January 26, 2012 / 9:51 PM / 6 years ago

Kenya's richest man at crossroads after ICC ruling

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Uhuru Kenyatta quit as Kenyan finance minister Thursday, days after being indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Kenyatta, Kenya’s richest man with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at half a billion dollars, is the son of Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president after independence from Britain in 1963.

Born in October 1961, two months after his father was released from detention by the British, Kenyatta attended an exclusive private school in the capital Nairobi. He then moved to the United States to study economics and political science at the prestigious Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Back in east Africa, Kenyatta tended his family’s vast business empire, pieced together by his father during his 14 years as president and spanning farming, banking, insurance, dairy products, tourism and schools.

Kenyatta, whose name Uhuru means “freedom” in Swahili, first ran for parliament in 1997, but was unsuccessful.

Two years later he was appointed chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board to promote the country’s famed wildlife reserves and pristine Indian Ocean beaches abroad.

He was thrust onto the national political stage as the preferred successor to former President Daniel arap Moi ahead of elections in 2002.

Despite an almost total lack of experience in government, Kenyatta, then 41, had hoped to rally support from his ethnic group, the Kikuyu and the country’s largest, and follow in his father’s footsteps.

But many feared the political novice would just be a malleable stooge for the powerful elite formed by Moi during his 24 years of autocratic rule, at a time many Kenyans were thirsty for political freedom and an end to rampant corruption.

So the Kikuyu put their weight behind Mwai Kibaki, 30 years Kenyatta’s senior and a seasoned politician who had stayed close to power during most of Moi’s rule but promised the reform many Kenyans yearned for.

When an election came around five years later, Kenyatta kept his own presidential ambitions in check and aligned his party behind Kibaki to help fend off a challenge from Raila Odinga, son of the country’s first vice president.

That election sowed the seeds of Kenyatta’s present woes.

Kibaki was declared the winner. But when Odinga accused him of stealing victory as the votes were totted up, violence erupted in the Rift Valley and spread to Nairobi.

Enraged mobs attacked the Kikuyu supporters of Kibaki, hacking, beating and burning them to death.

In ordering Kenyatta to stand trial Monday, the ICC said Kenyatta mobilised an outlawed Kikuyu Mungiki militia to fight back, with the complicity of the state security apparatus.

The ICC says Kenyatta called on the Mungiki to carry out the revenge attacks, bankrolling and trucking them to hotspots in a spiral of violence that killed 1,220 people, uprooted hundreds of thousands and pushed the country to the brink.

Mungiki, which means “mob” in the Kikuyu language, is made up of youths known for decapitating victims, stripping women wearing trousers and chanting religious hymns.

The mafia-style enterprise with origins in the Kikuyu heartland near Mount Kenya runs rackets extorting money from small businesses such as the operators of taxi minibuses.

Despite his vast wealth, the media-savvy Kenyatta has shown he can appear at ease with the man in street.

Late for a news conference last year, Kenyatta blamed Nairobi’s infernal traffic jams and posted a mobile phone video on Twitter, showing him stuck in his car chatting to street kids selling peanuts.

Kenyatta has not lost sight of his presidential goal despite the indictment and his resignation as finance minister. Party officials said he has formed an alliance with former rival and fellow ICC suspect William Ruto to campaign for the presidency together.

Friday, he is expected to make his first public appearance since the ICC ruling, taking the stage at a rally with Ruto in Eldoret, close to the centre of the post-election violence.

“My conscience is clear, my will is strong and my resolve remains undeterred,” Kenyatta said on Twitter after he quit as minister. “Look forward to meeting you all as I traverse the country in the coming weeks.”

Additional reporting and editing by James Macharia; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo

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