Saitoti’s death leaves power vacuum in Kenya

There is likely to be a scramble to fill the gap left by untimely death of George Saitoti, Kenya’s internal security minister, who planned to run for president.

As a political figure, they don’t come much bigger than George Saitoti.

Kenya’s minister for internal security was one of the country’s most enduring and most recognisable politicians, a man who seemed to have a permanent place near the top of the national hierarchy.

With a PhD in mathematics from the University of Warwick, on an obscure branch of maths known as “algebraic topology”, he had an intellectual stature to match his imposing physical presence.

He used that intellect to powerful effect in politics, becoming an MP in 1983, and deputy to then-president Daniel Arap Moi five years later.

He became known for efficiency, sobriety and loyalty to Moi, traits that the president rewarded by keeping him in the job for 13 years.

In the early 1990s, while he was both vice president and finance minister, Saitoti became embroiled in what became known as the Goldenberg Scandal – a massive fraud of government funds that cost the economy an estimated 10 per cent of its annual Gross Domestic Product at the time.

The scandal hung over Saitoti’s head for most of his political career although his role in it was never proved.

In spite of the allegations, he was still able to thrive, and became one of current President Mwai Kibaki’s most trusted lieutenants.

He served as education minister and then minister for internal security where he became the government’s point-man in its fight against al-Shabab, the rebel movement in neighbouring Somalia that is believed to be behind a series of attacks inside Kenya.

Saitoti’s role in Kenyan politics placed him in a commanding position to run for the presidency in elections due in March 2013. And this is where his death might well create problems within the government.

Kenya’s Government of National Unity was forged out of the violence that almost tore the country apart in the disputed 2007 elections.

It is an uneasy and uncomfortable government of political foes, who are now re-aligning themselves in preparation for the next polls. Much of the maneuvering has been along tribal lines, with politicians using ethnic voters to help build alliances.

But George Saitoti, with his mixed background of Masai and Kikuyu blood, had no natural group of tribal supporters, so he was never able to play that game. Instead, he worked the backrooms, building a group of powerful supporters.

Kenyan politics abhors a vacuum, and there is now likely to be an unseemly scramble to fill the gap Saitoti left behind, and re-align the groups that he once called his own.

Although it hasn’t been officially declared, most of the country’s politicians are already campaigning ahead of what is likely to be one of the most dangerous elections of the country’s history.

Saitoti’s death could trigger a period of yet more instability, a phase that Kenya could well do without.