In a bizarre turn of events, the default presidential candidate of the moneyed Mt. Kenya elite perishes the same week his political arch-foes are given the leeway to run for State House.
As political shockwaves go, the death of Professor George Saitoti was very high on any measurement scale. Saitoti and Orwa Ojode, the Minister of State in the Office of the President for Internal Security and Provincial Administration and his Assistant Minister, died at a time when Kenya is engaged in a hot war in neighbouring Somalia and a bombing campaign in a number of urban areas by the al-Shabaab militia, affiliates of al Qaeda.
And although not even conspiracy theorists are construing a link between the fatal crash and the war on al-Shabaab, the death of two of Kenya's foremost national security establishment managers sent all sorts of alarm bells ringing, even among geopolitical analysts. The message of condolences from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent by no less a personage than William Hague was indicative of the fact that there is a watchful world out there where Kenya and its strategic place in this region are concerned.
Saitoti's demise is easily the most profound death in national political terms since Vice President Michael Kijana Wamalwa died in office in 2004 and was accorded a State funeral, complete with military honours.
Year of demise of giants
It is the third demise in 2012 of a giant of Central Kenya and national politics and a billionaire businessman, the others being John Michuki and Njenga Karume. Wags are reckoning that these three easily account for KSh100 billion in assets. But this is of much more than merely waggish interest: among other things, it means that the resource clout, power and influence of three of some of the foremost fortunes in Kenya will not be fully behind the Central Kenya effort to retain the presidency in the region in Kibaki's immediate wake. There is undoubtedly much re-drawing of strategies and re-allocation of potential resources going on up in the Mountain right now.
Among Kenyan regions, only Luoland has sustained this kind of high profile VIP body count in the space of a year - in 1969 when the then Minister for Foreign Affairs and the then Minister for Economic Planning, C.M.G Argwings Kodhek and Thomas Joseph Mboya, respectively, died in January and July of that fateful year.
Kodhek died in a road accident in the Pan Afric Hotel-Nairobi Hospital area that many have viewed as suspicious and do not hesitate to tote up to Kenya's long list of political assassinations. Mboya will forever be iconic of that list, having been gunned down at midday on Saturday July 5, 1969, in the Nairobi CBD.
There are quarters - in media, government, the security sector and Kenya's far-flung Internet chatter - where Saitoti's death is being toted up to the assassinations tally anyway. A photograph apparently of the ill-fated Eurocopter seconds before it hit the ground on Sunday published in The Star newspaper this week showed the stricken craft emitting both flames and smoke, instantly fuelling speculation about sabotage and assassination. The Star promptly apologized for having been duped over the photograph the following day. But, Kenyans being Kenyans, and Kenya being Kenya, many opted for the conspiracy theories.
Professor Saitoti was Kenya's sixth and longest-serving Vice President in two stints, between 1989 and 1997 and between 1999 and 2002. Saitoti held an array of other high public positions, including in Cabinet. At the time of his death he was also a member of the National Security Committee (NSAC), and Chairman, Cabinet Sub-committee on the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Default succession option
Saitoti was the Central Kenya political elite's default Presidential candidate in the event that the ICC knocked Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta out of the presidential race for the Kibaki Succession. Oddly enough, the ICC removed the possibility of such an eventuality the very same week that Saitoti perished, allowing both Uhuru and Eldoret North MP Ruto the leeway to participate fully in the 11th General Election by moving the full hearing of the cases to late March and after. The elections are scheduled for March 4.
Also eerily coincidental, Saitoti was the head of the Cabinet Sub-committee on the ICC in light of the Kenyan crimes against humanity cases arising from the post-election violence of 2007-08 in which Uhuru and Ruto face confirmed charges.
Until Saitoti's demise it actually looked as if a case of what goes round comes around was unfolding - Uhuru and Ruto are widely perceived as having scuttled Saitoti's more-than- good chances of succeeding President Daniel arap Moi in 2002 by selling Moi the "Project Uhuru" succession strategy that saw then long-ruling party Kanu implode. With Saitoti actually heading the Cabinet Sub-committee on the ICC and Uhuru and Ruto's prospects for being on the ballot looking dimmer by the day, it looked like payback time for 2002 had indeed come for the older man where the younger men were concerned. Now, suddenly, Saitoti is gone from the scene and the ICC Two are free to pursue their presidential ambitions.
And then in comes Moi, who told Saitoti's grieving widow, Margaret, and other mourners at her Lavington, Nairobi, home that he was in fact secretly backing Saitoti's candidature for the 2013 polls. All funerals, particularly in their eulogy components, both oral and written, are attended by hypocrisy and exaggeration, as well as the occasional outright lie. Few believed the Old Man, who dropped Saitoti from the vice-presidency not once but twice in the most lackadaisical fashion. After the 1997 General Election, Moi's last as a candidate, he simply omitted to appoint a VP, leaving Saitoti flapping in the wind with only the Ministry of Planning, a power politics backwater, to his name. When Moi re-appointed Saitoti 14 months after operating without a VP, he communicated the decision in a roadside remark as his motorcade made an unscheduled stop in Limuru, before bemused villagers. When he dropped him for the last time, in October 2002, it did not even matter, for it was clear that Kanu was headed directly out of office after 39 years at the helm, many of them as the only legal political entity in the land.
Nonetheless a lot of things have changed during the decade since Moi stepped down and Kibaki took over. And Saitoti also underwent a sea change in the years of the Kibaki Administration, completely losing the formative tags of both Kanu and former power-man Kipiator Nicholas Kiprono Biwott, the Moi Era eminence grise who propelled him into both politics and the longest vice-presidency in Kenyan history. Having shaken off the Biwott baggage, Saitoti was so much his own man at the end and such a pillar of the post-Kanu regime that, whichever way you look at it, he was a major cog in the emerging Kibaki legacy matrix. It would be no exaggeration to say that when the Kibaki legacy is finally written, Saitoti will have a chapter to himself.
Final call for calm and peace
The instruments that Saitoti oversaw, the national security establishment, have undergone very critical changes on his watch, beginning a complex journey of transition from terroristic formations to service providers working with and for Kenyans, not against them.
An inward-looking man, who was not open to public scrutiny, Saitoti clearly hankered for the presidency. He was a high intellectual (he was a professor of algebraic topology, a discipline that is so obscure to the vast mass of Kenyans it is right up there with brain surgery and nuclear physics) but not an articulate man. However, in his final televised public speech on Friday June 8 at a Coalition Government retreat in Mombasa, Saitoti expressed sentiments that approached oratory in a clearly heartfelt call for calmness and peace among the political class ahead of, during and after the General Election.
Among other interesting things, Saitoti observed that the PEV could have been much more ameliorated if not in fact avoided had the national security organs cooperated fully and remained focused. Coming from Saitoti, a past master at the deniability factor, this was as close to admitting a major official lapse as he ever came.
Saitoti's close relationship with Kibaki was widely unexpected but seems to have had developed deep roots in the course of the latter's presidency. When fiery First Lady Lucy Kibaki launched a direct and emotive attack on Saitoti's and the security establishment's handling of a series of fire disasters, Kibaki went completely out of his way, for the first and only known time in a long public career, to defend an individual - Saitoti. In a televised statement completely contradicting his wife (in itself quite an event), Kibaki referred to Saitoti throughout as "George" and expressed every confidence in his handling of his ministerial dockets. No Minister has publicly enjoyed his President's high regard in such fulsome terms in Kenya's post-Independence history since an imperious and virtually imperial Jomo Kenyatta forced a pliant Parliament to amend the law in the course of one afternoon to get Paul Ngei off the hook after being convicted of an election offence in the mid-1970s.
Saitoti goes down into the list of presidents Kenyans never had. His demise no doubt removes a considerable hurdle in the path of those who are seeking to capture the Central Kenya vote bloc, foremost among them being Uhuru, but leaves a resource and strategy gap that will not be easy to fill.
He becomes the second former Vice President of Kenya of Maasai heritage to die, the first having been the bi-racial Joseph Murumbi (of Maa and Goan origin) in 1994.