Jun 12, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Presidential candidate killed in crash; what next for Kenyan politics?

A helicopter carrying six people, including Kenyan Internal Security minister George Saitoti, crashed early Sunday morning in the Ngong Forest to the west of Nairobi, killing all on board and shocking the country with the sudden loss of a political titan.

Professor Saitoti, as he was known thanks to a successful pre-political career in academia, had served at the highest levels of Kenyan politics for nearly three decades; as a member of parliament, leader of four prominent ministries, and vice-president for a long stretch during former President Moi’s administration. In the role of Finance Minister, Saitoti was also at the center of Kenya’s most infamous corruption scandal, the Goldenberg affair of the early 1990s, which fleeced the Kenyan economy of $600 million — though the professor’s knowledge of, and complicity in, the scandal was never proven. More recently, as chief of internal security, Saitoti had refashioned his image as a “de-tribalised” figure fighting for the security and benefit of all Kenyans. This post had also made him an influential voice on one of Kenya’s most pressing issues of concern — addressing the recent spate of Al-Shabaab attacks through, among other things, a significant contribution of Kenyan military forces to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Yet most political observers agree that Saitoti’s political trajectory, despite its run-in with controversy, was moving unmistakably toward a run at Kenya’s highest political office. Though far from the front-runner — a status held by current Prime Minister Raila Odinga — Saitoti was poised to become a major player in the upcoming presidential contest, in part due to the recent International Criminal Court indictments of two other presidential contenders for their role in fomenting post-election violence in 2007. In the event that both candidates were disqualified or otherwise rendered un-electable, Saitoti, despite a mixed tribal heritage, could have positioned himself as the natural Kikuyu successor to current President Kibaki, while also drawing upon his long-standing partnerships with Kalenjin leaders to attract a decent share of that community’s vote as well.

Instead, Kenya’s forthcoming presidential campaign may take on a dramatically different dynamic. The sudden and deadly violence that erupted after the last presidential contest in 2007 pitted the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes against one another, an episode that all serious leaders hope to avoid during the next poll in (most likely) 2013. As a rare politician with cross-community appeal, Saitoti and his candidacy promised to unite rather than divide the two groups in an attempt to challenge PM Odinga — himself an ethnic Luo whose previous bid, and subsequent controversial defeat at the hands of President Kibaki, prefaced the immense post-election violence that left over 1000 dead. However, with Sunday’s tragic accident as well as the probable marginalization of the ICC-indicted candidates, few contenders remain with the organizational capacity or broad multi-tribe appeal to present a viable alternative to Odinga. Granted, it’s far from certain that a campaign devoid of unifying figures will create new bouts of violence. But it certainly raises concerns as the electoral season approaches.




  • What’s the political gossip? True or not, I suspect few Kenyans will believe it was caused by “technical failures.”

  • In today’s paper there was actually a front page article about 4 MPs alleging foul play. And among the few people I asked, they seemed skeptical that it was purely an accident as well. One even thought that Kenyatta (the former president’s son) was behind it. But so far officials are sticking with the company line, technical failures. There do seem to be a few strange happenings, including a last minute pilot switch and an atypical flight path given the destination. You’re definitely right, no matter what the investigation turns up, many will suspect the worst.

  • I’m interested in the gossip in part because of what it suggests about politics in Kenya. What’s the gossip on who had something to gain from this and who has lost?

  • […] “no.” He points to the career of the late Kenyan MP George Saitoti, recently killed in a helicopter crash. A brilliant academic with a PhD in mathematics, Saitoti was expected to […]

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