Puppet or strategist, dilettante or power-hungry heir? After nearly 10 years in power and a mixed legacy, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta remains an enigma to many Kenyans, even those who elected him twice as president.
But one thing is certain: it is impossible to dissociate the outgoing leader from his family, which is among the richest in Kenya, with two of the four Kenyan presidents from the Kenyatta dynasty.
His endorsement of long-time rival Raila Odinga sparked rumors that he wanted to play the role of kingmaker, helping the opposition veteran win backing from his ruling Jubilee party.
True to form, Kenyatta’s motives or future plans remain unclear, but many believe he will build on the diplomatic legacy shaped since his re-election in 2017.
The 60-year-old has worked hard to elevate Kenya’s international stature and shaped himself as a regional statesman, seeking to resolve conflicts in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He has also bolstered the country’s status as an East African economic powerhouse, launching several major infrastructure projects, including a Nairobi highway inaugurated last month that has also ballooned Kenya’s debt.
His avowed fight against corruption has been less successful, sparking bewilderment and even ridicule among Kenyans who have long viewed the Kenyatta family as the epitome of elite grip on power.
His father Jomo was Kenya’s first independent president and the family is the country’s largest landowner, with a financial empire that includes dairy giant Brookside, NCBA bank and TV broadcaster Mediamax.
His own fortune was estimated at $500 million by Forbes in 2011.
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Born to Jomo and his fourth wife “Mama” Ngina in October 1961, Uhuru (meaning “freedom” in Swahili) studied in the United States and entered politics in the mid-1990s.
Over the years, ‘the prince of Kenyan politics’ has allied himself with leaders from all walks of life, from autocrat Daniel arap Moi – an early mentor – to former President Mwai Kibaki, whom he backed in the 2007 elections.
The disputed vote led to an eruption of politically motivated tribal violence largely involving two of Kenya’s main ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, which left more than 1,100 people dead.
In 2013, Kenyatta – a Kikuyu – allied himself with William Ruto, a Kalenjin, and was elected president.
Both were indicted by the International Criminal Court for their role in the 2007-2008 killings, but the cases ultimately fell through as the prosecution said a relentless campaign of witness intimidation made a trial impossible.
Kenyatta’s re-election bid in 2017 threw the country into turmoil, as police cracked down on opposition protests with deadly effect.
His victory was overturned by the Supreme Court, but he won a new race after his then opponent Odinga boycotted the process, calling the vote rigged.
Then, in a twist of events little seen coming, the pair stunned the nation in March 2018 by shaking hands and declaring a truce.
The pact – known simply as “the handshake” – relegated Ruto to the sidelines.
But Kenyatta’s pet political project, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) which aimed to broaden the executive, hit a snag after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal.
Many saw the constitutional proposals, which included the creation of a new prime minister’s post supposedly for Kenyatta, as a last ditch attempt to stay in power after his second and final term as president.
Kenya’s global profile rose under his leadership, as he hosted foreign investors and a succession of visiting international dignitaries, including former US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.
Despite his long career, the father of three remains a mystery to many.
Some diplomatic sources characterize him as “a party animal who didn’t want the job” while others describe him as an astute politician with a common touch “who knows how to talk to people”.
A regular at churches, he mixes easily with ordinary Kenyans, eagerly hits the dance floor and jokes around in the slang of local youths.
His shy brother Muhoho manages the family’s finances, while he would enjoy driving around Nairobi late at night, incognito and protected by a handful of bodyguards.
As his final term draws to a close, Kenyatta looms over Tuesday’s election, with Ruto spending much of his time campaigning against his former boss instead of Odinga.
Although many Kenyans expect Kenyatta to keep his hand in the game, the man himself has dismissed the speculation, telling France 24 last year: “Oh please. please ! I prefer to enjoy holidays in France every summer.
“I don’t want to stay in power as they claim. It’s hard work,” he said at a prayer service last month.
“Ten years for me is enough. I’m waiting for August 9.