Will Uhuru factor play out in Mt Kenya ahead of State House race?

President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks after a service at the Africa Inland Church (AIC), Pipeline, Nairobi County,  April 2022. [PSCU]

President Uhuru Kenyatta is reasserting himself in Mt Kenya politics after a relentless effort by Deputy President William Ruto’s allies to push him out of the picture.

It has been a busy two months for President Kenyatta who, unlike his predecessor Mwai Kibaki, has taken an active role in his succession.

After a meeting in Nyeri during which President Kenyatta explained why his deputy was not ready for the mantle, the president launched a resurgent Jubilee Party and endorsed ODM leader Raila Odinga as his preferred successor.

However, opinion is divided on whether Mr Kenyatta’s involvement in politics will sway Mt Kenya region - with an estimated six million votes.

The region, for the first time since the return of multi-party elections, has no serious candidate running for president.

As a result, Mt Kenya has been a battleground since 2017 when Mr Kenyatta won a second term and his deputy set out to carve a piece of the region for himself.

Under pressure to declare his support for Dr Ruto, Mr Kenyatta said in 2018 his pick would be shocking. Now, he has thrown his weight behind Mr Odinga. But just what will be the effect?

Multimedia University lecturer of management and leadership Gitile Naituli said while Uhuru may desire to have a say in who succeeds him, he could actually be a liability.

Prof Naituli said this could be especially true for Mr Kenyatta’s political base in Mt Kenya. “He could be Raila’s (Mr Odinga) liability because the incumbent government faces a lot of hostility in elections, especially in Mt Kenya,” he said.

He said while Mr Kenyatta still had the power to marshal crowds in Mt Kenya it remained to be tested whether he could actually get the voters out in August.

“If you look at the Mt numbers during the 2017 elections, fewer people voted. The turnout was around 70 per cent. Now what does this say about 2022 when Mr Kenyatta himself won’t be on the ballot?” 

Mr Kenyatta first ran for president in 2002 with the endorsement of the former President Daniel Moi but lost. The president is eager to take this election in a different direction. He has brought opposition leaders together in Azimio la Umoja to support Mr Odinga’s run.

Retiring presidents expect defiance from loyalists, but the defiance towards Mr Kenyatta began earlier.

Cracks emerged soon after the 2017 elections when legislators from Mt Kenya region rallied around Dr Willia Ruto. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

The cracks emerged soon after the 2017 elections when legislators from the region rallied around Dr Ruto.

But despite the opposition he has received from the region, President Kenyatta still holds significant sway.

It is instructive that despite taking every opportunity to hit out at Mr Kenyatta and his government, Dr Ruto tempers his message while in Mt Kenya, instead pointing fingers at Mr Odinga. 

Mr Kenyatta mastered ethno-regional political mobilisation and rallied the Kikuyu community and the larger Mt Kenya region to back his and Ruto’s bid in 2013 and 2017.

But DR Ruto is keen to pull that rug from under him and is dismissing the notion that ethno regional mobilisation is necessary in Kenyan politics.

Over the past two months, Mr Kenyatta has shown he won’t retire silently. He held two key meetings, one at Sagana State Lodge in Nyeri, where he explained why he fell out with Ruto.

The other meeting was at State House in Nairobi with Mt Kenya elders. A follow-up meeting of elected leaders planned for State House was called off. The presidency denied ever calling a meeting.

Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria said the region had rebelled because Mr Kenyata was pushing them towards Mr Odinga whom he had campaigned against since 2007. 

“When it suits the president somebody is good, when it doesn’t suit him somebody is bad. We are not an electric switch that you can turn on and off,” Kuria told The Standard.

But Jubilee Secretary-General Jeremiah Kioni said Uhuru was still the political compass of the region and the mountain would rally behind him. “It is important that we debunk any doubts being created in the minds of young people that there is a void or there is a gap,” Kioni said.

He said the re-emergence of Jubilee was confirmation that Uhuru was still firmly at the top of Mt Kenya.