Son of Kenya’s founding president, Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday took up his father’s mantle to become head of state despite facing trial for crimes against humanity over election violence five years ago.
Uhuru — meaning “freedom”, and Kenyatta, the “light of Kenya” in Swahili — carries his country’s aspirations in his name, but brings with him controversy.
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.
Hugely wealthy, 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 outgoing 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 major banking and media interests as well as 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 percent of the population.
However, he also appeals to large numbers of Kenyans from different ethnic backgrounds, able to mingle not only with the elite he was born into but also with the average Kenyan, cracking jokes using local street slang.
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 him 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 joined 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 he beat on Saturday, Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
One of the richest men in Africa
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 forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.