President Uhuru Kenyatta hails from the elite but has a reputation for the common touch. By SIMON MAINA (AFP)
Nairobi (AFP) – The son of Kenya’s founding president and a man who epitomises the country’s elite, Uhuru Kenyatta hopes to win a second and final five-year term in elections on August 8.
The 55-year-old US-educated multi-millionaire, whose family owns an array of businesses, properties and tracts of land, followed in his father’s footsteps when he defeated his rival Raila Odinga in 2013.
Kenyatta won that poll despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) along with his running mate, William Ruto, for alleged roles in orchestrating violence that left over 1,100 dead after the previous election in 2007.
Foreign powers, including Britain and the US, warned at the time that Kenya, under an ICC-indicted president, would be a pariah, but the threats proved empty.
In 2014 the ICC dropped charges against Kenyatta — and Ruto later — citing the disappearance of witnesses and lack of evidence.
Since then Kenya has welcomed President Barack Obama, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Pope Francis and hosted a string of international gatherings and conferences.
Privilege and wealth
Kenyatta’s first term has been defined by big spending on eye-catching infrastructure and impressive economic growth in a tough climate.
But this has gone hand-in-hand with spiralling debt and widening inequality.
Terrorism has also been a consistent threat during his presidency with Kenyatta being forced to address the nation in doleful terms on numerous occasions, notably after the 2013 Westgate mall attack and the 2015 Garissa university attack.
Kenyan presidents: from father to son
The former finance minister and deputy prime minister was born in 1961, shortly after his father Jomo Kenyatta was released from nearly a decade in British jails and before becoming Kenya’s first president in 1964. His first name means “freedom” in Kiswahili.
Educated at a private school in Nairobi and at Amherst College in the US, Kenyatta is regarded as a leader of the Kikuyu people, the country’s single largest ethnic group.
He is married with three children and regularly attends Catholic church.
In 2011 Forbes magazine estimated Kenyatta’s wealth at $500 million (423 million euros). Despite his elite background Kenyatta has a common touch. He easily mixes it up with ordinary Kenyans, eagerly gets down on the dance floor and joshes in the local youth slang and, in his younger years, earned a persistent reputation for partying hard.
A leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable described him as “bright and charming, even charismatic” but warned that “Kenyatta’s liabilities are at least as important as his strengths. He drinks too much and is not a hard worker.”
Kenyatta’s political career is a case study in pragmatism.
In the 1990s, he joined with the sons of other independence heroes to call for democratic reforms but then became a close ally of autocratic former president Daniel arap Moi who had him nominated as the ruling party’s candidate for the presidency in 2002.
Kenyatta lost to fellow Kikuyu politician Mwai Kibaki but then backed Kibaki’s successful re-election bid in 2007, against Odinga who, at the time was allied with Ruto.
The violent fall-out from the disputed result led to a power-sharing government in which Kibaki was president, Odinga prime minister and Kenyatta one of his deputies.
In 2013 the two ICC indictees, Kenyatta and Ruto, joined forces to defeat Odinga in a close and controversial election. Kenyatta won in the first round with a wafer-thin margin of 50.03 percent — a result Odinga disputed, unsuccessfully but peacefully this time, in court.
Kenyatta supporters, one wearing a mask of their champion, take part in a pre-election rally
The upcoming vote is a re-run of 2013 except that this time the opposition has united behind Odinga posing a serious challenge to Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party.
Opinion polls put the two neck and neck.
The election will most likely be the final act in a multi-generational political rivalry stretching back half a century to when Jomo Kenyatta and Odinga’s father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, vied for control of the nation.
If he wins, Kenyatta must stand down after one more term and, at 72, Odinga is regarded as too old to make another bid for the presidency in five years time. Both men’s children are still inexperienced in politics.