x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Jury's out on Kenya's new president Uhuru Kenyatta

An election won by the thinnest of margins as well as a count plagued by delays and spoilt ballots both made for a colourful presidential win for the man who now sits atop Kenyan politics.

Uhuru Kenyatta (Kagan McLeod for The National)
Uhuru Kenyatta (Kagan McLeod for The National)

An election won by the thinnest of margins as well as a count plagued by delays and spoilt ballots both made for a colourful presidential win for the man who now sits atop Kenyan politics.

Uhuru Kenyatta squeaked home with 50.07 per cent of the vote in last week's election to become the fourth president of the Republic of Kenya. He is no stranger to the limelight in the East African state, which celebrates half a century of independence this year. As the son of the nation's founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the 51-year-old has become Kenya's history man in almost every sense of the word. Not only will he be the first son of a president to take the reins of power in a competitive election in East and Central Africa, but he will also be sworn in as the country's youngest ever head of state. He is also heir to one of the most substantial fortunes in the republic.

While history looks to have played a major part in his success, Kenyatta brings with him a rather less salubrious piece of baggage to the presidency - a grim indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, allegedly committed after the country's last presidential election in 2007.

Many observers believed that such a charge would cause his bid for the State House - Kenya's equivalent of the White House - to collapse around his electoral ears. Instead, it provided a sensational fillip for both Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto.

Ruto, making up a total of three defendants, is also awaiting trial at the ICC for his alleged role in the post-election violence in which around 1,000 people were killed. Many observers say this figure vastly underrates the atrocity, and claim that tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes in terror. Both men deny the charges.

For many analysts, Kenyatta's rise to the highest office in the land - should he fend off his main rival, prime minister Raila Odinga, who has pledged to fight the result of the election in court - owes much to Kenya's palpable dislike of foreign interference in its domestic concerns.

This was embodied not least by the ICC's charges, which will make Kenyatta the second current president in the African continent to be indicted by the tribunal, after the Sudanese leader Omar Al Bashir, who was charged with war crimes over the conflict in Darfur.

A man who makes up for his lack of flair for public speaking with a talent for being a persuasive, political force, Kenyatta galvanised domestic distaste for the ICC's presence in Kenyan and African affairs to garner enough votes to avoid a second-round runoff (and contributed to a record 86 per cent turnout).

However, this came despite apparent electoral inconsistencies that prompted Odinga, who secured 43 per cent of the casting ballots, to question the validity of the count and to take his complaints to the highest judicial authority in the land.

Kenyatta's success will give both the US and the UK - Kenya's former colonial master - some food for thought after their less-than-fulsome praise of the then-candidate in the run-up to the election.

In his victory speech, he said: "Today, we celebrate the triumph of democracy, the triumph of peace, the triumph of nationhood. Despite the misgivings of many in the world, we demonstrated a level of political maturity that surpassed expectations. That is the real victory today. A victory for our nation. A victory that demonstrates to all that Kenya has finally come of age. That this, indeed, is Kenya's moment."

And, in a none-too subtle warning to the watching world, he added: "We expect the international community to respect the sovereignty and democratic will of the people of Kenya. The Africa star is shining brightly and the destiny of Africa is now in our hands."

As the son of Kenya's first independent president, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta's journey to political statesman almost began from birth on October 26, 1961, two years before Kenya threw off the shackles of British colonial rule. His mother, his father's fourth wife, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, once described her son as "a model son, the best that a mother can hope for". She made certain that he learnt the local Kikuyu language, which, from his early days as a practising politician, eased his ability to connect with his fellow citizens in Kenya's more rural areas. The young "Uhuru" - Swahili for freedom - grew up surrounded by power and privilege, and rubbed shoulders with the great and the good of Kenyan high society. His online photo album even includes a shot with the man he is replacing in the top job, Mwai Kibaki, who is pictured presenting the young Kenyatta with an award in history.

As one would expect from a wealthy family, Kenyatta attended one of the top schools in Nairobi where he played on the wing for a rugby team. From there, he left for the United States and studied political science and economics at Amherst College, Massachusetts. Growing up, and despite (or perhaps because of) his father's prominent position as a national institution, Kenyatta distanced himself from the rough and tumble of the Kenyan political scene. He saw himself as just another citizen of a young state that was still trying to find its feet on the international stage. Returning to his native land as a graduate, he established a horticulture venture. He later sold this enterprise to concentrate on the family businesses that his father had left behind on his death in 1978.

But, domestic politics couldn't be avoided for long. In July 1990, he joined four other sons of leading politicians to deliver a statement calling on the then-governing Kenya African National Union (Kanu) to do more to free up the state's political parameters. Many people anticipated a fierce response from the then-president Daniel arap Moi, who had succeeded Kenya's founding father as both the head of the party and head of state. Instead, Kenyatta was brought onside by the leader, who channelled the young man's inherent drive into the heart of Kenya's political establishment

Becoming a fierce advocate of the Kanu party - which had ruled Kenya since independence in 1963 - Kenyatta's own chance for political glory came in 2002 when Moi, ruling himself out of the running, designated his then-42-year-old protégé as a presidential candidate. The move hit the buffers when key figures of the ruling party, such as Odinga and the then-vice-president, George Saitoti, left Kanu in protest, and Kenyatta was trounced by the eventual winner, Kibaki.

The 2007 presidential elections saw Kenyatta throw his weight behind Kibaki as he took on a challenge from Odinga, who sought to prevent the then-president from winning a second term in office. But, Odinga's bid failed and when Kibaki was declared the winner, Odinga contested the result and the streets erupted in violence. This event, contends the ICC, saw Kenyatta fund a local militia for the sole purpose of undertaking reprisal attacks.

In spite of the controversy and violence, which raged after the 2007 poll, the married father-of-three soon became one of the nation's two deputy prime ministers and also minister of trade in Kibaki's administration. Later, he was appointed to the finance brief where he issued a directive forcing high-ranking government officials to give up their luxurious Mercedes-Benz vehicles for Volkswagen Passats.

Eager to step out from the shadows of both Moi and Kibaki and stamp his own authority on the political stage, Kenyatta ditched Kanu and established The National Alliance (TNA) in 2012. His bid for the presidency soon took flight, as did his technological know-how - interacting on social media and portraying himself and his political compatriots as Kenya's "digital team".

Kenyatta, ranked by Forbes magazine as the 23rd wealthiest individual in Africa, may have won the presidential contest but, in the short-term at least, his victory brings little in the way of clarity to Kenya's immediate future.

For example, should Odinga taste further defeat after making good on his promise to take the result of the election to the Supreme Court, how would his supporters take the news?

And, what of the political alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto? Some observers have predicted that the fragile ethnic union that has bound the two men will not last. And, then there is the small matter of the ICC indictments hanging over the heads of both. For Kenyatta, they are hardly conducive to the role and responsibility of an elected head of state presiding over a 40-million-plus population. As he prepares to appear before the Dutch-based court in July, president-elect Kenyatta, as Kenya itself, is already living in interesting times.