The hostage president: Uhuru's new headache
Unusual direct attacks on President Uhuru Kenyatta by Jubilee leaders allied to his deputy have laid bare his dilemma as he tries to balance competing interests in his last and final term.
First, there has been a push from Deputy President William Ruto and his backers for President Kenyatta to be clear about the 2022 succession.
This is to take care of the various interests in the Jubilee Party political patchwork to avoid disintegration.
Then there is a commitment to Opposition leader Raila Odinga to make Kenya politically and ethnically cohesive through the loose March 9, 2018 handshake. This also meshes with various reforms, some of which could require a referendum.
Then there is the President’s legacy that includes his 'Big Four Agenda' and the renewed fight against corruption that has in recent weeks been caught up in political battles that threaten to tear apart the ruling party.
The options Mr Kenyatta chooses could change the political landscape and define his legacy.
So far, there is little bliss in Jubilee. The murmurs from Dr Ruto's corner, for instance, have graduated to open protests and now to outright reproach.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen summed it up by slamming the President and Mr Odinga, describing the handshake pact between the two as “deceitful”, “shameful” and “the worst political fraud ever witnessed” in Kenya.
Three days later, on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader James Orengo appeared to pour oil on the already burning fire when he suggested that Mr Odinga’s ODM was teaming up with the President to grab power in 2022.
Although he explained, during a TV interview, that Mr Odinga was not necessarily angling for presidency, the alleged “coalition” angle to the handshake deal is headache enough for the President, held hostage by these competing forces. ODM and Mr Orengo have since downplayed the comments.
But senators Orengo and Murkomen are not your ordinary politicians. They hold leadership positions in the Senate, courtesy of their influence and authority in their parties and closeness to Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto, respectively.
It is accordingly assumed by many that the two speak for their respective political leaders — a factor that further confirms the President’s political quandary.
The antagonistic positions presented by Mr Murkomen and Mr Orengo present a Catch-22 situation to President Kenyatta who has to ably manoeuvre between the Ruto and Odinga political camps to unite Kenyans, fight corruption and ethnicity while at the same time secure his own legacy.
It is a scenario that demands of him to be the referee in the Ruto-Odinga duels while remaining a key player.
And for playing the referee in the increasing volatile political game, the President has occasionally emerged with some bruises.
Describing Mr Kenyatta’s “middleman role” as dangerous, political commentator Edward Kisiang’ani observes it is a near impossibility for the Ruto-Odinga battles to go on without hurting the President.
The Kenyatta University lecturer says when the Ruto team unleashes salvos aimed at Mr Odinga on the handshake, it is also an attack on President Kenyatta.
Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu, an anti-Ruto politician, concurs.
He says that recent outbursts by Dr Ruto and his allies over the supposed political fraud and conmanship of the handshake are an indication of disrespect to the President whose judgement is questioned for striking a deal with the ODM boss.
“This is a calculative message geared at portraying the President as one who doesn’t know what he’s doing. It is meant to undermine Uhuru (Mr Kenyatta) as a President and cause him disfavour among his supporters in Central Kenya and across the country.”
The President has lately been personally responding to those critical of his war against graft as well as those ridiculing his handshake deal with Mr Odinga.
Speaking during the opening of the Sixth Annual Devolution Conference at Kirinyaga University on March 5, a furious Kenyatta warned politicians he did not name of using funerals and weddings to make reckless remarks aimed at slowing down the war on corruption and discrediting the handshake pact.
Earlier that week, Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi, an ally of Dr Ruto, claimed Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga were pretending to be “clean” in the fight against corruption.
He separately dared the President to categorically confirm whether or not he was supporting the DP’s presidential bid, “instead of hiding behind this handshake thing”.
The situation for the President has not been made any easier by the apparent silence from his political backers, including within his Central Kenya backyard.
Except for occasional support and shielding by Nominated MP Maina Kamanda and Mr Wambugu, the President has largely been left exposed.
Mr Kenyatta however enjoys occasional support from Mr Odinga’s supporters, including from ODM chairman John Mbadi.
The National Assembly’s Minority Leader however maintains that he and members of the Orange party occasionally step in defence of the President, “not out of personal interests to politically protect the President but because he has a pact with our party leader to unite this country, and which is generally for the good of every Kenyan”.
And reacting to sentiments attributed to Mr Orengo to the effect that ODM is working with Mr Kenyatta with a view to ascending to power in 2022, Mr Mbadi maintained that was the Siaya senator’s opinion.
He says Mr Odinga is too engrossed in efforts to unite the country in accordance with his handshake pact with the President.
But Mr Murkomen thinks otherwise. The Elgeyo Marakwet senator argues that the handshake “is nothing but politics to stop one’s presidential ambition and I have evidence to that effect”.
Mr Murkomen cites ODM deputy leader Hassan Joho’s recent “confession” in Butula, Busia County, that they had instructions from Mr Odinga to thwart Dr Ruto’s presidential ambition and the move to kick out Malindi MP Aisha Jumwa from the party for associating with the DP.
“If this handshake is about uniting all of us, wacha watu wasalimiane kila mahali (let the people exchange handshakes all over), without excluding the DP,” Mr Murkomen says.
President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have however categorically reiterated that the handshake has nothing to do with the 2022 succession plan.
The perception that Dr Ruto is excluded in the handshake, Mr Mbadi offers, is because he is deeply immersed in the 2022 succession game, something the Kenyatta-Odinga pair are keeping at bay.
Nonetheless, Dr Kisiang’ani says one cannot rule out the hidden political agenda of the handshake.
In fact, he says, the pact is a clear ploy to clear Dr Ruto out of the 2022 succession.
He explains that the President may not be keen on endorsing his deputy, but neither will he openly back another candidate over Dr Ruto — not just yet.
Dr Kisiang’ani believes that the President has set the stage for his deputy to fall and that he has taken a back seat and let scenarios pan out on their own.
He gives the instance of war on corruption and Dr Ruto’s premature campaigns as some of the things that “will greatly harm” Ruto’s ambitions.
That the political heat in the Jubilee kitchen is too much is not in doubt.
Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Kenyatta-Ruto Jubilee Party pair, the boss cannot kick out his deputy from the kitchen — thanks to the current constitutional arrangement. Neither can Mr Kenyatta bring on board, to his government, his new ally, Mr Odinga.
But well aware of these impediments, the President — in the parlance of Kenyans — anapambana na hali yake (he is dealing with his own challenges).
And that is why he, for instance, recently elevated his Interior Secretary Fred Matiang’i to the role of “chief minister”, which according to some analysts was meant to address the leadership impasse with his deputy.
It remains unclear, though, for how long Mr President’s panya route (shortcut) approach will hold.