Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is moving to reassert control of his ruling Jubilee Party by purging the parliamentary leadership of rebels who have threatened to derail his legacy, succession and post-pandemic economic recovery agenda.
The purge started last week on Monday with the ousting of Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen and Chief Whip Susan Kihika at a controversial parliamentary group meeting chaired by President Kenyatta at State House, Nairobi.
The two belong to a faction in the ruling party that is loyal to Deputy President William Ruto, who has found himself increasingly sidelined within government.
Mr Murkomen was replaced as Majority Leader by Samuel Poghisio, a member of the Independence party Kanu, with whom Jubilee formalised a post-election coalition agreement only last week.
Senators aligned to DP Ruto boycotted the State House meeting and five non-elected ones have been served with show cause letters by the party secretariat.
Jubilee secretary-general Raphael Tuju was quoted saying the crackdown will be extended to the party leadership in the National Assembly, where DP Ruto’s faction controls the powerful House Business and Budget committees.
The clampdown was not entirely unexpected, having been the subject of speculation in the weeks preceding the ban on political and social gatherings upon the confirmation of the country’s first coronavirus case on March 13.
President Kenyatta fired the first warning shots back in January when he sacked Mwangi Kiunjuri from the Cabinet and masterminded the impeachment of Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu in quick succession. Both Mr Kiunjuri and Mr Waititu had publicly declared their loyalty to DP Ruto.
Like President Kenyatta, they also hail from central Kenya region, which together with DP Ruto’s Rift Valley have emerged as the epicentre of political agitation against the president.
With the country’s focus shifting to the battle against Covid-19, there had been relative inactivity in the political sphere and its top politicians found themselves uncharacteristically overlooked in newspaper headlines.
But reports late April that the government had repossessed prime land linked to DP Ruto appeared to send the country back to political mode.
The Deputy President, through his spokesperson, has dismissed reports that he owns the 1,600 acres in Ruai in the outskirts of Nairobi.
The Ministry of Water said it was part of public land earmarked for a sewerage treatment system upgrade and has since moved to evict about 5,000 people from an informal settlement in Nairobi’s Kariobangi area to pave the way for the project.
The grievances of the slum families, paradoxically rendered homeless amid the misfortunes inflicted by the pandemic and flooding in parts of Nairobi, provided fodder for the latest round of factional fighting within the ruling party.
A number of Members of Parliament and Members of the County Assembly allied to DP Ruto visited Kariobangi and launched a scathing attack on the president, defying the government’s current social distancing rules.
The resurgence of the intra-party rebellion couldn’t have come at a worse time for President Kenyatta. While he was already struggling to deliver on his Big Four Agenda—affordable health care, manufacturing, food security, and affordable housing—the impact of Covid-19 means that he will come under even more pressure to steer the country on an economic recovery path within the remaining two years of his final term.
The Treasury last month revised its 2020 economic growth estimate to between 1.8 and 2.5 per cent from 6.0 per cent due to disruptions related to the pandemic.
President Kenyatta also has his 2022 political succession plans to worry about, with the constitutional reforms process under the Building Bridges Initiative put on the back burner for now. Winning the battle for control of the ruling party and Parliament is now even more urgent.