Why a week is a long time in politics: Lessons from Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta

Retired President Mwai Kibaki when he posed for a photo with Deputy President William Ruto and President Uhuru Kenyatta after their swearing-in ceremony at Kasarani Stadium. [File, Standard]

It is former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who uttered the often quoted line that a week is a long time in politics.

He had been in the hot kitchen of British politics long enough to learn that early start and lead doesn’t necessarily end in victory and that it isn’t over in an election until the last ballot is counted. Wilson was the come-from-behind candidate in his first election as Prime Minister in 1964. Every poll indicated the incumbent, Alec Douglas-Home, was the frontrunner and the man to beat. However, though a John-come-late, good planning, right messaging and aggressive campaign saw Wilson turn tables and win the election.

The shoe was in the other foot in the 1970 British election however, when an overconfident Wilson was trounced by Edward Heath to occupy No. 10 Downing Street. But, against odds, Wilson returned again in 1974 election to reclaim the premiership. Now you have an idea why he remarked that a week is such a long time in politics.

Major upsets

In the August presidential election many agree that Deputy President William Ruto is the man to beat. Until recently he was leading even in the most unbiased of the opinion polls. However, he has topped the charts not only because he started campaign so early – four years ago to be exact – but until recently he was the only declared aspirant hence competing against himself!

Back to Harold Wilson observation, at home there are memorable instances when presidential candidates came from behind or came late, but went ahead to stage major upsets. In the first multi-party presidential election in 1992, it was President Daniel Moi coming from behind and Opposition Kenneth Matiba coming late who made the surprise upsets.

In the wake of popular and bitter campaign to end Kanu’s one-party rule, nobody expected the party to have a needle’s eye chance in a competitive multi-party setting. At the kick off the question wasn’t if Kanu and President Moi would lose but when. The country was together in the only existing formidable opposition party FORD, and the major preoccupation was who would be its flag bearer to send President Moi home. Then cracks emerged in the Opposition. First to come was the Democratic Party (DP). Then FORD split three ways to Ford Kenya, Ford Asili and the Kenya National Congress (KNC). Along the way other small Opposition parties sprout and the political space was overcrowded. At last Kanu had reason to smile. An upbeat President Moi mocked the Opposition in saying it would fry in own fat like pork. Thanks to the split in the Opposition and taking advantage of the incumbency, President Moi came from behind to retain the presidency.

Within opposition, Jaramogi Odinga as leader of the united FORD started off as the man to beat. But in the horizon was the unknown factor in Kenneth Matiba who was hospitalised in London. With split in FORD and uncertainty on Matiba candidacy, Mwai Kibaki took over as the man to beat. Then Matiba surfaced only five months to the election. He started on slow momentum but took the country by storm in the last few weeks to a point he was labeled “earthquake’ in the voter rich Nairobi, in Mt Kenya and in Western region. Late as he came, at the final count he made surprise strong second to KANU’s Moi.

Kibaki moment

In the 2002 election, it is Kibaki as joint Opposition presidential candidate who made last minute smashing upset.

Though the incumbent President Moi wouldn’t be on the ballot, the ruling party Kanu had the head start. To begin with Kanu had a major score against the Opposition when Raila Odinga merged his party with the ruling party. The remaining opposition was still split three-way in Kibaki’s DP, Michael Wamalwa’s Ford Kenya and Charity Ngilu’s SDP.

Five months to the ballot Kanu was still the party to beat. Then all went haywire in the ruling party when President Moi announced Uhuru Kenyatta was his preferred heir, resulting to rebellion and formation of opposition Rainbow Coalition. Meanwhile, against expectation the trio of Kibaki, Wamalwa and Ngilu cobbled a united front they called National Alliance of Kenya (NAK). But at the same time yet another opposition worth of note surfaced in Simeon Nyachae’s Ford People. Now there were four horses three months to the election – Kanu, NAK, Rainbow and Ford People. In that arrangement, Kanu still had a good chance to cut throw the clutter and emerge victorious. After all, the 50 per cent + 1 requirement hadn’t yet been enacted.

Within opposition ranks, the elephant in the room was competing egos. Kibaki, Raila, Saitoti and Nyachae were regarded as first-among-equals and each entitled in their own right. A stroke of genius and white smoke came when Raila declared Kibaki Tosha! (Kibaki is the one) to approving crowd at Uhuru Park. But doubts still lingered. Would Raila Nyanza vote bloc defy history and vote in a presidential candidate from Mount Kenya region? It happened and Kibaki romped home to victory. Indeed, it is Raila who led the last minute campaign for him after he was incapacitated in a road accident.

Uhuru surprise

In the 2013 election it is Uhuru Kenyatta who would make a last minute upstage and win race to State House.

He came in the underdog dogged by obstacle after the other. The man to beat was Raila Odinga. He was the Prime Minister and the de-facto No. 2 in command in the grand coalition government formed with President Kibaki. His running mate was the Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka.

In contrast Uhuru had stepped down from the Government, had a pending case at the ICC, and was unwanted by a section of the “Deep State”. He had started badly from word go. He was without a party as Gideon Moi had snatched from him Kanu. On the other hand the ruling party, PNU, on which Uhuru had been appointed to the Cabinet, had George Saitoti as its flag bearer.

After he formed own party which he called TNA, somebody rushed to court to have him barred from vying. He won the case and entered a pact to run alongside William Ruto’s URP only to discover ‘some demons’ as he put it wanted him to step down for Musalia Mudavadi. He shook off the ‘demons’.

But until the numbers began to appear at the Bomas of Kenya presidential tallying board, even Uhuru didn’t believe he would be declared fourth President of Kenya.

Postscript: Finally it is time to separate wheat and the chaff. With party membership and nomination deadlines set, we will get to know who is where and with whom. For example, much as Jubilee chief whip in the Senate, Kimani wa Matangi, has been playing hide-and-seek now we know he is in UDA party because he has paid the Sh500,000 fee required of the party’s governor aspirants.

He can no longer have his bottoms on different chairs as is with several others especially in Mount Kenya region who are ‘watching the ground’ before they decide where to be. On this we salute serial hoppers like governor Ann Waiguru and Women Rep Catherine Waruguru who openly switch loyalties at the frequency they change handbags.