On Thursday March 17, 2022, a less-than-attention seeking alert came from State House, Nairobi. State House spokesperson, Kanze Dena, whose unstated job description is oftentimes covering the tracks for her boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta, read a bland press statement, which in part said; “The President did not convene nor postpone any such meeting; therefore, the information is false and misleading.”
She was responding to a purported rendezvous that the President had planned to have with Mt Kenya legislators – MPs, senators and governors – the following day. It wasn’t going to be the first meeting that the president would be convening with political leaders from his backyard. He has on several times done so. Big deal. What was strange was that the President was denying any knowledge of such a meeting being arranged in his name.
The alleged invite read: “Good evening mheshimiwa, I wish to invite you for a meeting of all MPs, senators and governors from Mt Kenya at State House, Nairobi on Friday, 18th March 2022 from 10am. Kindly conform attendance now.” The invite sent to the leaders, through their mobile phone numbers, was by Jeremiah Kioni, MP Ndaragwa, who replaced Raphael Tuju as the Jubilee Party secretary-general, just a few weeks ago. It could have been one of his very first secretarial duties as SG that he was undertaking on behalf of the party boss, President Uhuru.
It is doubly inconceivable that a secretary-general of a ruling party can wake up one early morning and conjure up a meeting on behalf of the President, without his prior consent. Better still, go right ahead to plan it, even send out invites, all the while, the president is in the dark. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the SG was not reprimanded for embarrassing the boss, possibly for showing over-zealousness in executing one of his newly acquired powerful duties. But state houses are places where shenanigans are always not far from reality.
Kikuyu constituency MP, Kimani Ichung’wa did not waste time replying to the text message – not on his mobile phone – but on his twitter handle: “Too little too late. Am busy.” How many other MPs, senators or even governors may not have had the time to attend, leave alone to confirm their attendance, but were too freaked out to say so?
It is true, the President is on his way out, with just four months, to what is being billed as one of the most hotly contested succession presidential elections in recent times. How else do you explain a “mere” MP’s effrontery in “telling off” the President in six easy words and not flinch?
But President Uhuru is in numerous company: His one-time political father and mentor, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, who was much more powerful, a much more hands-on president, a tinpot dictator and larger-than-life president or so he imagined, woke up one day, in his last days as a ruler, to find out ministers he used to cow were now telling him, “no sir.”
A former powerful cabinet minister in Moi’s government in the 1990s one time narrated to me how the all-powerful Moi came face-to-face with silent rebellion from his ministers. This was in 2001. A year to the December 2002 general elections. After winning his second term in 1997, with 40.7 per cent, he had no choice but to begin plotting his succession.
For two decades he had ruled with iron-grip, brooking no dissent, violently clamping down on the opposition, whether in his own ruling party Kanu, or afterwards in the fledgling opposition. Cabinet ministers in public barazas when talking to him, stood erect, held their heads aloft and their hands behind their back like schoolboys speaking to their headmaster and, if he talked to you when seated, you knelt before him.
But nothing lasts forever. “So, you can imagine Moi’s seething fury when he would call a particular minister to ask him whether he had accomplished a task he had issued. ‘I’m still working on it’ came the minister’s nonchalant reply. That’s when it dawned on Moi his game and time was up. His last days in office were beckoning…and there’s nothing he could do to stop the tide.”
Four months to the 2002 elections, Moi mourned publicly how some ministers had deserted him, “yet, I’m the one who had made them.” Vice President George Saitoti, whom he had one time publicly humiliated, powerful Kanu secretary-general and minister Joseph Kamotho, whose party position had been taken away and given to Raila Odinga, powerful cabinet minister and one-time Moi’s bosom buddy and confidante, William ole Ntimama had walked out of Kanu and trooped to the opposition, to join Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), then headed by the recalcitrant Raila Odinga who had also deserted Moi, after a brief, but stormy bromance. Simeon Nyachae, an equally all-powerful minister, who at one time styled himself as a de facto prime minister, also walked out on Moi and headed straight into the opposition ranks.
Kamotho, Ntimama, Nyachae and Saitoti, just like Moi, are all dead.
“A minister never waited for Moi to call him, would never answer Moi back. ‘I’m still working on it’, is a statement Moi had never in his presidential life countenanced from someone he had picked to serve as his minister at his pleasure. But here he was, the ministers were telling him, in not so many words, ‘your time sir is up and you no longer inspire fear in us.’ Moi was both feared and respected, Uhuru is nether feared nor respected,” said the former minister.
Moi was so powerful, he once boasted to one of his former and retired presidential guards, “when I’m speaking in Mombasa, the District Commissioner (DC) in Marsabit stands attention.” Marsabit from Mombasa is 1000km. It was not an empty boast: Senior civil servants and ministers moved around with shortwave transistor radios to catch the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) news at 1.00pm news to learn whether they still had a job.
In 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta reached out to this Moi former minister and asked him to be his special adviser, working for him from State House. “All the time President Uhuru has been at State House, he has neither inspired fear nor respect. The Jubilee Party MPs especially from Central Kenya, don’t have much regard for him, much less fear him, they privately gossip about his onerous drinking habits, which interferes with his presidential duties.”
When Uhuru was nominally elected on August 8, 2017, he summoned Jubilee Party new and re-elected MPs to State House for a breakfast showdown. “He was soaking drunk,” remembers a first-time MP from Central Kenya. “We’d been asked to arrive early and so arriving early we did. But of course, he kept us waiting. When he showed up, he was in the foulest of moods. He cajoled and condescended, lectured and patronised and talked down on us. He told us he didn’t need us and dared anyone who felt slighted to take a walk.”
Afterwards, the MP told me they were flustered, in disbelief and shock. “How could the President-elect who was yet to be sworn-in, and was meeting us for the first time, talk to us like his children?” They hastily took the breakfast, which was now tasteless and scurried out of State House. “What was that?” They asked, after recollecting themselves to exchange notes on their encounter with the prince. “Uhuru has done a good job of belittling us, but our day will come,” the MPs consoled themselves.
Less than a month after the breakfast debacle, the President was now begging to have the MPs audience. The Supreme Court of Kenya (SCOK) had on September 1, 2017, upturned his victory. A repeat election had to be conducted in not more than 60 days from the day of the judgement.
Just last week, I caught up with a parliamentary aspirant from Central Kenya. “President Uhuru has been engaging in the dialogue of the deaf,” he opined. “The Mt Kenya political leaders shut their ears a long time ago. Whatever he says to them enters into one ear leaves in the other. They neither fear nor respect him. Of all the region’s senators, only one has publicly stood with him. Many sitting MPs abhor him, but won’t be caught expressing their dissatisfaction publicly. Uhuru is temperamental and very vindictive, yet like his two predecessors his days in the office are numbered and they are beckoning. He better get used to it.”