TROUBLED SUCCESSION

'Curse' of the deputy president: Mirror images of Moi and Ruto's struggles

Being a heartbeat away from the throne is no assurance of success

In Summary

• In succession, the deputy president is always the focal person because he is a heartbeat away from the presidency. But rising to State House is far from assured.

• Kenyan history is replete with the humiliation of the deputy president since Oginga Odinga's time. Many say the position is cursed. 

It's often said Kenyan deputy presidents are cursed when it comes to ascending to the presidency.
WHO WILL IT BE? It's often said Kenyan deputy presidents are cursed when it comes to ascending to the presidency.
Image: DEPOSITPHOTOS.COM

During the 2017 presidential elections, Deputy President William Ruto described the opposition coalition Nasa as clueless, rudderless, leaderless and disorganised. Two years later, nothing better describes the Jubilee Party and government under President Uhuru Kenyatta. The centre does not hold anymore as the President serves his last term while succession politics is unbridled.

It is a script typical of founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s last years in office. Moi’s biographer Andrew Morton says the ruling party Kanu had become ineffectual and Kenya was known as the “no party state”. Because of Mzee’s ill health, he had lost his grip on government, the elites around him wielded power and pursued their own political interests.

In the two periods, the senior and junior Kenyattas are deputised by Daniel Moi and Ruto, respectively. The title Vice President has since been replaced with Deputy President. Ruto is Moi’s 'political prodigal son', a hustler by no means and arguably, the presidential succession is coincidentally 'family business' that Kenyans are unwittingly drawn into.

 
 

In presidential succession, the deputy president is always the focal person because he is a heartbeat away from the presidency. Holders of the office are often opposed and humiliated. Kenyan history is replete with scenes of the humiliation of the deputy president since Oginga Odinga’s time. Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Dr Josphat Karanja and Prof George Saitoti were no different, nor is Ruto. In fact, many have argued that the position is a cursed one. 

When Daniel Webster was offered the American vice presidency on the Whig Party ticket in 1848, he quipped, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead.”

While Uhuru has not directly opposed his deputy’s political ambitions, he has tacitly done so in his public speeches, body language and through his 'politburo'. Project Stop Ruto is in high gear. As in King Lear, Ruto is not the king's favourite daughter. It was not unexpected.

The first term of Uhuru’s regime saw Ruto at the centre of government. Perhaps because it was a coalition government of URP and TNA, and because Uhuru needed him for his re-election. Uhuru once handed over the instruments of power to Ruto when he headed to The Hague to attend the case against him before the International Criminal Court. It is no more. The music has stopped and so has the bromance tango.

This is a case of history repeating itself, a deja vu of Moi’s tribulations with the State House elites around Jomo who could not fathom how a person like Moi, without pedigree and not from the 'right ethnicity' could succeed Mzee. The open resistance against Ruto mirrors the very same beaten path that Moi had to endure before eventual ascension to power after Mzee’s demise — save that unlike Mzee, Uhuru is young and in good health and therefore may play a key role in his succession.

Exit Koinange, Enter Matiang'i

Jomo’s government was mostly populated by his relatives and close-knit Kikuyu elites, especially from his Kiambu backyard. This would set a precedent for subsequent presidents entrenching an ethnic presidency. When his health deteriorated, the worrying debate of his succession began in low tones but the man at the centre of it was his deputy, Moi.

As Vice President, Moi was also the Minister of Home Affairs whose portfolio included the Police, General Service Unit, and Special Branch. In 1975, these duties were transferred to Mbiyu Koinange’s docket in the Office of the President, leaving Moi with the prison docket only. Koinange was Mzee’s brother-in-law who was seen as the real power behind the throne and heir apparent.

 
 

The weakening of Moi began in earnest by diluting his position through administrative sabotage and contempt. For example, when J.M. Kariuki was assassinated, Moi was still in charge of internal security. The police gave him misleading information that he reported to Parliament — J.M. Kariuki’s whereabouts were unknown when, in fact, his remains had been found and identified. This was an embarrassing moment, making the Vice President apologise to Parliament and the nation. He was kept outside government where he was supposedly second in command.

The first term of Uhuru’s regime saw Ruto at the centre of government. Perhaps because it was a coalition government of URP and TNA, and because Uhuru needed him for his re-election. Uhuru once handed over the instruments of power to Ruto when he headed to The Hague to attend the case against him before the International Criminal Court. It is no more. The music has stopped and so has the bromance tango.

Whereas the President has the discretion to delegate duties to any of his Cabinet Secretaries, Executive Order No.1 of 2019 drove the nail into the coffin. The President appointed Fred Matiang'i, Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Co-ordination of National Government, to be chairman of the National Development Implementation and Communication Committee, supervising all national government projects.

Matiang'i had earned his stripes as a no-nonsense hard-working Cabinet Secretary, a John Michuki of Uhuru’s government. There was nothing illegal about this appointment, however, it was politically expected that in restructuring government, the President would entrust his principal assistant, Ruto, with the execution of this important function.

The super Cabinet Secretary, however, oversteps his mandate and sometimes has become so powerful that he engages in politics and openly issues subtle threats to the Deputy President, his supposed boss. In the current constitutional architecture, Cabinet Secretaries ought not to engage in politics. It is said elsewhere that Matiangi, good luck to him, is positioning himself for the 2022 presidential race.

The La Mada accusations conjure up the Ng’oroko ghost during Mzee’s time...after Kenyatta’s death was made public, the Ng’orokos mounted roadblocks along the Nakuru-Nairobi Highway to prevent Moi from leaving his Kabarak home.

The state department of Interior has traditionally been domiciled in the Office of the President and holds the levers of power to serve the president’s needs and more often entrenching an imperial presidency. Historically, it has been used to control security organs, regional administration and sometimes public service to bend to State House’s political agenda. It is the deep state’s residence.

The Road to BBI 

Unlike the current Constitution which provides that in the event of the death of the president, the deputy president shall take over for the remainder of the term, the Independence Constitution was different. It provided that in the event of the president's death, the vice president would take over for 90 days before an election. Because of the small democratic space then, the ensuing election would just be a formality to instal the incumbent.

In 1976, Jomo’s health was not comforting and the danger of Moi taking over was real. A coterie of politicians around Jomo, mostly drawn from the Mount Kenya region, devised a plan to amend the Constitution to bar the vice president from automatically taking over — the Change the Constitution group. The group even reached out to Oginga Odinga, who while in the political cold after the activities of KPU, he still held great sway among his followers, more particularly from the Nyanza region who gladly joined the party.

It took the intervention of the then Attorney General Charles Njonjo to stop the momentum. He decreed that it was a criminal offence to “compass, imagine, devise or intend the death or deposition of the President”. This thinly veiled threat did not have a legal backing but eased off the Change the Constitution group, which would later be rebuked by the president himself.

The Building Bridges Initiative was birthed by the handshake of Uhuru and opposition leader Raila Odinga to save a country which was falling apart after the latter swore himself in as the people’s president following botched presidential election. It has achieved the purpose of taming Raila and allowing Uhuru to finish his term with less turbulence.

Hardly do kings entertain the talk of succeeding them while they are alive, they tend to immortalise themselves.

The unclenching of fists by the two leaders and the BBI process ostensibly excluded Ruto, as Senate Majority leader Kipchumba Murkomen tellingly lamented during the launch of the BBI report. The political process that ensued including calls for constitutional reforms created further rifts and buttressed the conversation that the BBI intended to create positions for the political elite, including Uhuru extending his term through the back door as prime minister. The BBI report was, however, underwhelming and the plane has refused to take off. Even though the President has extended the term for the BBI task force, BBI is unlikely to influence succession equation before 2022.

The Ng’orokos and La Mada Plot

Assassination is an effective political tool all over the world. Kenya has had its fair share of assassinations and attempts. The Deputy President and his allies have publicly claimed that there are attempts on his life by named Cabinet and Principal Secretaries who had been meeting at the La Mada Hotel in Nairobi to plot. These serious allegations are still under investigations and the named persons summoned by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations.  

The La Mada accusations conjure up the Ng’oroko ghost during Mzee’s time. Ng’oroko is the name for cattle rustlers in the Rift Valley. In a bid to end cattle rustling,  a specially trained police unit was established and stationed just at the outskirts of Nakuru town. The unit was headed by then powerful Rift Valley police boss James Mungai. James Mungai with his high connection to the elites around Jomo, especially Mbiyu Koinange, would humiliate Moi numerous times. He would routinely set up roadblocks for the Vice President’s motorcade to and from his Nakuru home. He also ordered embarrassing searches of Moi’s home, offices and farms following spurious allegations.

The Ng’orokos name would be used interchangeably to refer to both the rustlers and the special police unit, later the Anti-Stock Theft Unit. With Ng’orokos under Mungai and membership drawn from one ethnicity, it was a special political force funded by both the state and highly placed politicians meant to protect power from slipping through the fingers of State House elites.

In fact, after Kenyatta’s death was made public, the Ng’orokos mounted roadblocks along the Nakuru-Nairobi Highway to prevent Moi from leaving his Kabarak home. But unbeknownst to them, Moi had outmanoeuvred them and was already on his way to Nairobi. There is little rebuttal on the Ng’orokos. Former senior intelligence officer Bart Joseph Kibati in his memoir dismisses the story. The Ng’orokos file has not been declassified but remains a subject of considerable public discourse in Kenyan history.

Whereas the presidency is open to any qualified person in a democratic society like ours, the deputy president may naturally feel entitled to inherit his boss's job but this is not always the case. And besides, hardly do kings entertain the talk of succeeding them while they are alive, they tend to immortalise themselves. Ruto seems to have made peace with the fact that his boss might not support his candidature in the 2022 elections and he is on the record that he is ready to shelve his ambitions. Let us see what 2020 brings forth. Happy New Year.

Advocate of the High Court of Kenya