored for nuance and coded messaging.
One of the things that really angers Mr Ruto’s foes is that at every public gathering, he says all the nice things apparently indicating support for President Kenyatta’s leadership and the Jubilee government development programmes, but actually seems to be doing just the opposite.
His rallies and fundraisers across the country, for instance, have continued unabated in defiance of President Kenyatta’s repeated pleas for politicians to cease premature campaigns and focus on delivery of the government development projects.
Mr Ruto’s stock response has been that his tours are in support of the President’s Big Four Agenda.
A notable feature of the rallies is that while Mr Ruto expresses his support for the President and reserves his barbs for Mr Odinga, that is often after he has sat quietly listening to surrogates unleash unrestrained attacks on the President.
The frustration in President Kenyatta’s camp was brought out a few weeks ago by Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu, who publicly accused Mr Ruto of sponsoring his supporters to launch tirades against President Kenyatta.
“What makes it so terrible is that the person who is leading this drama is the President’s own deputy, Mr William Samoei Ruto. And because he is doing it though proxies, he thinks Kenyans do not see what he is doing,” he charged in a Facebook post emphasising what he had told a public gathering.
Mr Wambugu is one of the most vocal spokesmen for the Kieleweke brigade, a largely central Kenya outfit within Jubilee trying to counter the pro-Ruto Tangatanga team.
His complaint might well reflect the views within the President’s inner circle, which often seem at a loss on how to manage the threat of a Ruto-inspired insurgency.
Chances are that despite Mr Ruto’s words, his supporters will at public rallies and social media campaigns continue with campaigns against the so-called dynastic leaders.
Indeed, President Kenyatta’s public comments on the dynasty issue was for Mr Ruto’s supporters not a setback, but a welcome sign that their campaign is beginning to hit where it hurts.
In their view, they did not even need to name the President, yet he exposed himself as one of the beneficiaries of dynasty politics.
In that case, temptation for the Ruto camp will be to escalate, rather than scale down, the hustler versus dynasties rhetoric.
This might be seen not just at political rallies, but also at the ungoverned and anonymous social media space.
Vicious caricatures are already doing the rounds depicting President Kenyatta, Mr Odinga and Mr Moi carving up Kenya for themselves while locking out Mr Ruto and other less-privileged citizens from the banquet.
President Kenyatta’s supporters might well have to brace themselves for increased #HustlerNation activity on social media, as well as T-shirts, flags, banners and other promotional material in support of the campaign.
While the rift is real, the President and his deputy at joint public appearances often chat away freely as if nothing is wrong.
However, things could come to a head in the next six weeks if the BBI Task Force keeps its promise of releasing a report from the countrywide series of public hearings.
If, as expected, the team proposes far-reaching constitutional changes demanding a referendum, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto could find themselves on opposite sides.
It would be an interesting scenario if Odinga’s ODM partners with President Kenyatta on the “Yes” side in another referendum, while Deputy President Ruto leads a rebel Jubilee faction from the “Nyet” side.
Whatever the outcome of such a poll, an equally significant outcome might be a complete split in Jubilee, and a reshaping of the government before completion of President Kenyatta’s final term.