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Are rumbling protests a sign of trouble in UDA?

A section of MPs from maize-growing regions of North-Rift and Western zones address the media at Parliament Buildings, Nairobi, on November 22, 2022. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

A series of events in recent days is signalling trouble in paradise for United Democratic Alliance, the party that rode to power after a hotly contested poll on August 9.

Leaders from the party that produced the President and Deputy President have lately differed on a number of issues with sources hinting that President William Ruto’s handlers have stepped in to quell the dissent.

From the importation of genetically modified seeds and maize to meet the needs of a hungry nation, threats to collect signatures to prepare an ouster motion against Trade and Industry Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria, to the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) nominations, legislators appear to be reading from different scripts.

A storm kicked up this week by Rift Valley leaders on plans (according to Kuria) by the government to import at least 10 million bags of maize into the country came hot on the heels of Eala nominations where some regions felt shortchanged.

A parliamentary group meeting at State House where five out of 13 candidates were picked for the Eala slots led to murmurs of discontent when none from Mt Kenya sailed through.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua is said to have taken charge and lobbied support from leaders across the political divide in Mt Kenya leading to the election of Mwangi Maina and Kanini Kega to the regional assembly.

Days later, Rift Valley leaders led by Senator Samson Cherargey (Nandi) and Allan Chesang (Trans Nzoia) opposed the maize imports plan.

They were accompanied by MPs Phyllis Bartoo (Moiben), Timothy Toroitoch (Marakwet West), Didmus Barasa (Kimilili), Julius Ruto (Kesses), Maryanne Kitany (Aldai), Josses Lelmengit (Emgwen), Janet Sietenei (Turbo), Abraham Kirwa (Mosop) and David Pkosing (Pokot South)

Pkosing, during the press conference, warned that he would begin to collect signatures for Kuria’s impeachment should the government go ahead with the plan. Although Pkosing was elected on an Azimio-allied party, none of the legislators from Rift Valley censured him over his remarks.

The move, however, seems to have been abandoned after a high-profile figure in President Ruto’s inner circle reportedly reached out to the MPs.

 But those who spoke to Sunday Standard claim the issues may be bigger, with some pointing to the nomination of Cabinet ministers as another pain point.

 Muranga Senator Joe Nyutu, the Senate Education Committee chairperson, said some legislators were ‘grumbling’ over claims that Mt Kenya region had got a ‘lion’s share’ of government positions. 

 “The President has no issues with us, it is our counterparts in Rift Valley. But they forget that our votes were way higher than theirs and not even commensurate with the seats that we have been given. We shall push for more slots even in other positions like the Principal Secretaries, among other jobs,” said the Senator. 

 Kieni MP Njoroge Wainaina warned against any moves to censure Kuria saying farmers hoarding maize should release the stocks.

The legislator also defended the importation of GMO maize, saying it will help the country to feed its people who have been hard hit by drought. 

 Asked whether the differences in opinion could lead to a major fallout in the party, the MP stated that “we can’t continue living in fear of not breaking the unity of purpose since we have a cardinal duty to pursue the interests of Kenyans.”

 Kirinyaga Woman Representative Njeri Maina attributed the sibling rivalry in the ruling party to the competition for resources.  According to Maina, the President has assured the leaders that they are allowed to hold divergent political opinions, a move, she said, manifested itself in Eala elections.

She termed the outcome the result of the independence Kenya Kwanza enjoys in Ruto’s administration.

Stand firm

 But she maintained that Mt Kenya will stand firm against efforts to remove Kuria from the Cabinet.

 “Everyone knew Kuria even before he was given the Cabinet position and he has not changed. What he needs to do like every leader is to be sensitive to his new position and the impact of whatever he says. He is no longer a politician but that does not mean that his utterances warrant his removal,” said Ms Maina. 

 The Woman Rep, however, called on the Mt Kenya regional caucus to convene a meeting of all leaders who hail from the community to bring things to order. 

 “The President and his deputy have issues of national importance to handle and the house leadership should take charge and rein in truant members. We are able to convene as Kenya Kwanza MPs and have a constructive conversation on any high-flying issues,” she said.

 Mukurwe-ini MP John Kaguchia defended leaders in the party that have criticised plans to import maize, saying this confirmed they are not stooges of the executive. 

 “We rallied behind Maina Karobia despite the mock voting in State House. The Rift Valley leaders defended farmers because of their interests. That is not disquiet. They were playing oversight on government which is their duty. This indicates that MPs should not rubber-stamp what the executive wants,” he said. 

National Assembly Majority leader and Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichungwa said there was no storm at all, adding it was evident the government is not muzzling elected leaders.  

Ichungwa dismissed claims by Pkosing that he would collect signatures to oust Kuria.

 “During the presser at which the remarks of impeachment were made, there were two groups that had conflicting issues. One was genuine on their community interests while the other was pushing Kuria’s ouster,” said the majority leader. 

 Ichungwa added a decision on maize imports is usually influenced by demand and supply and if the country is maize sufficient, there would be no reason to import the grains.

Some leaders, who have served more than two terms, also dismissed any talk of trouble in paradise.

“All is normal and any noise from our members is healthy. It is part of democracy for leaders to make comments, but Kenya Kwanza coalition is united and the government is solid,” said Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi, adding it was also the result of ‘anxiety for first-term legislators.’  

He said: “We are just watching and enjoying the noise from the side. It is part of democracy for members who are still excited about their first term. We are in a new administration na watu wachangamka (there can be excitement in a new system).”

He dismissed claims there is any plan of impeaching Kuria.

Tinderet MP Julius Melly, who is serving his third term, said there was no cause for alarm.

Kesses MP Julius Ruto also acknowledged there are competing interests, which he said are normal.

“We share appointments, among others, equitably. There is no issue within and the issue of impeachment of a CS is not our position because whoever raised it was an Azimio ally,” said Ruto.

Timothy Toroitich, the Marakwet West MP (Independent), termed recent differences as ‘teething challenges’ which if not resolved might be a challenge to the unity of the coalition.

He said the debate over maize imports has put Rift Valley leaders in an awkward position.

“As much as we do not oppose importation, the timing during harvesting is not good. If we oppose importation, we are perceived to be rebelling towards the president. If we back importation, farmers will feel betrayed,” he said.

“The Eala issue also brought suspicions. We agreed at State House on some candidates but when it came to Parliament, the party’s Parliamentary Group position was not followed,” added Toroitich.

He noted leadership in Rift Valley has also not held any caucuses.

“DP Rigathi Gachagua has held meetings with Mt Kenya leaders and same to Western led by Musalia Mudavadi, but we have not had one in Rift Valley despite having Deputy Speaker Gladys Shollei, Majority Leader in Senate Aaron Cheruiyot and Julius Melly,” he said. 

[Additional reporting by Titus Too]