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Malala: The 'gadfly' in Luhya leadership matrix

UDA Secretary-General Cleophas Malala. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

United Democratic Alliance Secretary (UDA) General Cleophas Malala’s political star is on the rise. 

In June this year, President William Ruto promoted him to sit in the Cabinet, three months after appointing him UDA Secretary General, one of the parties that form the Kenya Kwanza Alliance. Others are ANC, FORD-K and other smaller parties.

With this promotion, Malala joined Musalia Mudavadi (Prime Cabinet Secretary), Moses Wetangula (National Assembly Speaker) and Dr Boni Khalwale (Senate Majority Whip) to form a group of Luhya leaders who wield great influence in the Kenya Kwanza government.

Last month, Malala was catapulted into more public limelight after traversing western Kenya counties of Kakamega, Vihiga Bungoma and Busia where he launched and distributed more than 2,888 bags of government-subsidised fertiliser. 

His leadership style has, however, rubbed others the wrong way on many occasions. Within a couple of months in office as UDA SG, Malala had ruffled some feathers.

Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Gladys Boss Shollei was quoted as saying, "I am disappointed with the performance of Malala, he has been going on the UDA membership drives and many of them have ended in violence. As UDA members we should begin to ask ourselves if he is trying to destroy our party”.

In June, a UDA delegates meeting in Mombasa presided over by Malala ended prematurely after supporters of EALA MP Hassan Omar and Nyali MP Mohammed Ali clashed, forcing a cancellation.

Saturday last week, Malala needled Kakamega Senator Khalwale into anger after leading a delegation of a few Luhya leaders to State House Nairobi for a meeting with President William Ruto ahead of the president's scheduled four-day tour of western Kenya. In what some see as a subtle power play game, Mudavadi, Wetangula and Khalwale were not part of the delegation. 

"There are only three factors in Luhya leadership; Musalia Mudavadi, Moses Wetangula and Boni Khalwale. I would like to tell you, President Ruto, that the gateway to Western is Mudavadi, Wetangula and myself. Those people we saw at State House are not our leaders", Khalwale said 

At a fundraiser that FORD-K leader and Speaker of the National Assembly Moses Wetangula presided over at Sisokhe in Navakholo, Kakamega County in March, leaders from the region told Malala off after suggesting that Ford-K and ANC wind up. “Is it possible that we dissolve our parties and form one strong party?” Malala had posed on one of his tours of Western.

While Wetangula and Mudavadi steered clear of the debate generated by Malala, Khalwale rubbished Malala’s proposal. “We can't allow this young boy to pretend to be a leader. Benjamin Washiali and I are founding members of UDA and together with FORD-K, we delivered 600,000 votes to Ruto. There was no agreement that after elections, some parties should fold. UDA, FORD-K and ANC should sit down and agree on how to engage in 2027 because this is what all this is about. After Ruto, a Luhya must ascend to the presidency” Khalwale said.

“Until Wetangula and Mudavadi tell us what to do, we remain firm in ANC and FORD-K so that come 2032, the next president will come from the Luhya community. Musalia and Wetangula are capable of becoming president, but this will not be possible if we kill our parties,” Member of Parliament for Shinyalu, Fred Ikana said in reaction to Malala’s suggestion.

Given his growing influence, questions have arisen on whether Malala will join Mudavadi and Wetangula in creating a formidable voting block or throw the spanner in the works of what Wetangula and Mudavadi have worked hard to achieve, individually and for the community.

Democratic Action Party leader Eugene Wamalwa says Malala is being used to advance UDA interests in the western region. “Unless Mudavadi and Wetangula realise what is happening, by 2027, UDA will have swallowed  ANC and Ford-K. Luhya leaders must learn to talk to each other as opposed to talking to each other in addressing regional issues. The revival of Nzoia and Mumias Sugar is not a UDA affair. Ruto’s visit is about advancing UDA interests."

Political analyst and communication strategist Barrack Muluka says only Ruto knows his endgame in terms of geopolitics. The analyst says Luhya leaders in the Cabinet must work as a unit to reap maximum benefits. 

“In isolation, any one of the Luhya leaders, Mudavadi, Wetangula or Malala is weak. It is only when they come together with a view of benefiting the Luhya community that Malala’s inclusion in the Cabinet will be of use. When they sit in the same forum, it means there is a pronounced Luhya presence in that forum. It is a good opportunity to influence policy as well as organise and lead the Luhya nation”

For many years Western has remained an opposition stronghold, but Ruto’s forays into the region show he is keen on ending that dominance. The appointment of Musalia Mudavadi as the Prime Cabinet Secretary, Moses Wetangula as Speaker of the National Assembly and Malala as UDA SG and CS without portfolio could give Ruto a firm foothold in the region.

Malala’s bullish modus operandi, however, is likely to rub local leaders the wrong way. Whether Mudavadi, Wetangula, Khalwale and Malala will work harmoniously without trying to undermine each other for political expediency remains to be seen.

Ruto comes across as a wily fox; a seasoned politician who sees, and goes for what he wants. In the run-up to the 2022 general elections, Ruto unleashed a political blitzkrieg that penetrated the hitherto impenetrable populous vote-rich Central Kenya region. While exuding confidence that the mountain region has already been taken care of, especially with Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua watching over it fiercely, Ruto has trained his sights on Western Kenya, home of the Luhya, the second largest tribe in Kenya after the Kikuyu of Central.

“Western Kenya is now firmly in the Kenya Kwanza matrix. President Ruto’s commitment to work with all political leaders irrespective of their political interests and persuasions as well as the implementation of Kenya Kwanza manifesto have diluted what was left of Raila’s political capital in western Kenya”. Political risk analyst Dismas Mokua says.

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