By David Matende

If you want to know a man’s character, watch how he treats the weak – children, servants, etc.
Unlike most of you, I have had the privilege of meeting with the two leading candidates in Tuesday’s presidential election and the retiring president. Allow me to describe my first encounters briefly with these prominent politicians.
Let me start with Kenyatta. I saw him for the first time in Thika Stadium in 1997. He was at that time the Thika KANU branch chairman. A gangly chap in his early 30s, he was among the people that addressed a rally in the stadium ahead of that year’s election.
I don’t remember what he said, but I remember him standing up and walking backstage, where he hastily removed a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of his brown jacket, lit one, and pulled enthusiastically at it. The smell of the expensive tobacco wafted in the still evening air. He waved at a group of us that stood beside the stage, taking notes and pictures. At this time, I noticed a subtle resemblance to his father, Jomo Kenyatta. When he was done, he sat down as if nothing had happened.
A few months later, I bumped into the future President in a mutual friend’s office in Ruprani House, an old building along Mokhtar Dada Street. He was seated calmly in the visitor’s chair, a cigarette burning between his fingers. He wore a white shirt but did not have a jacket. He greeted me politely. Since the office was small, he was forced to move to let me squeeze my way to the other chair.
He kept quiet throughout my conversation with our host, David Kigochi, a Kiambu political broker who was surprisingly a civil servant. Although I knew that David kept alcohol in that office and would occasionally serve his visitors a glass or two of expensive wine (he had access to duty-free alcohol), I did not see Kenyatta drink. David later told me that Kenyatta was a frequent visitor who occasionally volunteered to buy chips at a nearby famous joint. That was my first and only close encounter with Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta.
William Ruto. Ruto, and I, were students at the University of Nairobi at the same time in the late 1980s. But such were our differences socially, academically, and politically that I never met him for the entire period we were at the university. He was studying sciences at the Chiromo campus while I studied the arts at the Main campus. I was a year his senior. I played campus politics at the SONU level while he played it at the regional/ethnic university student level. I’m told he was in Christian Union, while at that time, I liked to indulge in certain activities that CU would never approve of (I have since seen the light).
When I met Ruto for the first time, he was already a famous man serving as MP for Eldoret North. At that time, I was writing political stories for a local publication, so I had a brief to interview politicians on the salient political issues of the day. I interviewed dozens of politicians, including senior ministers. Most of them always accepted my request for interviews. Those who could not find time would inform me of the fact, often promising to do so later. Not so Ruto.
One day, I approached the then Opposition Kanu MP along the corridors of parliament, hoping to secure an interview. He stopped briefly, looked sternly at me, and asked harshly, “ ni nini unataka?” I tried to explain. He cut me short. I deployed the coxing skills I had learned during my thankless career. Nothing. The athletic MP sneered; his eyes turned away. Abruptly, he shook his head and walked away. That was my first and last close encounter with the outgoing vice president.
Raila Odinga. As you know, Odinga has a larger-than-life image. Before my close encounter with him, I had seen him hundreds of times on TV. I had been at some press conferences he spoke at and had attended rallies he addressed but never got that close to him.
But just before the heady 2007 election, I had the opportunity to meet with him, eyeball to eyeball. At that time, I was an official of a civil society organization. My organization decided to visit him at the famous Jaramogi Odinga Centre to discuss one or two issues. Unlike some leaders who did not respond favorably to such requests, Mr. Odinga quickly agreed to meet us.
So, my team and I trooped to the center. Although he was the second most crucial politician at that time after President Kibaki, we did not encounter any protocol roadblocks. He requested to see me before he met the entire group. And that’s when I had the opportunity to speak directly to the man who could be president this week.
He took my hand and invited me to sit beside him on the sofa. I noticed that he was smaller than I had thought. In the room were other important allies of that time – Musalia Mudavadi, Najib Balala, and I believe Joseph Nyaga – but he ignored them and focused his attention on me. He listened calmly as I explained myself. Not once did he interrupt me. Although his press handlers at that time- Sarah Elderkin and Kibisu Kabatesi – had before the meeting debriefed me thoroughly (Sarah and Kibisu, I have never forgiven you for that debrief, which, with the wisdom of hindsight, I should have ignored), he got my point and agreed to a joint press conference. At the meeting, he spoke passionately and articulately about the topic.
Years later, I was to see him almost every day when I worked briefly for the Nasa presidential campaign. Apart from one nasty encounter with an overzealous security man (not the official bodyguards, who apologized for the incident), Odinga was never an intimidating presence. I could have spoken with him if I had wanted, but there was no need.
Kenyatta is retiring; what character would you elect as his replacement?


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