By JULIUS SIGEI email@example.com
Posted Friday, September 23 2011 at 22:30
Posted Friday, September 23 2011 at 22:30
In 1983, the all-powerful Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott, keen to neutralise the rising influence of then Vice President Mwai Kibaki, fought for the nomination to Parliament and subsequent appointment of then Mumias Sugar chairman Prof George Saitoti to the powerful ministry of Finance, which Kibaki had held since 1969.
This was at the beginning of supremacy wars in Kanu.
Mr Biwott saw in the former university don a useful technocrat who was, nonetheless, unable to create his own independent political base.
In the 1988 elections, incumbent Kajiado North MP Philip Odupoy was prevailed upon not to run and Prof Saitoti was elected and the following year was appointed Kenya’s sixth Vice-President, a post he held for more than a decade.
True to Mr Biwott’s calculation, despite being a breath away from the presidency, or perhaps because of it, he has been so near yet so far.
Prof Saitoti, 66, is now one of the most enigmatic politicians in Kenya. For the nearly 30 years he has been in politics, his epitaph has been written more times than one cares to remember, yet he has this uncanny ability to bounce back, earning himself the media tag of Kenya’s comeback kid with the proverbial nine lives of a cat.
Just when his critics are about to write him off the political landscape, he springs back to life.
Single presidential candidate
One of these comebacks was witnessed last Saturday when he announced he is in the race for the presidency. (Read: PNU alliance woos other parties)
“Mnafikiri kwa muda huu wote nimekuwa nimelala ama nilikuwa najipanga?” (Do you think all this time I have been serving you I have been asleep or preparing myself for the big seat? Let every Kenyan know that I am contesting this office),” he declared in Kajiado town.
A day earlier, he had signed a memorandum of understanding with Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and Deputy-Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta to produce a single presidential candidate to face Mr Odinga in next year’s General Election.
Supporters say as a wealthy Kenyan, Prof Saitoti has the resources to run a successful campaign.
They also say as a long-time Kanu operative, he has built a national network of supporters.
Observers also cite his development record in his Kajiado North Constituency.
“His record is very impressive. If he campaigns on the basis of his development record, he can shake the landscape,” says Narok politician Taleng’o ole Kiptunen.
Analysts also say his ethnic background is an advantage.
“While Saitoti is not Maasai by blood and or even cultural adaptation, he can make a good compromise candidate in that he can attract Maasai votes, as well as those of the Gikuyu and Kalenjin. If he becomes president or he mounts a serious campaign, the Maasai will consider him one of their own,” says novelist Henry ole Mr Kulet.
He says the downside is that he is a stiff man “who is not good at articulating issues.”
“In the hinterland of his vast constituency, he moves around with an interpreter. What pray, has stopped him from learning Maa?” he poses.
Some analysts, however, say he could reap big if Mr Kenyatta fails to run.
“He has been quietly positioning himself by throwing off the millstone of Goldenberg that had hung around his neck for decades, neutralising electoral petitioner Moses ole Sakuda in Kajiado North and capturing the chairmanship of the PNU,” says analyst Daudi Mwenda.
However, the head of political science at the University of Nairobi, Dr Adams Oloo, says Prof Saitoti’s undoing is that he is not a self-made man.
“All politicians start somewhere. But even after greatness was thrust upon him, he has not found his own feet. He does not make a move until he is pushed. At one time at the historic Suswa grounds, his on-and-off ally-cum-competitor for the Maasai leadership, Mr William Ole Ntimama, threw up his hands in exasperation after he refused to make an expected announcement that he had ditched Moi.”
He, however, says his immense wealth gives him a head start and that in the event Mr Kenyatta does not vie, he will have the support of the moneyed Kikuyu as well as the Kikuyu masses who see him as one of their own.
“From driving a Volkswagen in the 1980s, today he is one of the people who own Kenya with a huge asset base,” said Dr Oloo.
He says that were the Math professor to do his arithmetic properly, he could win Rift Valley and Central provinces.
Others say he is a dyed-in-the wool status quo politician and his chances of becoming president would be slim if pitted against a reformist candidate.
For most of his political career, he has played the loyalty card to survive. So loyal is the Internal Security minister that when he was publicly humiliated by former president Moi, he held on where others would have quit.
The height of his humiliation came at a meeting in his constituency where Mr Moi explained his reasons for overlooking him in his succession plans.
Speaking in Swahili, Mr Moi said: “Huyu makamu wa rais ni rafiki yangu. Lakini urafiki na siasa ni tofouti…” (The vice president is my friend. But politics and friendship are two very different things.)”
“Kama kuna mtu ambaye amefanyiwa majaribio, ni mimi Prof Saitoti. Hata walijaribu siku moja kunipatia poison.” (“If there is anybody who has been subjected to tribulations, it is I, Prof Saitoti. At one time they even tried to poison me),” Prof Saitoti said at a rally at Kikuyu in 2003.
He was referring to a mysterious incident in 1990 which turned the politician into a near paranoid.
The incident, a day after the murder of then Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Ouko, kept the minister at home for a month and it is said his Kitengela house was turned into a hospital to restore his health.
Yet Prof Saitoti, who often paints the picture of a stoic politician, can be ferocious when required.
For instance, when debating a report by a committee which investigated the Mr Ouko’s murder, he said: “How come the committee never deemed it fit to investigate why the Vice-President was almost dying at the same time?”
“At the time Ouko was killed, I had been poisoned. I was unconscious. Saitoti was on his deathbed. This is not my original skin,” an angry Prof Saitoti told the committee, showing his hands.
According to the 2003 edition of Kenya Top 100 People Journal, Prof Saitoti was born Kinuthia Muthengi in 1944 at Gikambura village of Kikuyu in Kiambu to Zacharia Muthengi Kiarie and Zipporah Gathoni.
In the 1930s, the family moved to Ngong in Kajiado to escape colonial persecution targeting the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru communities.
“When he went to school, his name was changed to Saitoti because a Kikuyu trying to pursue education at the time would have faced a lot of difficulties,” says the journal.
He later clinched a Wien scholarship to Brandeis University outside Massachusetts which changed his life.
“It was a place of high, high academic quality. I think it also broadened our minds a great deal. Being a Wien scholar at Brandeis laid the foundation for my success,” he later told an interviewer.
Appointed a math professor
After graduating from Brandeis, Saitoti earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Warwick in England where he wrote a thesis on algebraic typology.
In 1972, he returned to Kenya and was appointed a math professor at the University of Nairobi.
The author of The Challenges of Economic and Institutional Reforms in Africa: Contemporary Perspectives on Developing Societies, Prof Saitoti was also executive chairman of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and served as president of the African, Caribbean and Pacific States, helping negotiate a partnership agreement with the European Union (EU).
But critics say as minister, the economy deteriorated and inflation soared to unprecedented levels.
In 1991, a series of scandals resulted in the suspension of donor aid.
The most famous, which he has fought gallantly in Parliament and in the courts, is the Goldenberg scandal in which hundreds of millions of dollars were paid to Goldenberg International for gemstones that were never delivered.