Uhuru Kenyatta: an inscrutable leader leaves a mixed legacy

Uhuru Kenyatta was unable to run again after serving two terms as president – Copyright AFP/File YASUYOSHI CHIBA


Puppet or strategist, dilettante or power-hungry heir?

After nearly 10 years in power and a mixed legacy, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta remains an enigma to many Kenyans as he leaves office.

But one thing is certain: it is impossible to dissociate the outgoing leader from his family, which is among the richest in Kenya, with two of the four Kenyan presidents from the Kenyatta dynasty.

Unable to stand again after two terms at the helm, his endorsement of historic rival Raila Odinga appeared as a shrewd move by a kingmaker seeking to influence Kenya’s future long after his retirement.

But the game turned against him.

His deputy and once-close ally, William Ruto, won – and Kenyatta found himself chastised even in his own heart, as Mount Kenya voters voted for his opponent.

True to form, his motivations or future plans remain unclear.

But many believe he will build on the diplomatic legacy created since his re-election in 2017.

The 60-year-old has worked hard to elevate Kenya’s international stature and shaped himself as a regional statesman, seeking to resolve conflicts in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It has also cemented its status as an East African economic powerhouse, launching several major infrastructure projects, including a Nairobi highway inaugurated in July.

But these projects have also pushed Kenya’s debt up to around $70 billion.

In his final address to the nation on the eve of Ruto’s inauguration, Kenyatta said the economy had tripled under his leadership and Kenya was on course to become a middle-income country.

“In all my work as President…I have been guided by the dream of our ancestors: to eradicate poverty, ignorance and disease, to improve the quality of life of all Kenyans and to create the conditions for everyone to achieve their dreams,” he said.

– Political alliances –

His avowed fight against corruption has sparked bewilderment and even ridicule among Kenyans who have long seen the Kenyatta family as the epitome of elite grip on power.

Her father Jomo was Kenya’s first independent president and the family is the country’s largest landowner, with an empire that includes dairy giant Brookside, NCBA bank and TV broadcaster Mediamax.

His own fortune was estimated at $500 million by Forbes in 2011.

Born to Jomo and his fourth wife “Mama” Ngina in October 1961, Uhuru (“freedom” in Swahili) studied in the United States and entered politics in the mid-1990s.

Over the years, “the prince of Kenyan politics” has allied himself with leaders from all walks of life, from autocrat Daniel arap Moi – one of the earliest mentors – to former President Mwai Kibaki, whom he supported in the 2007 elections.

This disputed vote led to an eruption of politically motivated tribal violence largely involving two of Kenya’s main ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, which left more than 1,100 people dead.

In 2013, Kenyatta – a Kikuyu – allied himself with Ruto, a Kalenjin, and was elected president.

Both were indicted by the International Criminal Court for their role in the 2007-2008 killings, but the cases ultimately fell through due to what the prosecution said was a relentless campaign of witness intimidation.

Kenyatta’s re-election bid in 2017 threw the country into turmoil, as police cracked down on opposition protests with deadly effect.

His victory was overturned by the Supreme Court, but he won a new race after then-opponent Odinga boycotted the process.

But in March 2018, the pair stunned the nation by shaking hands and declaring a truce – known simply as a “handshake” – which relegated Ruto to the sidelines.

Kenyatta’s pet political project, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which aimed to broaden the executive, hit a snag after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal.

Many saw the constitutional proposals, which included the creation of a new prime minister’s post supposedly reserved for Kenyatta, as a last ditch attempt to stay in power after his final term as president.

– ‘Party animal’ –

Kenya’s global profile has risen under his leadership. It has hosted foreign investors and a succession of visiting dignitaries, including former US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

Some diplomatic sources characterize him as “a party animal who didn’t want the job” while others describe him as an astute politician with a common touch “who knows how to talk to people”.

A regular at churches, he mixes easily with ordinary Kenyans, eagerly hits the dance floor and jokes around in the slang of local youths.

His shy brother Muhoho manages the family’s finances, while Kenyatta would enjoy driving around Nairobi late at night, incognito and protected by a handful of bodyguards.

Although many Kenyans suspect Kenyatta of keeping his hand in the game, he himself dismissed the speculation.

“I don’t want to stay in power as they claim. It’s hard work,” he said at a prayer service last month.

“Ten years for me is enough.”