When he was sworn in as President on April 9, 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta had managed to rescue founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s family name from political obscurity and infamy.
For years, especially during President Daniel Moi’s reign, the once-powerful family, scions of Kenya’s liberation politics, had been relegated to the backwaters of Kenya’s politics – either playing second-fiddle or being decimated by novices on the rough terrain of cut-throat politics.
To survive, the family retreated to business and expanded their foothold in the hospitality, farming and in the banking sector.
In 1993, after the collapse of the troubled Kenya Co-operative Creameries, the family entered the dairy sector and invested in a milk processor, Brookside Dairy, which now commands about 40 per cent of the market.
While it had success in business, the family had, until 1997, been apolitical.
The only three politicians from the extended family, though marooned at the constituency level, were Ngengi Muigai and his sister Beth Mugo.
The other was Mama Ngina’s brother George Kamau Muhoho. The three had mixed fortunes in politics and none could ride on Kenyatta’s name to national fame.
Thus when Uhuru tried his luck in politics in 1997, he was so badly embarrassed that he had called it quits after being beaten for the Gatundu South seat by Moses Muihia, a little-known quantity surveyor.
The seat, according to politicos of that Moi era, was specially carved out of the larger Gatundu constituency with the Kenyattas in mind in the hope that they would have a foothold in future politics.
But Uhuru, a novice at best, and an upstart at worst got a paltry 10,000 votes against Muihia’s 20,000.
In five years’ time, thanks to President Moi, Uhuru was tossed into the 2002 presidential race and was massively rejected in the Mt Kenya region. It was another not-yet-Uhuru moment.
If Moi thought that a Kenyatta would resonate with Mt Kenya, the way the Odingas have held together the trend in Nyanza politics – he was wrong.
That time, as Uhuru challenged Mwai Kibaki, the talk in central Kenya was that not even Jomo, if he were alive, would be elected on a Kanu ticket.
By then Kanu in central Kenya was a symbol of Mt Kenya’s economic troubles. It symbolised a world that the residents had abandoned.
The Mt Kenya voters felt that by parading Uhuru as his successor and running against former Vice President Kibaki, President Moi was being rude.
But even without the central Kenya support, apart from his Kiambu district, Uhuru managed an impressive 1.8 million votes against Kibaki’s 3.6 million.
As the new Leader of Opposition, and as Kibaki faced an open rebellion from Raila Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party — after he was short-changed in the distribution of positions in the Narc government —it was Uhuru who would later come to Kibaki’s rescue by supporting him in the 2007 General Election.
While the bungled polls triggered the 2007/2008 post-election violence, it was Uhuru who would later suffer on behalf of Mt Kenya — and make lemonade out of it.
Back to prominence
At the height of the chaos, Uhuru had surged back to prominence in Mt Kenya region with his personal efforts to fundraise for victims — buying food and tents.
He not only brought together tycoons from the region to collect food and other donations — but would also become the fervent defender of Mt Kenya communities’ rights to settle anywhere in the country.
Those who disliked Uhuru regarded him as a Kikuyu supremacist — a tribal chauvinist. That he ended up in The Hague where was charged with crimes against humanity would only endear him to the region — which identified with his “suffering”.
By the time President Mwai Kibaki was completing his troubled term, and with most of the old politicians in Mt Kenya region — Njenga Karume, John Michuki et al — retiring, the young Uhuru would inherit a region that was politically under siege.
His first task was to end the ethnic wars between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin by reaching out to former Cabinet minister William Ruto, who had also been charged with instigating the violence. Mt Kenya was once again in the hands of a Kenyatta and it was upon Uhuru to offer political direction.
The duo of ‘Uhuruto’ would face Raila — whose complaint over a stolen election had triggered the 2007/08 violence.
The two wanted to extinguish him from Kenyan politics and ran a hate campaign against him. They couldn’t.
After the 2007/08 violence, Raila had learned to use the courts and he scored a major victory in 2017 when Uhuru’s re-election as President was overturned by the Supreme Court.
After a series of street battles and months of tension, after Odinga boycotted the repeat election, Kenyans woke up to another surprise truce —between Uhuru and Raila.
The ‘handshake’, as it came to be known, would restore calm, but it left cracks in the Jubilee party after Deputy President Ruto regarded it as a design to end his presidential bid in 2022.
Uhuru and Raila denied it then – but Ruto started a major campaign targeting the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga families as the rich ‘dynasties’ that wanted to rule Kenya forever.
To Uhuru, the Kenyatta family name has been both a boon and a bane.
During his tenure as President, Uhuru carried the Kenyatta burden, answering questions on family acquisitions that took place when he was a toddler in the 1960s — and which should really have been directed at his media-shy mother, Mama Ngina.
More so, it appears, he was supposed to inherit the British-engineered rivalry between the Kikuyu and the Luo as recent archival papers show.
Uhuru was also supposed to restore Jomo’s name and carry out the projects that he missed.
Some of this included recognition of Mau Mau freedom fighters with a heritage museum.
By the time he died in August 1978, Jomo Kenyatta’s image in central Kenya was at an all-time low.
By then, Jomo was more feared than revered, thanks to some excesses within his government and for failing to address the colonial land concerns. They nicknamed him ‘Kamaliza’ – and for a reason.
The 1965 murder of Pio Gama Pinto, the 1969 killing of Cabinet minister Tom Mboya and the 1975 assassination of populist Nyandarua North MP, JM Kariuki, had damaged the Jomo government’s credentials and threatened to soil his legacy as a statesman.
Besides that, the Kenyatta family had grown rich within the 15 years that he was in power. They had land.
They had money – and seemed to enjoy all the trappings of power. When challenged, the Kenyatta elite, the nouveau riche, and handlers reacted by organising unity rallies and crystallising power around an amorphous group, the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (Gema).
It was remnants of this group that Ruto targeted in his Mt Kenya campaigns. The campaign against dynasties was easy to sell.
Armed with deep pockets, an army of supporters, and the church platform, Ruto traversed the Mt Kenya region targeting the elites and running a quiet ‘hustler’ versus the rich and the bourgeoisie.
A class war led by pseudo-hustlers had hit central Kenya’s peasantry — who were reminded of the Jomo Kenyatta era and its excesses.
The ghosts of the 1960s and 1970s were evoked and any effort by Uhuru to right societal wrongs, including his fight against corruption, was seen within the narrow lenses of dynasty versus hustler.
More so, Raila was showcased as the ‘enemy’ of Mt Kenya since his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga opposed Jomo Kenyatta — a paradox since Jomo was also touted as the cause of the Mt Kenya troubles.
It was these politics that partly informed the voting patterns in the recent elections in which Raila’s efforts to penetrate Mt Kenya bore little fruit.
Even in Uhuru’s own Mutomo village, the President could not convince his voters to back Raila – a man he once ostracised.
At the moment, Uhuru’s popularity in his own Mt Kenya backyard is at an all-time low and not even the massive infrastructure projects he implemented appear to have resonated with the populace eager to punish him for backing Raila.
With the rejection of Uhuru, it appears that Kenyattaism in central Kenya is, for now, a mirage.
But whether this marks its end in the Mt Kenya region will depend on the role that Uhuru will play to restore the damaged family image.
It was Uhuru who rescued his family’s name in Kenyan politics.
Some 10 years later, he has left even the extended family divided – with his cousin, Captain Kungu Muigai, becoming the main opponent of the Uhuru-Raila alliance. It will be interesting to watch how the Kenyattas move after this.
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