Bromance, then boom: The parallels

It is no secret that the Jubilee Party is falling apart, and the noose is tightening around the DP Ruto’s neck

The rare display of camaraderie captured on camera showing President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto at this year’s Madaraka Day festival came as a surprise.

The explosion of amity came in a season of visibly frosty relations between Kenya’s two topmost politicians. It leaves pundits wondering who could be fooling whom in the country’s political quicksand.

It is no secret that the ruling Jubilee Party is falling apart. The President is pulling in one direction and his deputy in the other. The DP’s supporters in the ruling party have borne the brunt of the President’s wrath.

One by one, key players in the camp are eating the humble pie. There has been loss of prestigious and powerful positions in the Senate and National Assembly. More are lined up for the axe. The guillotine could go yonder still, to roll heads in parastatals and other senior postings in government. The purge is set to go all the way into Kenya’s foreign missions abroad.

Bread of sorrow

The Madaraka Day display of amity between President Kenyatta and Dr Ruto was of a playful brand, as in their good old days. Then the International Criminal Court (ICC) hung above their heads like the sword of damocles. The proverbial sword warmed them towards one another, as fellows-in-suffering.

The recent display of goodwill brought some brightness to a dull Madaraka dampened by the new coronavirus in its deterrence of the usual fanfare on such occasions.

The hiatus of jollity was short-lived, however. The harsh reality returned within 24 hours when the DP’s persons in the National Assembly bit the dust. Benjamin Washiali of Mumias East and Cecily Mbaririre (Nominated) ate the bread of sorrow, with their respective removal as Majority Whip and Deputy Whip at a parliamentary group meeting convened by Uhuru in his capacity as the party leader.

Kenyans will be watching the next few steps in Jubilee, and in the country, with a keen eye. For, the stage would seem to be getting set for intense political happenings.

Ruto’s cheer with Uhuru was reminiscent of the first month of Madaraka in 1963. The Minister for Home Affairs, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, hosted the new African notables to a fete at his residence in Nairobi. The chief guest at the function was Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta, who was slowly but surely plotting the consolidation of power.

Odinga was a prime target for the chopping board, in the crosshairs of the power telescope of the early 1960s. For the time being, however, things looked up, with the Prime Minister, his host and Cabinet Ministers Tom Mboya, Mwai Kibaki, Njoroge Mungai, Bruce Mackenzie – among others – doing a hearty jig.

This year’s jig, however, was only between the President and his deputy. The contrast between the overall atmosphere and spirit in the political environment could not possibly be more distinct. Although Mzee Kenyatta had no official deputy in June 1963, Odinga was already carrying himself with the air of one.

His comportment was that of a de facto principal assistant to the Prime Minister. It was a role in which he was sometimes quite openly envied and challenged by the youthful Tom Mboya, and the two crossed swords quite often. The de facto number two to Kenyatta in 1963 functioned in a propitious environment, full of great expectations for himself and his country.

Fifty-seven years on, Ruto is the legal number two to the country’s CEO in a threatening environment. The de facto number two is, in fact, Odinga’s son, Raila. Odinga’s son has weaved his way to the centre of power, where he exercises ambiguous, if somewhat extra-legal powers. For, the authority and influence that he exercises cannot be denied. Yet, they are not provided for anywhere in Kenya’s legal instruments.

Same script, different cast

Law or no law, there is no denying the shots that Raila is calling in government and in the country generally. A confidential report of July 3, 1963 to the American Secretary of State said that the feast at Odinga’s residence was “enormous,” complete with “huge quantities of native foods, served buffet style,” a sign of the inner cheer and confidence in the host.

While he has thrown no such parties, Odinga’s son, Raila, is 57 years later equally upbeat. The irony of the situation is that Raila’s brightness is a factor of his confidence that he is now part of a team treating the Deputy President the way the powerbrokers of the early 60s did to his father, when he was the number two man. It is a clear case of history reversing and yet repeating itself, with a different cast in the same roles.

For all the confidence and jollity of Madaraka in 1963, Odinga would go down the political ladder with amazing speed. The Mboya fronted activities of 1964-66 moved him from Kenya’s confident number two, to an embittered leader of the opposition.

A political palace coup d’état in Kanu in February 1966 made several changes that specifically targeted Odinga. His office as Kanu’s deputy national party chairman was divided into eight and candidates invited to vie for them. Smelling humiliation, Odinga quit Kanu in a huff, to form another party. From now on, it was humiliation all the way to his detention in October 1969.

Today, the country is witness to the frustration, and sometimes humiliation, of the Deputy President.

Like Jaramogi in 1965-66, his henchmen have been targeted. In 1965, Odinga’s chief hatchet man, Pio Gama Pinto, was gunned down in Nairobi. In 2020, Ruto’s chief hatchet man, Aden Duale, has defected to the opposing camp, after his political lifeline hang on a loose thread.

He is now the Leader of the Majority in the National Assembly with express allegiance to the President’s Kieleweke camp. In 1966, Odinga’s henchman, Joseph Murumbi, was taken away from him and given Odinga’s position as Vice President. Murumbi’s conscience, however, refused to sit well with him in the position. He resigned after six months.

It is not likely that Duale could do the same, for reports indicate that he has had to fight very hard to retain his position as Leader of Majority in the National Assembly. Murumbi did not canvass to be made Vice President, hence his troubled conscience with the position.

After the forces against Odinga had vanquished his henchmen, they took on the bull by the horns. Odinga went under the nickname of the Bull, the animal being the symbol of his opposition Kenya People’s Union (KPU) Party.

Mboya, and later Njonjo and the team that came to be called the Kiambu Mafia, literally took the KPU bull by the horns. They consigned Odinga to political doldrums that he never fully recovered from, to the very end of his life almost 30 years later, notwithstanding his towering image in opposition politics.

Ruto is facing the same challenge and threat in 2020. In 1964–66, the regime employed the services of Mboya, a system compliant Luo to put down another Luo. In 2020, Raphael Tuju, another establishment person, is the lead player in the effort to bring down Ruto, with the new Odinga – another Luo – eminently in the mix.

Having ambiguously ensconced himself in the system, the new Odinga is both eager to please and keen to be pleased. His zeal to please played out dramatically at this year’s Madaraka fete at State House Nairobi.

In a video clip that has circulated widely in the social media, Raila is seen making an intense effort to catch the President’s eye and to wave at him. As the head of state is engaged in mutual curtseys with one after the other of his 50 or so invited guests, Raila is seen restively cutting across the dais in the background, in a frantic effort to draw the President’s attention. His efforts don’t bear fruit, however. He eventually gives up.

They must have missed to connect at the right moment. In which case proper protocol would require that this is regretted quietly as a missed opportunity.

In the converse is the understanding by both the President and the ODM leader that their party members will walk the straight and narrow path of obedience. Ongoing purges in Jubilee and NASA are factors of enforcement of subservience. It began in Jubilee, seeking to weed out persons perceived to be more in harmony with the Deputy President rather than with the party bosses.

Ongoing purges

Ordinarily, such divided allegiance is a factor of converting a political coalition into one political party. The old allegiances that are traced to the original constituent parties don’t fade away that fast. As happened in the divisions in the victorious Narc government of 2002-07, everyone remembers where they came from and who their leader was. In the case of Ruto, he has not only continued to enjoy the following of the original United Republican Party (URP) politicians in Jubilee, he has also been able to cultivate new following within the new party.

In a country whose political formations follow tribal furrows, it has been disturbing that people from the President’s Kikuyu community would seem to listen to Ruto more than they have listened to the head of state. Whether this is speculative imagination or not is a matter to be tested, and the purges have failed to give clear-cut indication.

MPs who spoke in flowery praise of Senate deputy speaker under the wrath of a section of the party leadership surprised everyone when they went on to vote for his removal, despite lack of clarity on what his sin was.

In NASA/ODM, the removals have been reached in more or less similar fashion. Vague indictments have been made against persons accused of not toeing the coalition line and agenda. They have then been removed and announcement of their ejection made at press briefings that have been devoid of the sense of solemnity that the Jubilee removals have had. While the Jubilee party honchos, from Secretary General Raphael Tuju to politicians in Parliament, have prosecuted their agenda with a sense of solemnity, the NASA pressers at which announcements were made had the character of a hilarious standup comedy.

Regardless of character, however, the die is cast; iacta alea est, as Julius Caesar famously said after crossing the Rubicon with his armies. The purge is on, the purge has been done, the purge is coming.

Coming, too, is a constitutional referendum. It has been speculated that the purge has derived much of its gravitas from the fear that Rutorites in Parliament could frustrate the anticipated constitutional review process. A clampdown has, therefore been necessary, for abundance of caution. Having tasted the wrath of power, anyone contemplating rebellion should have another think.

A constitutional amendment that expands the Executive, as has been discussed in many forums, both formal and informal, is however largely a political elite club affair. Few would, therefore, understand why Ruto, or any other member of this club, would want to stand in the way of a reactionary constitutional amendment that serves the interests of the club.

An amendment that expands the national executive is a double edged sword that could cut either way in the political divide. Any one camp could benefit from it. It would be grand folly, therefore, for anyone in the elite club to stand in its way.

The DP and his followers must know this, hence their repeated pledges to support the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that is the expectant mother of the revised constitution. This leaves the question of why Ruto has remained under siege, even when he seems to bend backwards over to be BBI compliant. The reasons have been as many as have been his accusers.

They have ranged from alleged corruption, to disrespect for the President. They have moved on to engaging in early campaigns for the 2022 presidential election. While avenues of addressing the first two accusations exist both in law and at the political party level, they have not been attempted, the preferred option being, instead haranguing him and his followers. And now the purge.

Meanwhile, Ruto has kept broadcasting his “very good working relationship with my boss.” This is where he significantly parts ways with Vice President Odinga in 1964-66. Odinga believed that Kenyatta was taking the country in the wrong direction, and he did not hesitate to tell the President so.

Apocryphal narratives thrived of how the Vice President would bang the table at the President and lecture him at Cabinet meetings, while everyone else held their breath and stared on in spellbound disbelief. Odinga summed up his contestations in one phrase, it was not yet uhuru in Kenya.

Without banging any tables that we know of, Ruto has restated Odinga’s contestation. He has reframed the Kenyan political debate and attempted to shift it from the tribe to the social and economic paradigm. While political conversations in the country have been founded around the tribe and ethnic competition for opportunities, Ruto has framed the challenge afresh. He has attempted to make it a matter of class struggle.

He has, accordingly, framed the competition in the country as one between what he calls dynasties and hustlers.

Pushed to the margins

It is perhaps the framework of the class struggle, than any other sin he may have committed, that has put Ruto in trouble with members of his new class. Indeed champions of the class struggle debate have paid dearly in Kenya.

JM Kariuki, who loved to lament about 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars, was found dead in the forest. Bildad Kaggia was detained a second time and died a poor man. Kung’u Karumba was vaporised shortly after asking Mzee Kenyatta whether the poor could eat the flag. Odinga was pushed into the margins of power.

What then after the purge?

It is possibly far too early to talk about 2022 within reasonable margins of accuracy. A lot can happen in between. We cannot even talk about for whom 2022 will come, and for whom it will never come.

The possibility of two main political formations is, however, very much on the cards. As Kenya goes through the current season of anomy, there is an emerging massing of troops around Amani National Congress (ANC) leader Musalia Mudavadi.

He has uncharacteristically received endless chains of visitors at the Musalia Mudavadi Centre, with little disclosure of what they discuss in there.

It is instructive, too, that a good number of Mudavadi’s visitors are from Ruto’s corner of Jubilee Party. It is too soon to know whether these are people who have sensed danger and, as individuals, they are testing an alternative political home at ANC, or whether they bear a bigger message from their camp.

In the ongoing supremacy saga in the Luhya nation, Ruto-leaning Luhya MPs have teamed up with Mudavadi’s ANC and Moses Wetang’ula’s Ford Kenya to engage their common adversaries. Ruto’s role in all this, if any, has not been established. But, contemporary Luhya people say, “Ebindu bichenjanga,” which is to say, “Nothing is static.” Your adversaries today could be your friends tomorrow. It is all a matter of common interests.

For now, it is clear that titanic political battles lie ahead, with two emerging formations in contest. The Western Kenya region is emerging as the first territory that must be conquered. A coup attempt in Ford Kenya, and another one against the established Luhya order at Cotu Secretary General (Francis Atwoli)’s home in Kajiado, speaks to the reality that the fight for Western has begun.

Whoever emerges stronger from the battle for Mulembe Nation is likely to fare well in subsequent engagements. Raila is keen to restore his faded grip and fading glory, while Mudavadi and Wetang’ula are keen to protect from external incursion the space they consider their ultimate motherland.

If they lose Western to Raila, they have no business in politics, except – perhaps – as his attendants. In their fight for their space, they are enjoying extra support from Ruto’s Luhya troops in Parliament. What is cooking here? We can only wait to see.

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