President Uhuru Kenyatta will be free to seek the country’s top job in 2022 once the laws are changed through a referendum, Central Organisation of Trade Unions secretary-general Francis Atwoli, a political mobiliser, activist and kingmaker, told the Sunday Nation this week in a wide-ranging interview during which he also admitted that he and his inner circle are looking to Russia for motivation and clues.
Comparing President Kenyatta’s current situation with that of Daniel Moi in the run-up to the 1992 elections — during which Mr Moi managed to get a fresh mandate to rule the country for another 10 years after the laws were changed to re-introduce multiparty politics — the feisty trade unionist who has been hosting delegations of senior politicians supporting the President at his home in Kajiado said the country should not be in a hurry to see Mr Kenyatta off just yet.
That, it appears, is a script he is not deviating from in the near future, and it seems to be calculated to gain acceptance among the allied political class the more it is repeated in the open. Depending on who you ask, this could be political communication genius, or a strategic blunder of enormous proportions. Whichever way, Mr Atwoli is sticking to his script.
“Uhuru can use the envisioned changes to remain President beyond 2022. Why are people pretending that they don’t know that Moi, after the constitutional changes of 1991, remained in power for another decade? Once the Constitution is changed, we’ll begin from the default and nothing stops Kenyatta from running again, and we will support him,” he said.
He was referring to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) taskforce report expected to be launched any time this month, and which proposes radical changes that will see the modification — some say correction — of the Executive arm of government, among others. The first BBI report proposed to re-introduce a prime ministerial position, and sources privy to the content of the final document told us that the same is captured in the yet-to-released final draft.
As if on cue, Mr Atwoli said Mr Kenyatta may as well choose an arrangement akin to that adopted by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 that saw President Putin swap places with Mr Medvedev. Mr Putin, a ruthless political strategist, bounced back as president in 2012 and still runs the show in Moscow after exhausting the initial maximum two terms in office.
“The same can happen here,” said Mr Atwoli. “President Kenyatta can take a junior position, wait for five or 10 years and then come back as President. He’s a young man and, most importantly, the provision will be constitutional once the laws are changed.”
Were that to happen, and assuming he wins both the 2022 and 2027 presidential elections, Mr Kenyatta would have the constitutional window to rule the country until 2032.
Soon after the President and ODM leader Raila Odinga struck a political truce in March 2018, Mr Atwoli declared that Mr Kenyatta was too young to go home after his term expires in 2022. His latest remarks reinforce that position, which has irked supporters of Deputy President William Ruto, who is keen to succeed Mr Kenyatta. The DP’s camp believes Mr Atwoli is a messenger for a larger political operation.
This week, however, President Kenyatta said he had no intention of clinging on to power when his term in office expires. Addressing a gathering in Kiambu County on Wednesday, Mr Kenyatta said that although he is “still young”, he has “no problem leaving State House” once his term ends.
“That is my desire, but I want to leave behind a peaceful and united country,” said the President.
By the time Section 2A was repealed following concerted pressure from the opposition, civil society and donor countries, Mr Moi had ruled for 14 years and remained in charge until he handed over to Mr Mwai Kibaki in 2002, and even then it took a united opposition to kick Kanu out of office after 40 straight years at the helm. Section 2A had been added to the Constitution following the coup attempt of 1982, and served to consolidate power around the presidency and stifle dissent.
The Sunday Nation understands that Mr Atwoli’s views are fast gaining currency among a team of elders who have styled themselves as kingmakers, and who have lately been trooping to Kajiado to consult with the Cotu leader. That group feels — and openly claims — that Mr Ruto has failed their test to take over from Mr Kenyatta, and Jubilee Party vice-chairman David Murathe, a member of the club, is the loudest of them all.
“The DP has been on probation; he has been tested and all this time they were trying to see whether they can leave this country in his hands. Unfortunately, the verdict is out there,” said Mr Murathe.
That clique of Ruto detractors has in recent days attracted senior government officials, including Cabinet Secretaries, who ordinarily should be apolitical. The most vocal of them has been Environment CS Keriako Tobiko, who referred to Mr Ruto, his administrative senior in government, as a “mere clerk”.
Mr Atwoli approves that derision. “We would be keen to recruit Mr Tobiko,” he said. “We see he’s also aligned. He was right; Ruto is Uhuru’s clerk by virtue of being the principal assistant and we want to see him behave as one.”
Mr Atwoli also has nice words for Mr Murathe, who, despite belonging to the same party as the DP, vehemently opposes Mr Ruto’s presidential bid.
“He is one of the few forthright, open-minded and highly principled Kenyans we have,” said Mr Atwoli of Murathe. “I like someone who speaks his mind, not sycophants. And contrary to what many assume, the President does not send him say the things he does.”
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While Mr Atwoli denies it, the elders are widely believed to be an offshoot of the mythical “Deep State” that is keen to determine who succeeds Mr Kenyatta. He does not hide the fact that he seems to know the inner workings of the State, yet admits he is not a government employee or functionary.
He, for instance, says with authority that the referendum will be held early next year, preferably around March. Mr Odinga said the same during his political tour of Taita-Taveta County, and Mr Kenyatta, in his address to the nation last month, left no doubt that BBI would aim to repeal laws as it was time the Constitution was made more responsive to the needs of the nation.
“Ten years later, the moment to improve on it is now,” President Kenyatta said on August 27. “We must treat a Constitution as a living document that must constantly adjust to emerging realities.”
Mr Atwoli said some of the changes could be through Parliament, where there would be little opposition “after the purge in both National Assembly and the Senate”.
The BBI taskforce chairman Yusuf Haji told the Sunday Nation previously that the report has been divided into three key segments; those on areas that can be addressed administratively through policy changes, those that Parliament can take care of via legislation, and the ones that fundamentally alter the structure of governance through a referendum.