Kenyatta follows father to Kenya's top job

  • World
  • Tuesday, 09 Apr 2013

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, the wealthy son of the nation's independence hero, brushed off international charges of crimes against humanity to present himself as a statesman with the economic skills to help ordinary citizens.

Backed by voters from Kenya's biggest tribe, the Kikuyu, in a nation where ethnic loyalties trump ideology at the ballot box, the 51-year-old listed as Kenya's richest man took the oath of office on Tuesday.

He swearing-in followed a calm March 4 election that helped repair Kenya's image after bloodshed five years ago.

Kenyatta - hailed as "jaba", or warrior, by supporters - fought a slick and well-funded campaign to edge above the 50 percent-mark to win outright. A challenge to the result by rival Raila Odinga was dismissed by the Supreme Court.

But battling for the post his father held after Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963 may have been the easy part.

Described by an American diplomat in a leaked confidential cable as a charismatic politician who drinks too much, U.S.-educated Kenyatta's biggest challenges may emerge once he moves to State House, his new official residence close to his home.

Even before the vote, Kenya's Western donors indicated a Kenyatta presidency would complicate diplomatic ties because he and his running mate, William Ruto, are both charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over their alleged role in the tribal blood-letting after the last election in 2007.

Closer to home, Kenyatta will have to hold together a coalition with Ruto who hails from the Kalenjin tribe, long at odds with Kenyatta's Kikuyu over one of Kenya's most contentious issues - land ownership.

It is a sensitive issue for Kenyatta himself. Challenged in a presidential debate on how much land he and his family controlled, Kenyatta avoided a direct answer but did mention 30,000 acres on the coast. That was enough to trigger fevered critical debate on Twitter. Critics say he owns far more.

He also had to shake off jibes during the campaign from his rival Odinga that he would have to govern by Skype from the ICC's headquarters in The Hague if elected.

Kenyatta, who denies the charges, said he would clear his name but would not let proceedings disrupt government work.


"We recognise and accept our international obligations and we will continue to co-operate with all nations and international institutions," he said after his victory was declared on March 9, comments that reassured Western capitals.

But in an apparent swipe at the West, a hallmark of his campaigning, he said the world should respect the democratic will of Kenyans, drawing applause from those attending.

The United States and the European Union have congratulated him and sent ambassadors to his inauguration - a level diplomats said was not unusual for such an event and still in line with a policy of limiting contacts with indictees of the ICC.

The case may have played to Kenyatta's advantage when the U.S. government said Kenyans should be wise in choosing their leader, and others like Britain, Kenya's former ruler, outlined the policy of having only "essential contacts" with indictees.

Supporters presented the remarks as "imperialist" meddling, burnishing Kenyatta's nationalist credentials.

Kenyatta, bearer of Kenya's most famous name and ranked by Forbes magazine as its wealthiest man, promised to tackle "real issues" affecting Kenyans such as housing shortages and unemployment in the nation of more than 40 million people.

Heir to his late father's vast business empire, spanning land estates, the country's biggest dairy company and five-star hotels, as well as interests in banking, insurance and exclusive schools, he can count on the support of many of Kenya's business elite, dominated by Indians and Kikuyus.

Nevertheless, his supporters say their candidate remains a "man of the people" with an easy-going, popular touch.

A former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, echoed that in a confidential diplomatic memo written in 2009 before Kenyatta chose to run. The cable was published by Wikileaks.

"Kenyatta is bright and charming, even charismatic. He is enormously wealthy, and therefore has not had to engage in corruption," the envoy wrote.


But he said that Kenyatta's "liabilities are at least as important as his strengths", noting that in addition to his alleged links to post-2007 election violence "he drinks too much and is not a hard worker". (For a link to the cable, click on

Kenyatta, a graduate from Amherst College in Massachusetts, has pointed to his experience as finance minister to show off his economic stewardship and readiness to rein in excess.

In office, he suggested ministers and high-ranking officials downgrade their vehicles, which played well in a nation with a huge gap between rich and poor. However, some critics said the alternative vehicle he proposed was not put out to open tender.

"My record at the Ministry of Finance is there. When it comes to the issue of transparency and openness in government which is one of the key pillars in our manifesto, my record speaks for itself," said Kenyatta before the vote, striking the defiantly defensive tone that was a keynote of his campaign.

He mooted the idea that parliamentarians - some of the best paid in the world - should pay tax. But he has also been criticised for not doing enough to improve basic services in his own rural parliamentary constituency.

Tensions in his government could emerge in office. His election alliance has been dubbed a "marriage of convenience" that was formed to let Kenyatta and Ruto show a united front to the ICC, but it may not have deep support beyond the vote.

Kenyatta's Kikuyu and Ruto's Kalenjin have long been tribal rivals and in the 2007 vote the two men backed different candidates. The ICC has accused the two of sending their tribal loyalists out to attack each others' supporters after that poll.

"The political architecture at the top is rather convenient and limited to those cobbling together that alliance," said Godwin Murunga, deputy director at the African Leadership Centre think-tank in Nairobi. "But it is not translating on the ground and, for me, that would be a huge flashpoint to think about."

Although he has promised to cooperate with the ICC, Murunga questioned whether Kenyatta's resolve will hold in office.

"The presidency is a useful incentive not to follow the ICC process," he said. "It is a very, very tempting incentive."

(Editing by Edmund Blair and Pravin Char)

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