Uhuru and Raila are both fair game for Ruto in Kibra mini-poll

The Kibra by-election was expected to be a routine affair until footballer MacDonald Mariga, widely viewed as a “project” of Deputy President William Ruto, entered the race.

The by-election thus transformed into a supremacy contest between the Deputy President and ODM leader Raila Odinga and immediately raised questions on what position President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has a cooperation agreement with Odinga, would take in relation to the election.

When President Kenyatta endorsed Mariga, it was viewed an act that maintained internal coherence in the Jubilee Party, even though it risked putting Uhuru in a collision course with Odinga.

In these circumstances, it has been confounding to see a number of key members of the Jubilee Party expressing support for the ODM candidate, Imran Okoth, going against the clear preference of the leadership of their party.

There are two ways of interpreting the behaviour of the Jubilee Party members who have decided to support a different candidate from the one supported by their party.

The first is that there is a split in the true position of the Jubilee leadership regarding the Kibra by-election and the show of unity between Kenyatta and Ruto is not genuine.

A signal may have been sent to members of the party that they are free to back a candidate different from the one the party has officially endorsed. The second interpretation is that the Jubilee leadership has lost control of the party which is no longer able to maintain internal cohesion. As a result, there are no consequences against members that make arrangements that defy their leadership. 

Because Kibra was a safe ODM seat, Jubilee could have stayed out of the by-election without losing anything. The fact that Ruto has pushed in a candidate signifies that he is now actively spoiling for a fight with Odinga. 

By making the by election a supremacy contest with ODM, Ruto is trying out a number of things, all of them risky. First, a decision on whether or not to sponsor a candidate in the kind of circumstances prevailing in Kibra would probably have involved Kenyatta as the party leader. Assuming that Ruto made this decision without the concurrence of Kenyatta, the Deputy President is claiming parity with Kenyatta, or even ascendancy, in making decisions on behalf of the party.

Secondly, by fielding a candidate in Kibra, Ruto has called out the relationship between Kenyatta and Odinga, placing the president in a position where he has to clarify where, between his deputy and Odinga, his loyalty lies.  Thirdly, the by-election has provided Ruto with opportunity to ascertain the level of support he retains in the inner levels of the party, with some members supporting him while others back Odinga. That clarity will help Ruto to calculate his chances in the party.

Fourthly, Ruto is also playing to the gallery of the party rank and file, those who were told that Jubilee would rule Kenya for at least 30 years. Ruto is telling party members that he is a victim of the fact that some people have backslidden from the party succession plan.

Until now, the fallout in Jubilee has not been public and Ruto has been projecting himself as still enjoying the support of the President. The Kibra by-election is likely to push Jubilee into more open fight.

Nothing is irreversible, of course, and Ruto may yet force Kenyatta into abandoning the relationship with Odinga and returning to him.

Ruto’s rejection of the Building Bridges Initiative is a further attempt to sunder the relationship between Kenyatta and Odinga, as a way of isolating the latter even if he does not manage to get Kenyatta to return to him.

It is still early days as the next elections are still a while away. Ruto was always going to have to fight Kenyatta and Odinga openly if their cooperation continued. What is surprising is that he is doing that so early, when there is still so much time before the next election.

There are obvious problems for the country in this type of political fragmentation especially in a context where independent political institutions do not work well. How will the country build consensus on the next elections when its political elite are feuding?

A frequent criticism against Odinga is that he failed to use the leverage with which he emerged from the 2017 elections to demand for genuine political reforms, and that he instead chose to expend his political capital in propping up Kenyatta, and therefore Jubilee.

With time ticking, the reform agenda, without which it is difficult to figure out how the 2022 elections will run, remains unaddressed. As Kibra now shows, rather than turn the other check, Ruto will fight Kenyatta and Odinga. Nobody now knows how this will go.

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]