The Rise and Fall of the State House Boys

Inside the intrigues that built and destroyed the President’s comms team. A story of blind ambition, unfettered ego, and utter destruction. And a brothel.

The Meeting

The president leaned forward, with his palms on the table. He was angry and tired. And it was showing. His red eyes widened, and his mouth broke into a sadistic smile.

For nearly an hour, he had sat quietly as one side of the table ganged up on his man. But he had let them vent first, before he banged the table. “I hired Manoah for a reason,” the President angrily said, staring his communications team down, “either take instructions from him or ship out!”

Many things had led to this point, to this particular meeting. And everyone who had talked so far had clearly misunderstood why the President had called the meeting. First, they had launched into tirades against Manoah Esipisu, the State House Spokesperson. They had spent their time at the meeting tabling their grievances against Manoah, hoping that this was the meeting that would finally get him sent away from State House.

In that room, with Uhuru Kenyatta and Manoah Esipisu, sat the top layer of the communications unit. They all had lofty titles of Senior Directors and Directors of the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU). They included Dennis Itumbi, Munyori Buku, James Kinyua, Munira Mohamed, David Nzioka, and Big Ted. For professional communicators, they clearly had not read the mood in the room. Their bosses were quiet; even the man who they thought was the subject of the meeting sat quietly, listening, and taking notes.

And then the hammer fell. Their bosses had let them run amok with the presidency for long enough.

Without flinching, the president added “You will do what Manoah says. You will send him weekly plans of what you are doing, and weekly reviews of what you’ve done!” He wasn’t asking. By this point, the intrigues within the comms team had become an international spectacle, and the Presidency was in shambles.

“And no more media appearances except with express permission from Manoah!” He added.

It was Wednesday, 29th June 2016. It was sunny, but cold, outside. In this meeting room within State House, it was suddenly cloudy.

I.

BUILD

Image source [Link]

For the team the President had just been dressed down, this entire meeting had gone completely out of character. Uhuru Kenyatta was their personal friend. A man, as someone once wrote, from whose cigarette pack you could pick a stick. But they had forgotten, somewhere around mid-2013, that the man they had helped win the presidency had actually won. That while the campaigns are a rat race with little structure and rules, the presidency is a marathon that demands order, patience, and respect.

 That’s why, despite having a young, vibrant, diverse team of communicators between 2010 and 2013, he had chosen Manoah Esipisu to manage State House comms. The boys, with whom he had had many conversations, and who had actually built for him the platform with which he won the presidency took this as a betrayal. In the years since 2013, they systematically deployed campaign-style tactics to try and oust Manoah. Manoah did not survive the second term of the Presidency. But neither did they. It was a Pyrrhic victory.

Manoah was not even replaced by one of them, as they had always intended. Instead, Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Kanze Dena, a young, career journalist, to take over Manoah’s position. She had less than two months to learn the job, but this time, unlike in Manoah’s tenure, she had the support of the formal State House structures.

In a quickly deleted post on a State House Whatsapp group they used to issue instructions to junior officers, Dennis Itumbi, having not read the signs of the times yet again, took his first aim at Kanze Dena, as he had done for many years, publicly, privately, and covertly, against Manoah. But State House was reclaiming the prestige of the presidency, and with Uhuru’s second term in progress, and the March 9th 2018 handshake giving him political peace, cleaning house. And it had to begin with the communications unit, which had soiled itself so much in public that it had become a story all by itself, and not a good one.

All the unofficial accounts opened and run by the PSCU unit’s rogue elements were deleted in one fell swoop. In an alert sent to media houses by the Chief of Staff, Nzioka Waita, on Friday, July 27th 2018 their tenure as the president’s communicators was effectively ended. In it, Waita clearly indicated the official state house accounts, ending their six-year chaotic run.

Screengrab of media alert from Nzioka Waita to media houses (27th July 2018)

 

 

But they were not going to go down without fight. They would either burn the house down, in a communications sense, or be invited back. Even worse, their contracts ran upto 2020, and remain in place at the time of writing, but their access to and work for State House was revoked.

In a series of organised comms and false flag attacks using proxies, they waged war against the Presidency by attacking institutions and people close to the Presidency. This  was orchestrated to make it look like communications in State House has been in jeopardy since their exit. In private whatsapp groups, they organised attacks against the President’s Delivery Unit, whose Head is also the Chief of Staff, because they blamed him for their ouster in August 2018. He was also the one who locked them out of State House while the President was away in June 2016, and set up the meeting where Uhuru banged the table and tried to set new rules.

A second strategy even before the ouster was to seek space in the Deputy President’s campaign machinery at Harambee Annex. The lesson they had learnt was that the campaign process, with its fluid, chaotic, and exciting energy, is where they thrive best. They ensured all their accounts would retweet everything the DP tweeted. In the only channels that they currently manage, like @Nexuske, their content was geared towards the Deputy President. The 36 bloggers, a unit of mercenary writers and online content creators, now have only one mandate, making the DP trend.

Manoah, now perked in a much saner office in London, must have been watching with amusement…..

Ego had checked in long before the meeting on that day in June 2016. Even to anyone with no access to the hallowed halls of the House on the Hill, it was clear the comms team had gone from a mercenary unit to a public nuisance. The trail of evidence in this story is built from tweets, leaked documents and emails, legal documents, press releases, and interviews.

It is the story of how the team that became the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) forgot the first law of the 48 Laws of Power “Never Outshine The Master.”

 

The Lesson

Uhuru and Margaret Kenyatta during the 1997 campaigns

Sometime in 2010, Uhuru Kenyatta approached Johnson Sakaja, then a budding 25-year-old ambitious man, with a simple ask. To build a communications team that would help him build his brand, and shore up his position for the 2013 elections. Uhuru was then the Minister of Finance, and one of two Deputy Prime Ministers in the Grand Coalition government. His most formidable opponents at that point were Kalonzo Musyoka, Raila Odinga, and George Saitoti. But he had a plan.

It was a plan from a painful lesson. The first time the young Uhuru Kenyatta tried to run for political office, in the 1997 elections, he lost because his opponent Moses Muihia created a false flag comms operation on Christmas Day of that year. It was a simple, brilliant, if not diabolical plan.

The first step, as recounted in Uhuru Kenyatta’s biography Hard Tackle by Irungu Thatiah, was a call to newsrooms that Moses Muihia was missing. Muihia’s nephew made the call on Christmas Eve, just in time for it to be the main story the next day. Then, the next morning, the people of Gatundu town woke up to a crime scene, or what looked like one, in River Thiririka. A car that resembled Muihia’s was floating in the river, and there was blood on the banks, as well as signs of a struggle. Newspaper headlines had it that Muihia was missing, and his nephew was holding media interviews. Although the planning for this had begun three months before, Uhuru Kenyatta and the Kenyatta Clan had been clueless.

This far, he had commanded a comfortable win against Muihia, who was a quantity surveyor and a reluctant politician. But Uhuru had underestimated the weight of his surname in reminding the electorate of the sins of the KANU government. He had no idea, and then no time, and then no choice. Muihia played him at every stage from that point. He only appeared publicly on Election Day to say he had been hiding from the government, after being accosted by its agents who wanted him to quit the race. Uhuru Kenyatta, confident in his win, voted in the morning. He didn’t understand what Muihia had been doing for two days, and why even the choice of the river-near the Kenyatta family home–was symbolic. As Muihia voted in the dying minutes of Election Day, he had already won. In just two days, he had changed the game. There were no rules.

In the thirteen years since then, Uhuru Kenyatta lost another election, also bogged down by his surname, as well as the angst against his godfather, President Daniel Arap Moi. He tried to be the Leader of Official Opposition for three years, and jumped ship as soon as the political opportunity presented itself.

 

The Dungeon

By 2010, he was older, smarter, and more careful. He was now a politician who knew how to play the dirty game to win. He knew he had to be on top of his image, and to carve for himself a name and a party separate from the weight of family and his political sponsors. And it was fairly easier now because most of the electorate was young and online. He had time, and he knew just the man for the job.

Johnson Sakaja built for Uhuru Kenyatta a formidable team with speech writers, digital media experts, data specialists, branding experts, media experts, photographers, videographers, and professional writers.Within this group, Sakaja was the overall head, while David Nzioka did SMS campaigning, Patrick Ngatia focused on grassroots campaigns, Marvin Tumbo handled Digital Media, James Muriithi was in charge of branding, Dennis Itumbi in charge of Media and Press. Each was given the role that best suited their experience and training, but they had one common goal; to build Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 campaign machine. Within no time, it was to also help him shape the message around his ICC indictment as well.

The team was housed in an aging two-story house on Amboseli Lane in Lavington. In the years they spent toiling to build Uhuru as a viable candidate, they first called it Deep End and later, The Dungeon. The living room was turned into a boardroom, which was next to a dining room that was turned into a lounge. If you went up the spiral staircase, you found Sakaja’s office, and the Press/Media office where the photographers and videographers sat.

The heart of the operation, the social media team, sat in the war room. To decompress, there was a small patio with an umbrella roof outside. For days and nights, The Dungeon was the heart of Uhuru Kenyatta’s communications machinery, and the most important part of his campaign.

By the time Johnson Sakaja left the communications job to set up the political party, The National Alliance (TNA), the team had about 15 young people working hard to build Uhuru Kenyatta’s brand. Their work would eventually propel him to the top of the list of viable candidates, jumping hurdles such as ICC indictment, court cases about his eligibility, and more experienced candidates to win in March 2013.

From The Dungeon, Uhuru Kenyatta rewarded a few people who chose to walk with him in the presidency. This was a mistake, as his personal relationships with them would affect his work as president, and soil the identity of the office he had fought to win. He learnt the lesson too late, by which time he was running for reelection. But slowly, as the mistakes and embarrassment piled up, he listened to calmer voices, and built a wall around himself. It was only a matter of time before the survivors of The Dungeon were in his crosshairs.

Screengrab from internal document titled ‘The Proposed Structure of the Office of the President’ made on 15th May, 2013. [Link to full doc]

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II.

EGO

Wednesday, July 10th 2013 was a largely uneventful, sunny day but for two events. President Uhuru Kenyatta, still fresh in office, invited the Editors Guild to a meeting at State House. The meeting was uncomfortable to everyone else, because it implied he was trying to control the media. But that day, he promised his government was not “interested in propaganda” and that his government would foster “openness and transparency that offers benefits to Kenyans.”

His new CS for Information, the authoritarian Fred Matiang’i even added that the government was “committed to press freedom.” All these were empty words, as would become clear before the year was over and journalists were fighting new, oppressive media laws.

That day, at that meeting, President Kenyatta also introduced his new comms team. At the head of the unit was Manoah Esipisu, a career communicator who had been headhunted from the African Development Bank (ADB). Manoah, even on that day, he must have wondered whether he had made a mistake taking up the job. At the first meeting of the team, which was titled the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) and whose heads of departments had titles of Directors and Senior Directors, the first shots in what would become a six-year-long civil war were fired.  As Manoah Esipisu set the agenda for the unit, Dennis Itumbi repeatedly interjected. He tried to correct Manoah several times, and mentioned severally that the President gave him instructions directly.

Screengrab of an email from Wambui Gichuru to Dennis Itumbi sent on August 20, 2013. At the time, Nancy Gitau was Uhuru Kenyatta’s political advisor. She resigned in July 2016 after a robbery incident at her private offices in Kileleshwa.

If it wasn’t clear then that this would be a rogue unit,  the next five years would prove that over and over again.The team Uhuru Kenyatta picked from The Dungeon comprised primarily of Dennis Itumbi, James Kinyua, Munyori Buku, and Eric Ng’eno. There were others in the complex organizational structure, but it is this four men who would eventually tear down their own success. They would do it recklessly, frequently, and publicly.

The Men

Dennis Itumbi made a name for himself as a whistleblower/blogger at the height of the ICC story. The indictment of Uhuru Kenyatta had introduced legal, political, and communications problems for the candidate and his team. The decision to run for presidency and build an alliance with William Samoei Ruto, another ICC indictee, challenged the status quo of both local politics and the international order of things. Dennis Itumbi, as a young, curious blogger with itchy fingers fit right in with one purpose. To disseminate information online.

Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) Directors from L to R: James Kinyua (Events and Branding), Edward Irungu (Press), Munyori Buku (External Communications and Media ), Dennis Itumbi (Digital, New Media and Diaspora Director) and Eric Ng’eno (Speechwriting and Research)

Within the sanctum santorum of Uhuru’s fight with the ICC, Itumbi found enough material to update the public, like the appointment of Uhuru’s lawyers, legal strategy, and political alignments and re-alignment. He was allowed into the process to do exactly that. Even then, he made a few public mistakes, like leaking things that should have been said by the candidate himself. But he was largely effective in shaping the narrative online, and so he stayed.

Dennis Itumbi was arrested by the Kibaki government in 2012 on suspicion that he had hacked into ICC servers and stolen sensitive information. Even though he didn’t have any sufficient technical knowledge to do such a thing, the ICC insisted that it had been his doing. But everyone in the know knew he wasn’t the true target, just the easiest and most vulnerable one. For the wrongful arrest, he was compensated Shs. 5 million in January 2018.

The second man, and the oldest, in the PSCU Four was Munyori Buku. Buku, a former senior editor at Standard Media, had been Uhuru’s spokesman at the Ministry of Finance and Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The man who Uhuru’s biographer described as “a short man, almost half the height of Kenyatta, who dressed so horribly that…it was easy to mistake him for a cabbage dealer from Wanyee” was the presumptive State House spokesperson before the President settled on Manoah Esipisu. Still, unlike his younger compatriots, he was more level-headed when it came to it, but he didn’t forget the slight of not being appointed to the office he wanted, and probably deserved.

For his speechwriter, Uhuru appointed Eric Ng’eno, a former lawyer who had initially been seconded to the campaign by William Ruto. That close relationship would repeatedly save not just him, but the PSCU Four from being fired from State House. Ng’eno first met Ruto when he worked for him as a researcher and secretary during the 2007/8 Serena negotiations. He had been a lawyer for five years by then, and the close relationship eventually earned him the title of the Director of Speech Writing and Research.

The quietest of the four was James Kinyua. Easy to forget because he rarely sought as much public attention as the other three, Kinyua had worked at State House before. It might also be easy to forget him because he shares initials, and a second name, with Joseph Kinyua, who Uhuru Kenyatta plucked from Treasury in late September 2013 to be his Chief of Staff and Head of Public Service.

Although James Kinyua didn’t design things, his keen eye for detail fit right well into the Digital Campaign’s drive to have the best branding in the campaign. He was always in the background in the online campaigns, but barely ever appearing in media interviews. His name though, was in bylines and press releases from the PSCU Four. Another frequent name in PSCU bylines was Emmanuel Talaam.

There were other people in the unit but in the months and years that followed that July 10th 2013 meeting, it was these four men who would emerge as the main agitators, and saboteurs, within the Presidency’s communications strategy. Because they had all expected Buku to be made the head of the unit, their disdain for Esipisu began on the first day, and only escalated with time. It would not only embarrass the presidency, and everyone involved, it would also make State House look chaotic and disorganized.

They made mistake after mistake, often publicly and with a frequency that made anyone watching wonder how and why they had gotten the job. They did frequent media interviews, describing their work for the presidency, a mistake that once lost a minister his position during the Moi years.

But by July 2016, the President couldn’t handle it anymore. The trigger itself was an international incident that should never have become the crisis it now was. But still, here, sitting across their bosses, they played politics still. The idea, and the target, was still to get rid of Manoah Esipisu. While Uhuru Kenyatta was in Gaborone hobnobbing with Ian Khama, Nairobi was on fire. Nzioka Waita revoked the PSCU Four’s access to State House immediately after their public mistake, and asked them to wait for the President to return to Kenya.

The Fire

On June 22nd 2016, a week before the meeting where the President banged the table, the New York Times (NYT) published a story by American journalist James Verini titled “The Prosecutor and the President.” The longform piece covered the 2007 elections, and the bloody aftermath that actually built both Uhuru’s and Ruto’s career first, by making them villains, and with sly communication, the heroes in the story.

Screengrab of James Verini’s article, published in the New York Times [Link]

For the story, Verini talked to various politicians and people. Among the things he pointed out was that Mungiki had openly supported Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2002 election but “Kenyatta didn’t like or trust Njenga.” [Maina Njenga, the founder of Mungiki.] Verini also rightly noted that Uhuru was a reluctant politician who believed the presidency was his birthright, and that he was twice groomed for the seat. He was raised in State House anyway, and in his adulthood, shared a fence with the House on the Hill.

The PSCU responded to Verini’s piece with an unwarranted, open attack on NYT. The cringe worthy press release, written by all Directors and Senior Directors, was sent to newsrooms on June 24th, 2016, just days before the entire team turned up on State House Road to find the space closed to them.

Screengrab of the press release as it was posted by The Star [Link].

In the hurriedly written, careless press release, they made several outrageous claims that reeked of hubris. Among them was a paragraph that asked “Whom did the paper contact at State House? Why did they not interview Dennis Itumbi, despite making reference to him? Is the truth on PEV going to be dictated by Mungiki, seriously?

It said the NYT “continues its steady descent into the murky, rancid morass of gutter press and has abandoned all pretence of journalistic pretence of journalistic decency.” If their goal had been to take away focus from Verini’s article, then they succeeded. But the focus was now on them for adding unnecessary fuel to a fire.

While all this was happening, President Kenyatta was in Botswana for a state visit.

The work of disciplining this rogue unit fell on Nzioka Waita, who had just been headhunted from Safaricom PLC. Waita revoked the PSCU’s access to State House, only telling them to wait until the president returned to the country. As they sat in the cold, denied access to the house they had called home for several years, they must have known that the end was near. If nothing else, the press release was not the only mistake they had made. It was just the latest in tens, if not hundreds, but it was the most embarrassing to the presidency. The PSCU couldn’t have chosen a worse time to make such a mistake; the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due for a state visit the next week.

The problem with the spirited rant of the press release was that it exposed the unprofessionalism of PSCU to the world and deeply embarrassed a president who was at that moment courting international friends to his corner. Verini’s story had been worked on for months by teams of editors, fact checkers, lawyers and sub-editors, all pointing to the fact that they were ready for anything. But as Munyori Buku and the other PSCU Directors wrote their press release, they didn’t account for any of this. And it showed.

In its response three days later, the NYT said “Throughout this process, (President) Kenyatta’s representatives were informed of the subject of the article and did not at any point address it. A fact-checker for The Times Magazine also emailed Kenyatta’s chief spokesman and received no response.” They also provided timestamps of these repeated attempts for comment, embarrassing the Presidency for its hurried and unprofessional response.

While the PSCU Four eventually regained access to State House, it was clear their time there was coming to an end. After their overall boss banged the table, they were subdued, but only for a while. On the side, they started using State House accounts to promote the Deputy President to plug themselves into his 2022 campaign.

The Civil War

For Manoah Esipisu, everyday at State House, and even away from it, was a fight to bring some order to the presidency’s communication unit and to keep his job. He was up against a tight-knit unit that had the President’s ear, and they were younger, more ambitious, careless, and vindictive. It’s hard now to trace when exactly the sabotage and attempts to get Manoah fired, or pushed to an international posting like his predecessor, began.

But evidence from 2013 to the time of his appointment as Kenya’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom show he was in permanent defence mode. He fought back by locking the PSCU Four out of the president’s international trips, and they responded by removing any mention of him from press releases from State House. Manoah also tried to balance the unit by appointed Senior Directors of his own choosing. He appointed Munira Mohamed, Wangui Muchuri and Judy Munyinyi to bring that balance. But that did not solve anything. Wangui Muchiri quickly exited the scene as fights waged on. She found herself in PDU and later at the NGCC as the Deputy to Kiraithe. There was peace there. Judy Munyinyi quickly exited as well. She was not made for this. She moved to the Ministry of ICT as the Secretary for Information.

Munira Mohammed was co-opted by the boys into the civil war. She was the only one of them who would survive the June to August 2018 purge.

Since they had never had direct control of the President’s social media accounts, the directors decided to get control of the president’s website. Through this, they engineered their first attacks. Whenever Manoah called for press conferences, they would ensure that his statements did not make it to the website. Where the junior employees would publish them, they would delete them. This wasn’t even the dirtiest play in the handbook yet.

They also got access to the State House Kenya Twitter and Facebook accounts. They actively deleted the posts on Manoah’s statements to the media when others with access posted them. This essentially meant that save for the President’s own social media accounts, Manoah Esipisu had no outlet through social media or the state house website. It was the erasure part of this civil war in the most important building in the country.

Screengrab of a Whatsapp conversation between two junior officers of the PSCU (dated 2015).

As the face of the presidency’s comms unit, Manoah fought back. In mid-2015, he reached out to the ICT Authority and had the IP address withdrawn from the existing website and secretly had another website created and pre-populated with previous stories. This ensured that all his statements would be published on the president’s website. He still had no way to access the official State House handles on social media, but he had won a battle.

With the website taken away and without access to the official President’s social media accounts, the directors created alternative accounts beyond the @PSCUDigital, @PSCUDiaspora et al that they already controlled. They created the @PresidentKE account, which they packaged as the official account for the institution of the President. But in reality, they were looking to speak for the President officially, something they had tried to do by trying to gain control of the official accounts and @UKenyatta, without success. They created a mini-PSCU because they could not work for PSCU and needed to justify their jobs. The @PresidentKE account would soon find itself marred by controversies by posting information that went counter to the prevailing Government narrative. A good example was when the then Interior Security CS, Joseph Nkaissery, warned them to cease and desist from communicating on security matters after the Westgate incident.

Screengrab of Whatsapp conversation between junior PSCU officers on new Twitter accounts.

But Manoah had ultimate control affairs on communications at and from State House. Among his salvos was to prevent any of the PSCU Four from travelling with the president on any international assignments. To repay Manoah for consistently cutting them out of lucrative trips, ignoring them, they upped their game in several sneaky steps. Severally, someone sneaked into his office released sensitive information to the media. When mainstream media with whom Manoah had cultivated a relationship with refused to publish their leaks, they used independent bloggers to do the job.

Screengrab of Dennis Itumbi’s email response to a show cause letter from Manoah Esipisu in late May 2015 over errors in official communication.

Among the personal information about Manoah that leaked through these means were screenshots of Manoah seeking funds from NHIF for a trip. The most personal one was a letter from a prestigious business club asking him to pay his membership fees. Some of these, and others, were stolen from his office either physically or as images of his emails on his iMac.

Manoah also responded by reassigning all Senior Directors and Directors who came from The Dungeon to Ministries, away from State House. They all returned the same way Eric Ng’eno had, with the William Ruto’s support, but they came back emboldened. What followed only made things worse and more confusing. They didn’t follow due process when writing or sending press releases, meaning many of them were never edited or fact-checked. They also created parallel accounts such as @PresidentKE, @PSCUDigital, @PSCUDiaspora, and @NexusKE. None of these were properly approved, and in the free online space, they set their agenda.

It was also to the Deputy President that the PSCU 4 hinged their collective and individual futures. They built a team of 36 bloggers, housed at the DP’s Office on Harambee Avenue, to fight specific wars online. Their targets were not just non-governmental brands and individuals; in most cases they were any government efforts, or officers who excluded them from functions and campaigns. Hashtags had counter-hashtags, and the wars within State House became daily fights on Twitter and Facebook.

Reading some of the work the PSCU as a unit did now is cringe worthy. In this one, published 13th May 2014, about the now-collapsing and distressing “Look East” policy, the four of them and Emmanuel Talaam begin with “We told you!” In it they wrote that because Kenya had signed 17 deals with China in one visit it had become, “ …virtually became the headquarters of China in Africa.” Despite repeated public concern about how much short-term debt obligation the Kenyatta government was absorbing, the team tried to shape the narrative as a positive relationship. They didn’t see, because none of them was actually a trained or experienced public communicator, the problem with implying Kenya had become a province of China.

But it was their response to the Verini article that began their fall from grace.

 

III.

RUIN

Uhuru Kenyatta and PSCU’s senior officers.

Manoah Esipisu breathed a sigh of relief when he was finally given an out in 2018. But he had been head of a rogue, reckless unit for six years, and its mistakes were not just about to give him peace. At his vetting before Parliament, a mundane but actually symbolic issue came up in the form of the question of why the President had unfollowed the Deputy President on Twitter. South Mugirango MP Sylvanus Osoro asked him whether it “Was an act of carelessness?”

The carelessness was not implied; it had been clear since Uhuru Kenyatta assumed the presidency in 2013 that his comms team had four men who didn’t understand he was no longer a candidate. Kenya was teetering on the edge of a myriad of issues, with terror attacks, a struggling economy, and many other things. It was also slowly, from mid-2013, rolling back the clock into being an autocracy, with another Kenyatta at the very top. And like his father, Uhuru had let the men around him do as they pleased. But unlike then, their mistakes and hubris were public and embarrassing to the office he held

The early morning meeting on 29th June 2016 didn’t go as planned. For a time, it seemed it had. Itumbi posted images of himself and Manoah Esipisu on Facebook, calling him Boss. His personal motivation might have been to get into Manoah’s good books so he could regain his access to media interviews and international trips.

Before long, Uhuru Kenyatta’s 29th June 2016 détente failed, and the civil war was back in full force.

By the time Manoah Esipisu was nominated as Kenya’s envoy to the UK in June 2018, he was a tired, frustrated man. He needed to leave not just State House, but Kenya behind. The President appointed former Citizen TV anchor Kanze Dena, 39, as his deputy in the transitional period, and Dena replaced Manoah just six weeks later.

In that time, there had been several significant changes. One, Uhuru Kenyatta didn’t need the Dungeon Team anymore because his time campaigning was done. He was now interested in building a legacy, and the communications mess the 2013-2018 period had been being no longer tenable, or even necessary as a protective measure. There was also key economic and social issues to solve, and the political class itself had huddled together. With the economy approaching an unnecessary austerity period, it was clear his second term would be anything but easy. The civil war he had fostered could no longer be ignored.

First, he built a new team within State House, starting from the campaigning period from mid-2017. He appointed Kinuthia Mbugua, a former head of the Administration Police and Nakuru Governor, as his new State House Comptroller. He also made Nzioka Waita his Chief of Staff, and even appointed a Deputy Head, PSCU and Head of the Presidential Library. The current holder, Munira Mohammed, occupies a role that has never been made public before, implying that by curating the lives and experiences of his predecessors, Uhuru Kenyatta is trying to shape how his legacy is processed.

For the PSCU Four, the future was most likely another campaign, and the man for the role was William Ruto. But unlike his boss, Ruto’s ruthless management of his campaign machinery was already causing friction.

What also changed in the years between The Dungeon and August 2018 was that more people now knew how to deploy communications tactics online, and the team that survived Amboseli Road had spent so much time fighting for power they had not updated their weapons. They were not even fired, in a human resources sense, just banned from State House, and with it, the access that gave them power.

The Brothel

The PSCU Four are a long way from three years (2010-2013) that built them, where they were part of a team that seemed to perform magic in changing public perception. With no more fight left in them, and State House machinery working to keep them away, they retreated to the Deputy President on the promise that they could replicate the 2010-2013 success for his 2022 presidential run.

After their last ouster, the Presidency’s communications unit begun settling as it should have on the first day of Uhuru’s presidency five years before. Their crises now include the fact that Kenya is headed into an austerity period that could have been avoided, with the projects the money funded either struggling or becoming socioeconomic white elephants. There was a lesson to learn from the ferocity and disruptive work of the PSCU Four, and that was that the language of the state has to evolve.

But in the last month since they were kicked out, that has barely happened. While the new team is young, qualified, and more disciplined, they are yet to face a serious communications crisis.

Meanwhile The Dungeon, in the years after Uhuru’s communications war council left, became a brothel.

 

M.

Owaahh, 2018

One story is good,

till Another is told.

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