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Uhuru Kenyatta: inscrutable leader leaves a mixed legacy

By Ammu KANNAMPILLY
Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta was unable to run again after serving two terms as president.  By YASUYOSHI CHIBA AFPFile
SEP 13, 2022 LISTEN
Uhuru Kenyatta was unable to run again after serving two terms as president. By YASUYOSHI CHIBA (AFP/File)

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 disassociate the outgoing leader from his family, which ranks among Kenya's richest, with two of Kenya's four presidents emerging from the Kenyatta dynasty.

Unable to run again after two terms at the helm, his endorsement of historic arch-rival Raila Odinga appeared a cunning move by a kingmaker seeking to influence Kenya's future long after retirement.

But the play backfired.

His deputy and once close ally William Ruto secured victory -- and Kenyatta found himself rebuked even in his own heartland, as voters in Mount Kenya turned out for his opponent.

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

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

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

He also strengthened its status as an East African economic powerhouse, launching several major infrastructure projects including a Nairobi expressway inaugurated in July.

But these projects also caused Kenya's debt to balloon to about $70 billion.

In his final address to the nation on the eve of Ruto's inauguration, Kenyatta said the economy had tripled under his watch and Kenya was on track to becoming a middle-income country.

"In all the work I have done as president... I have been guided by the dream of our forefathers: to eliminate poverty, ignorance and disease, to improve the quality of life of all Kenyans and to create conditions for everyone to achieve their dreams," he said.

Political alliances

His avowed fight against corruption has prompted bemusement and even ridicule among Kenyans who have long seen the Kenyatta family as the embodiment of the elite stranglehold on power.

His father Jomo served as independent Kenya's first president and the family is the country's largest landowner, with an empire that includes dairy giant Brookside, the NCBA bank and television 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 US and entered politics in the mid-1990s.

Over the years "the prince of Kenyan politics" has allied himself with leaders across the spectrum, from the autocrat Daniel arap Moi -- an early mentor -- to former president Mwai Kibaki, whom he backed in the 2007 election.

That 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, that saw more than 1,100 people killed.

In 2013, Kenyatta -- a Kikuyu -- allied 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 eventually collapsed because of what the prosecution said was a relentless campaign of witness intimidation.

Kenyatta's 2017 re-election bid plunged the country into turmoil, as police cracked down on opposition protests to deadly effect.

His victory was annulled by the Supreme Court, but he won a re-run after his then opponent Odinga boycotted the process.

But in March 2018, the two men stunned the nation by shaking hands and declaring a truce -- known simply as "the handshake" -- that consigned Ruto to the sidelines.

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

Many saw the constitutional proposals, which included the creation of a new prime ministerial post allegedly earmarked for Kenyatta, as a final bid to stay in power after his last term as president.

'Party animal'

Kenya's global profile rose under his watch. He welcomed foreign investors and a succession of visiting dignitaries including former US president Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

Some diplomatic sources characterise 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 churchgoer, he easily mixes with ordinary Kenyans, eagerly gets down on the dance floor and joshes in the local youth slang.

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

Despite many Kenyans suspecting Kenyatta will keep his hand in the game, he himself has dismissed the speculation.

"I don't want to remain in power as they allege. This is a difficult job," he told a prayer service last month.

"Ten years for me is enough."

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