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Uhuro Kenyatta raises his arms to greet his supporters at a rally
Image: Reuters/T. Mukoya

Uhuru Kenyatta's path to power

Jacob Bormani
August 12, 2017

Kenyans have elected Uhuru Kenyatta for a second presidential term. While his political career has had its share of ups and downs, it shows that the son of the nation’s founder is an expert at the power game.


The winner of Kenya's presidential election has a famous name: Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, son of the founder of the nation and its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who ruled from 1964 to 1978. The Kenyattas are Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group of the East African country. The Kikuyu dominate Kenya's politics and economy. Uhuru means "freedom" in Kiswahili and the new president wasn't given this name by accident. Kenyatta was born on October 26, 1961, during the country's struggle for independence from Great Britain.

He grew up in Nairobi, started working for the Kenyan KBC bank and then studied economics and political sciences in the US. On his return, he joined his father's business empire. His first taste of politics came in 1996, when President Daniel arap Moi appointed him chairman of one wing of the KANU governmental party.

Moi's puppet

President Kenyatta und Vice-President Ruto laughing together
The 2017 elections are Team Uhuruto's second chanceImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

In 1997 Kenyatta ran for a parliamentary seat in the Gatundu constituency, which was once represented by his father. The newcomer lost, whereupon Moi appointed him director of the tourism authority. In 2001 he won a seat in the National Assembly. The same year he took over the Ministry of Local Government. When Daniel arap Moi decided to relinquish power, he pushed through 39-year-old Kenyatta as his party's candidate for the presidency, a move that took many by surprise.

Moi lost his gamble. Faced with an inexperienced candidate who was considered by many to be Moi's puppet, the opposition managed to pull together. Disgruntled KANU officials also switched sides and supported the Rainbow Coalition led by Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu like Kenyatta. Kibaki won the 2002 elections and Kenyatta found himself in the opposition. 

At the top at last

Five years later, Kenyatta decided against running again and chose to support President Kibaki, who was in a tight race with Raila Odinga. When the electoral commission hurriedly declared Kibaki the winner, Odinga's backers suspected fraud. Divisions along ethnic lines led to violence. In the following months thousands of people died. Kenyatta was charged with inciting violence against Odinga's Luo ethnic group and had to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.   

A caricature shows President Kenyatta safely stepping across shark-infested waters and encouraging his vice-president to do the same. The shark bears the letters ICC for International Criminal Court.
Caricatures of President Kenyatta (R) and his Deputy Ruto (L) showing how they succesfully had their ICC cases droppedImage: DW/Said Michael

What followed was a masterclass in political maneuvering. Kenyatta allied himself with William Ruto, who had been charged by the ICC as the mastermind behind the violence in Odinga's camp. The allies depicted the court proceedings as an excuse for the so-called West to influence Kenyan politics. This assured them electoral victory against Raila Odinga in 2013. As president and vice-president they had no difficulties in getting the ICC to withdraw charges, especially as the prosecution was unable to produce witnesses.

In his first term in office Kenyatta presented a national development plan called "Vision 2030”. It included free medical care for pregnant women, universal primary education and laptops for all pupils. Even though not everything was implemented, Kenyatta succeeded in increasing his support in the country. He was criticized for an excess of travel abroad, including 43 state visits in his first term. Team Uhuruto – Kenyatta and Ruto – as they are called in the country, now has the chance to prove itself again. According to the constitution, this will be Kenyatta's last term.    

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