Uhuru Kenyatta, then 29, made his first public foray in the world of politics in 1990. The country was in the grip of an acrimonious campaign to have the law amended to allow multiparty politics. President Daniel arap Moi had sworn this would never happen.
Out of the blues, Uhuru and four other former high school buddies issued a statement calling for constructive dialogue between the government and the multi-party crusaders, in order to reach a middle-ground. The powers that be hit the roof.
The ruling party’s Kanu mouthpiece – then Kenya Times newspaper – expressed the sense of betrayal felt in a page-one editorial commentary that dismissed Uhuru and his friends as “spoilt sons of privilege best advised to keep their mouths shut!”
The following year, Uhuru “gang of 5” presented their views at the Kanu Review Commission that had been appointed to try and cool tempers, and where they said time was ripe for multiparty politics. Vice President George Saitoti, who chaired the committee, couldn’t hide his disgust that the views were coming from, of all people, a son of the founding President Jomo Kenyatta.
Multi-party system indeed finally came at the end of 1991. The Kenyatta family was in the opposition; Uhuru rooted for Kenneth Matiba’s opposition Ford Asili party, while his mother, Mama Ngina, uncle George Muhoho, and cousins, Ngengi Muigai and Beth Mugo, fled with Mwai Kibaki to the Democratic Party.
It got President Moi on the edge. He could live with the rest of the larger Kenyatta family in the opposition. But the immediate Kenyatta family – that is Mama Ngina and his son Uhuru – in opposition? Moi tried everything to make peace with the former first family. Suddenly Uhuru Kenyatta went mute in his anti-Kanu rhetoric. He was back in the baba na mama party. But he wouldn’t go public about it. Not as yet.
Uhuru was torn between two political worlds. His heart was with the opposition, but pulled elsewhere by historical ties.
I personally got to witness it on three occasions. In the first, I had been invited for a chat over a drink by the then Kigumo MP, Kirore Mwaura, at the Pizza Gardens-Inn on Waiyaki Way. In the middle of the conversation, Uhuru dropped by and sat with us. It was the first of the only two times I have sat with him. I remember him saying on that occasion: “We are in a limbo as a country. The opposition has failed to unite hence made Kanu look the better of the two bad options we have!”
On another two occasions, I got the impression that much as Moi may have wooed young Uhuru to the Kanu fold, those close to the President weren’t too enthusiastic about it. I sensed that one day when Uhuru strode to Mayfair Hotel in Westlands.
I was seated by the swimming pool with a State House official, Hosea Kiplagat. When he saw Uhuru walking in, he hid his face with a newspaper so that they didn’t meet eye to eye. When I asked him why so, he replied he thought President Moi was being misled to think the Kenyatta family was with Kanu when “their hearts were in the opposition”!
On the next occasion, I was seated in the reception waiting to see the then bombastic Kanu secretary general, JJ Kamotho. Uhuru, then Thika Kanu branch chairman, walked in. I expected him to be ushered in first. To my surprise, I wasn’t only called in first, but JJ wasn’t in any hurry to finish with me – all along as the future President waited at the reception! I got the impression JJ was sending a coded message to the young man.
But there was no stopping President Moi. Come 1997, he pulled all stops to ensure Uhuru was front-runner in that year’s Gatundu South parliamentary contest. But, alas, even the best laid plans can go haywire.
Sensing he would heavily lose to Uhuru, the opposition candidate devised a devious scheme to turn tables. Two days to the polling day, he went “missing”. His co-conspirators duped the media that he had been kidnapped by Kanu (read Uhuru) agents. A vehicle similar to his was dumped near the Kenyatta family home and blood splashed all over to imply he had been murdered. He resurfaced on the polling day, but the damage had already been done. Uhuru lost the election.
But Moi never gave up. He would nominate Uhuru to Parliament, appoint him to the Cabinet, and finally bulldoze his presidential candidacy in 2002 election. Uhuru lost. Moi went into retirement. Uhuru was now on his own.
Left alone, the chick had to quickly learn how to duck the hawks and hide from the mongoose. Cleverly, Uhuru fast conceded defeat and pledged to work with the new rulers. But the new wielders of power were in no mood for ceasefire.
Within a month of taking over power, one early morning, newly appointed minister for Tourism, Raphael Tuju, released an executive order to the effect that, by the close of the day, Uhuru and Kanu vacate the iconic Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) which had been the party headquarters. They did. The following day, Tuju triumphantly marched to the KICC – a police riot squad in tow – and a horde of carpenters to change door locks in formerly Kanu offices.
Meanwhile, Uhuru got a court injunction to restrain Minister Tuju, and took it to police headquarters to be served on the minister. The police refused to open the gates for him and his supporters, and told them to get lost. When they became adamant, a tear gas canister was thrown their way and they scattered to the four winds.
Postscript: Wonders never cease in politics. The same Raphael Tuju in the KICC saga is the one who now has the President’s blessings to make sure that a group called Tanga Tanga gets nowhere near Jubilee Party headquarters — and has a riot squad at his disposal just in case of any breach. Nothing personal: Just business!