Mukhisa Kituyi: inspired addition to familiar lineup for president

Traditionally, a compromise candidate is generally the weakest on offer, and one who doesn’t stoke tribal fears

In Summary

• As he prepares to depart UNCTAD to  run for President, there couldn’t be a better icing on the cake for his two distinguished terms at the global trade organisation.

• Perhaps Kituyi's strongest selling point is that in Kenya’s tribally charged and divisive politics, his ambition does not easily get attached to a tribe. But can he be a big player without a tribal base?

UNCTAD secretary general Mukhisa Kituyi.
FRESH FACE: UNCTAD secretary general Mukhisa Kituyi.

There was a significant happening last week that should probably have found a mainstream mention in local media.

Former Kimilili MP and outgoing UNCTAD secretary general Dr Mukhisa Kituyi was awarded by the AU Commission for his contributions toward the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area. It has been touted to be the world’s largest free trade area.

It is a $3.4 trillion (Sh374.6 trillion) market that will promote industrialisation, create jobs and improve the competitiveness of African industries on the global stage.

I don’t know how many times we have heard the promises of jobs, industries and competitive goods during political campaigns, but it sure feels really good to have a Kenyan associated with such a success story on the continental scene.

As he prepares to depart UNCTAD to February 15 o run for President, there couldn’t be a better icing on the cake for his two terms at the global organisation.

I first encountered Dr Kituyi in person in 1994, when he was Kimilili MP. At the time, I was one of the Ford Kenya youths taking part in the Webuye by-election occasioned by the nullification of the election of Musikari Kombo. Kombo had subsequently been banned from running in the by-election.

Kituyi (alongside then Ford Kenya deputy director of Elections Raila Odinga and Ugenya MP James Orengo) was one of the hard-hitting Young Turks whose witty speeches we looked forward to.

In our young minds, we were the next Sankaras and Gueveras of the land, and they were our mentors! Kituyi had a lethal manner of political delivery.

With a mild sneer and both English and Lubukusu punch lines, he went for the Moi regime’s jugular, leaving our young pseudo-revolutionary minds with a strange desire to march to State House and evict the sitting President, or find our way to Libya to be 'trained', as rumour had it those days. Of course, we did neither.

However, listening to one of the Second Liberation icons speak at close quarters was an experience worth its while. In subsequent years, Kituyi has charted a path quite unlike the typical Kenyan politician. He has left behind a stellar record as MP, minister and diplomat, and renowned trade negotiator at the highest level.

There is a public perception of Kituyi as arrogant, a man who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. I suspect this is a good thing because the last thing you want when confronted with the heavy challenges of running a weak economy and healing tribal divisions in this country is to hang around fools!

Perhaps the strongest selling point for Kituyi is that in Kenya’s tribally charged and divisive politics, his presidential ambition does not easily get attached to a tribe, for he is not beholden to ethnic formations that stoke fear in our elections.

The challenge, therefore, is whether without this tribal base to start with, he can position himself as a big player among the heavy hitters on the scene.

I have always told close friends that the ideal presidential ticket for this country would be that of the two retired generals, Daudi Tonje and Daniel Opande. They are the two Kenyans I know who have led a big institution and completely reformed it, despite opposition from within.

The modern Kenyan military owes a lot to the two generals, from the minor, like allowing women to marry and integrate into the rest of the military, to the major, like improved promotional and training structures.

However, it is their background in instilling utmost discipline that appeals to me in a country where the lack of it is spread across all sectors, right from political parties to the civil service.

In my view, Kituyi is the best illustration of this discipline from a civilian standpoint. Those who worked with him at the Ministry of Trade and Industry have painted a picture of a stickler for time and delivery timelines who wouldn’t brook any nonsense and excuses. You can’t beat the cartels any other way.

The next president of this country will find on his desk a catalogue of problems from unmet revenue targets caused by fiscal indiscipline, to security lapses from demotivated officers. And that is before he opens the corruption files to go after tribal lords, or hears the cry of young people asking for jobs and sports facilities!

Don’t get started on collapsed industries that will need to be resurrected because we could be here for a year.

Political aesthetics in this country are a good pointer to when birds of a feather have started flocking together. In the past few days, Kituyi has been pictured attending what looked like a birthday party for ODM chief Raila Odinga. If you don’t read too much into these things, your naivety is on another scale.

What I read from this is that Kituyi is aligning his presidential run with the Handshake side. Of the two sides of the current political divide, the Handshake camp appears to have the highest number of presidential contenders. The other side so far has just one, and doesn’t seem in a hurry to find another soon.

If indeed Kituyi has decided to run under the Uhuru-Raila umbrella, it would be interesting to know if he intends to go all the way despite the crowded field, or he will ultimately surrender to a consensus reached by the principals of that formation, Raila and Uhuru.

Traditionally, a compromise candidate is generally the weakest on offer, and one who doesn’t stoke tribal fears in those who surrender their dreams to him. Hopefully, consensus builders, in case of a compromise, will see Kituyi for the strong leader he is, and take a gamble on him.

However, in our politics, when you cross any bridge, you find many more that need building and crossing ahead. Kituyi will soon find out that the easier part is the declaration of interest in the race.

The bigger problem is ahead: Who will be his running mate, and how does he use this one slot to appeal to the major tribal voting blocs across the country?

If, for example, he ends up being the compromise candidate of the Handshake side, how does he 'bring' the powerful faces of Raila, Musalia Mudavadi , Kalonzo Musyoka and Senator Gideon Moi to the ticket without their being there?

Finally, given he does not preach the tribal agenda in his politics, how does he excite his own ancestral base to power his ambition to the top of this complicated political playground where the tribe is king?

Kituyi is a genuinely good candidate for high office in a country where politics is an unforgiving jungle, and the stakes are raised by the day. How he navigates these coming months will be interesting to watch.

But knowing the pitfalls that lie ahead, you can’t envy him at all!