By EMEKA-MAYAKA GEKARA & TIM WANYONYI
On meeting Mr Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta for the first time, one is put at ease by his affability, communicated by a relaxed smile and a mighty handshake that can last the better part of a minute.
That was the case when this writer had a session with Mr Kenyatta in the mid-1990s. Then in his mid-30s, the son of Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, was quick to dismiss any suggestion that he might enter politics some time in the future.
Born on October 26, 1961 to Mama Ngina Kenyatta and the independence struggle hero then incarcerated by the colonial administration, he was given the befitting name Uhuru, which means “freedom” or “independence” in Kiswahili. Kenya obtained independence two years later.
Uhuru was two months shy of his 17th birthday on August 22, 1978, when his father died. From childhood, his life was one of privilege. Between 1972 and 1977, he attended the prestigious St Mary’s School in Nairobi.
Uhuru’s Catholic-run alma mater was also attended by the scions of some of Kenya’s most prominent families. They included his brother Muhoho, then Vice President Moi’s son, Gideon, and then Finance minister Mwai Kibaki’s sons Jimmy, Tony and David.
Other famous alumni of the school who in later years came to be associated with Uhuru in politics and business were his college mate in the United States and Mr Kibaki’s former personal aide Alfred Getonga, and businessman Jimmy Wanjigi, son of former Cabinet minister Maina Wanjigi. Both came to play key roles in Uhuru’s second presidential campaign.
Known as Muna to his close friends from St Mary’s, Mr Kenyatta is remembered by many as an above average student who was quiet but diligent. Apart from the receiving the best history student award, he did not leave a special mark in the school.
Mr Kenyatta was married in 1989 at the Holy Family Basilica to the self-effacing Margaret Wanjiru Gakuo. The first couple has two sons — Jomo and Jaba — and a daughter, Ngina.
From St Mary’s, Uhuru proceeded to Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, to study economics and political science. His uncle, Mr Ngengi Muigai, preceded him at the college and is said to be the one who influenced him to enrol there. Having joined the college in 1982, Mr Kenyatta graduated in 1985 and returned to Kenya, where he entered the extensive family business. He also joined a close-knit circle of friends that included Mr Maina Gakuo, his future brother-in-law.
Also in the group were former school mates at St Mary’s, family members and acquaintances like Martin and Francis Michuki, the sons of the late John Michuki. Soon after leaving St Mary’s, Mr Kenyatta did a stint as a teller at the Kenya Commercial Bank, the only time he was in salaried employment outside family enterprises and public office.
His first foray into politics was in 1992 at the age 30 as a campaigner for Ford Asili presidential candidate Kenneth Matiba.
In a lengthy interview that year, Mama Ngina Kenyatta said her son had a political role to play in Kenya and had come of age. Come 1997, and Mr Kenyatta changed his mind about entering politics and took the plunge. In that year’s General Election, he sought the Gatundu South parliamentary seat that had for years been held by his father.
While he has many social friends, among his key political advisers are his maternal uncle George Muhoho, his mother Mama Ngina and his sisters Kristina and Margaret.
Given his roots and the major role his expanded family has played in national and public life, it would have been surprising had Mr Kenyatta given politics a wide berth. As things turned out, his 1997 foray into parliamentary politics with encouragement from then President Daniel arap Moi was a baptism by fire.
Running on a Kanu ticket that was anathema in central Kenya at the time, Mr Kenyatta was handily defeated in the Gatundu South parliamentary race.
That defeat took the young politician by surprise and reportedly left him bitter. But being only in his mid-30s, he was still a greenhorn and had the world ahead of him.
As the shock of defeat dissipated, a rapidly growing role in public life and politics seemed to await Mr Kenyatta.
That early on, it appears that Mr Moi knew one thing many Kenyans did not; that he had chosen Mr Kenyatta as his heir apparent. A veteran of the Kenyan political scene who served as number two under Jomo Kenyatta, the increasingly unpopular Mr Moi had watched the young man develop into a mature family man.
As if to compensate him for his defeat in the parliamentary race, in 1999 Mr Moi appointed him chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board. Bigger things were still to come, and by 2001, Mr Kenyatta was nominated to Parliament with the icing on the cake being that he was also appointed minister for Local Government. Clearly, the increasingly beleaguered Mr Moi had plans for a greater role for the political debutant.
As Kenyans were to learn later, the self-professed professor of politics was even at that early stage making plans for his own succession. Not surprisingly, he saw Kanu playing a major role in the succession. Mr Moi’s view was that there was nobody better placed to succeed him than Mr Kenyatta.
In fact, Mr Moi’s initial elevation of Mr Kenyatta to Parliament – and the Cabinet – seems to have been the genesis of the emergence of Mr Kenyatta as a Moi protégé and, later, the so-called “project”, a tag that was to haunt him.
But as it turned out, Mr Moi’s rapidly plummeting popularity and growing image as a dictator were to become Mr Kenyatta’s Achilles’ heel as he found out when he ran for the presidency in 2002.
Earlier that year, he had been elevated to the post of Kanu national vice-chairman, sharing the position with four others deemed to be emerging front-runners in the quest for the presidency. When Mr Moi unilaterally nominated Mr Kenyatta as his political heir, the tables were turned on him, and he lost the election.
As Kenya’s political history has evolved in recent times, Mr Kenyatta has surprised both friend and foe by overseeing a campaign machine that this week saw him defeat Mr Raila Odinga in the race for State House.