Avid Twitterer Uhuru Kenyatta is no stranger to the limelight. The son of Kenya’s first president, Uhuru [“freedom”] seemed destined for political fame from his earliest days. And has not let allegations of crimes against humanity stand in the way of his presidential ambitions.
The 51-year-old, who has been deputy prime minister, is a graduate of Amherst College in the United States. In 1997, he was elected chairman of his hometown branch of the then ruling party KANU, paving the way for him to enter national politics.
His inherited family business empire oversaw five-star hotels, airlines and commercial farming, and it was with this background that former President Daniel arap Moi appointed him to run the Kenya Tourism Board in 1999 – a position in which he was introduced to some of the country’s most important power-brokers.
Nominated to parliament in 2001, his career accelerated as Moi endorsed Kenyatta as his successor just a year later. Despite losing to Mwai Kibaki by a substantial margin in that attempt, Kenyatta, of the Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest, backed the 2007 re-election campaign of Kibaki, a fellow Kikuyu.
For all his noted privilege, Kenyatta quickly established himself as a “man of the people” with an easy-going popular approach, seemingly comfortable socialising with Kenyans of any class or ethnic background and enjoying the national favourite Tusker beer – indeed a classified US diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks claimed that Kenyatta, “bright and charming, even charismatic … drinks too much and is not a hard worker”.
The same cable also claimed that Kenyatta had been closely linked with the Mungiki, originally a conservative Kikuyu movement “which has long since morphed into a well-organised Mafia-style criminal organisation”.
Despite these allegations, he won praise for his Economic Stimulus Programme as minister of finance, investing in food security and boosting entrepreneurship and innovation.
He also made headlines around the world when he insisted that cabinet ministers and other officials give up their Mercedes government cars in favour of Volkswagen Passats. Kenyan lawmakers have, however, still managed to get by – parliamentarians receive monthly salaries of around $11,000 each, in a country where the average monthly wage is just $140.
Online fans have also been impressed with Kenyatta’s embrace of social media. In 2011, Kenyatta tweeted to his followers, asking them to give their views on the country’s national budget via the microblogging service. Hundreds responded within hours in an exercise which was praised by tech-oriented politicos as extending inclusivity and empowering democracy.
However promising for democracy Kenyatta’s use of technology may be, the allegations against him surrounding the botched 2007 elections cannot be ignored. He is due to face trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague after being indicted for crimes against humanity.
Charges – which he denies – include hiring the quasi-cult criminal Mungiki fraternity to target Luo groups and villages in the aftermath of the disputed poll.
In recent weeks, it has also emerged that key witnesses due to give evidence in the trial, have mysteriously “disappeared”. William Ruto, who was Kenyatta’s running mate and has become deputy president, is also among those charged by the ICC.
Kenyatta’s platform was focused around three key areas: Ethnic and tribal unity, economic growth and political transparency. The National Alliance (TNA) coalition’s manifesto pledged to boost police pay, enforce a “buy Kenyan” procurement approach for the armed forces and to “fight the menace and impeding threat of al-Shabaab’s terrorism”.
The party also promised to upgrade hospitals through private sector investment, distribute free mosquito nets and give tax breaks to private investors in the sports, arts and entertainment sectors. Like his main challenger Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Kenyatta pledged to increase health spending to 15 percent of the national budget.
At the beginning of February, Uhuru was trailing Odinga in opinion polls, but managed to win the election by a wafer-thin margin of less than one-tenth of a percent.