Kenyatta hopes to take up dad's mantle

2013-03-01 12:26
Uhuru Kenyatta.

Uhuru Kenyatta.

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Nairobi - Hugely wealthy and son of Kenya's founding president, Uhuru Kenyatta hopes to take up his father's mantle despite facing trial for crimes against humanity over election violence five years ago.

While Uhuru - meaning 'freedom', and Kenyatta, the 'light of Kenya' in Swahili - carries his country's aspirations in his name, he has since come to symbolise many of its woes.

Kenyatta, 51, and running mate William Ruto face trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity for their alleged role in having orchestrated 2007-08 post-election unrest.

He was born in 1961 shortly after the release of his father Jomo from nearly 10 years' incarceration by British colonial forces, and two years before Kenya's independence.

Fifty years on, the deputy prime minister and former finance minister is one of Kenya's richest and most powerful men, with the Kenyatta family owning vast swathes of some of the country's richest lands.

The Kenyatta family business empire also includes a key stake in major banking and media interests, as well as owning Kenya's main dairy business.

Educated in the United States at the elite Amherst College, where he studied political science and economics, he is considered the top political leader of the Kikuyu people, Kenya's largest tribe making up some 17% of the population.

Bright and charming

With permanent heavy bags beneath his eyes and well dressed in pin stripe business suits, Kenyatta exudes an image of power and entitlement.

But while a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable described Kenyatta as "bright and charming, even charismatic" it also noted that he "drinks too much and is not a hard worker".

In the early 1990s, he ganged up with the sons of other independence heroes to call for reform but gradually drew closer to autocratic former president Daniel arap Moi.

"He went into politics partly because Moi asked him to, and probably because it was a good way to protect his family's interests at a time of political transition," said Daniel Branch, a professor at Britain's Warwick University.

"Until recently, politics never mattered as much personally for Kenyatta as for Raila," he added, referring to his key rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

"Uhuru is not a grassroots politician in the same way as Raila."

Kenyatta threw his weight behind then incumbent President Mwai Kibaki in the December 2007 election, a poll that rapidly descended into chaos and left over 1 100 dead and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.

Delays in the vote count saw violence erupt over suspicion that Kibaki was stealing the election from Odinga, and killings mainly targeting Kikuyus spread across the country.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights has accused Kenyatta of attending meetings in early 2008 to plan for retaliatory violence by the Kikuyu.

ICC prosecutors say he mobilised the Mungiki - a sect-like Kikuyu criminal organisation known for skinning and beheading its victims - to attack opposition supporters.

Rule of law

Kenyatta, listed by Forbes magazine as one of the richest people in Africa, faces five counts including orchestrating murder, rape, forcible transfer and persecution in the polls' aftermath.

The Kikuyu launched reprisal attacks in which homes were torched and people hacked to death in the worst outbreak of violence since independence.

Kenyatta has repeatedly said he will co-operate with the court, even though it could mean he will be absent from Kenya for long periods, with the trial expected by many to stretch for several years.

"I will be able to handle the issue of clearing our names... while at the same time ensuring that the business of government continues," Kenyatta said in reply to a question about how he and Ruto will juggle court appearances and run the country if elected.

Kenya, as a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the Hague-based ICC, would be forced to act on any arrest warrant issued by the court should the pair refuse to attend trial.

Kenyatta, who insists his "conscience is clear", has said that he and Ruto "understand and recognise the rule of law and we will continue to co-operate so long as we are signatories of the Rome statute".

While his supporters hail him as a hero, to other Kenyans, Kenyatta symbolises the country's corrupt political elite and the forces of tribalism that brought what was once considered a beacon of regional stability to the brink of civil conflict.

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