Will Ruto break political jinx of past presidents and bag Nyanza?

President William Ruto and Migori County Governor Ochilo Ayacko at Uriri Technical Training Institute (TTI) in Migori County on October 8, 2023. [Caleb Kingwara, Standard]

Attempts by past leaders to win the Nyanza voting bloc started long before the current constitution was promulgated and even before the younger generation of politicians were born.

But conquering Nyanza and breaking the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga dynasty and the hold Azimio leader Raila Odinga has on the region have been a tall order.

President William Ruto is the latest entrant to attempt to change the region’s political dynamics. And he seems to be applying the same strategy he used to woo Mount Kenya.

Unlike his predecessors, Ruto is a man on a mission and appears to be gaining ground with each visit. His entry is anchored on development, political appointments and grassroots mobilisation.

Some observers and his allies believe Ruto is finally set to break the jinx of former presidents who struggled to win over Nyanza. On the flip side, other analysts have dismissed the prospects of the visits tilting support in the president’s favour.

Raila’s allies, on the other hand, pour scorn on any prospects of the president’s missions dimming the political light of Raila, who has been at the centre of in the region’s politics for three decades.

There is a belief the president adopted a similar strategy to crack the support base in the Mount Kenya region in the build-up to last year’s polls and got significant support under former president Uhuru Kenyatta’s nose. But will the strategy work in Nyanza?

Interviews with several analysts established that the president could be seeking to bank on Raila’s changing political fortunes to attempt to inherit his support base.

They claim the president could be aligning himself strategically with Nyanza because he is aware Raila’s political career is approaching its sunset years because of his age.

He is also seeking to address some of the teething problems the region has faced, including the revival of struggling industries and challenging claims of ODM’s political dictatorship by introducing UDA.

“Politically speaking, one can never underrate President Ruto. He is the quintessential campaigner and knows how to promise and woo voters. He did this with Mount Kenya and succeeded,” says political commentator Mark Bichachi.

On Saturday, Ruto opened a UDA office in Homa Bay, as part of his efforts to expand his influence in the region as his four-day visit entered its second day.

Speaking on Saturday in Magunga town in Suba South Constituency,  when he launched tarmacking of the Mbita-Sindo- Magunga- Sori road, Ruto said Raila should support him in 2027. “You all know that Tinga (Odinga) became the prime minister of this country because of my support. I have also voted for him many times,” Ruto said.

He, however, wondered that Odinga had never voted for him. Since the Constitution of Kenya allows a president to serve for two terms only, Ruto argued that Raila could only pay the political debt in 2027.

During the first two days of the visit, signs of the ultimate goal for Ruto flickered in some of his stops as he rallied the region to back his administration. In Siaya, as part of his efforts to woo the region, he claimed that Nyanza efforts to capture the presidency had finally been achieved after he won the presidency.

He likened his relationship with Raila to that of one of his brothers and even referred to him as his elder brother, recalling their flopped attempt in 2007 to capture the presidency from former president Mwai Kibaki. 

According to observers, Ruto’s goal to expand his influence in the region is on course. 

“He visits Nyanza when there is a genuine sense that Raila’s political career is about to end. At the same time, Azimio is not on the campaign trail,” says Bichachi.

The analyst argues that the decision by Azimio to focus solely on the Bomas talks has also breathed life into Ruto’s forays.

“Without obvious leadership and an obvious flag bearer Azimio is not countering Ruto politically, and chose to focus solely on Bomas,” he adds.

Constitutional lawyer and analyst Bruce Odeny says Ruto has made a triumphant entry in Nyanza. However, he is pessimistic about the prospects of the region becoming his political base. He thinks the numbers that turn up in the president’s events are not an accurate representation of what the voter’s choice would be should elections be held.

“As matters are now, Kenyans are feeling the heat of the economy and are looking forward to expectations in terms of handouts that will come from the visit. The large turnout witnessed is a show of the need by Kenyans for attention,” the lawyer says.

According to the lawyer, the country not being in a campaigning mood, one cannot easily tell that the turnout of any gathering shows the show of might.

“He addressed what the people wanted to hear, including the tribal clashes and health system in Siaya. He assured the residents that he would upgrade the hospitals to level four. He played politics well,” lawyer Odeny says.

The president’s visit, however, has been largely successful and well attended in all the events he has held in the region. The dedication by his allies to build for him a strong grassroots support has also strengthened his efforts to gain support from the region.

According to Ruto’s allies led by ICT Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo and Interior PS Raymond Omollo, the president means well for the region and is dedicated to transforming the region’s economy.

“The president has us a sense of belonging in his government,” says Owalo.

Other allies, including Ugenya MP David Ochieng, vowed to support and vote for him in the next elections. It remains to be seen if their supporters will also follow suit.

During his first two days in the region, Ruto unveiled several projects he believes will transform the region’s economy and put the region on the East Africa map as a major economic hub.

Some analysts, however, do not believe the president’s moves are targeted towards achieving political control of the region’s politics.

Dr Barrack Muluka, a strategic communications adviser, says he does not know whether the president intends to win over Nyanza, and he is unable to tell if the region will back him or not.

“All I know is that he has to go everywhere in the country. About the future, we cannot wait to see what happens,” Dr Muluka says.

Yesterday, Raila’s allies also dismissed the prospects of the visit, tilting support to the president’s political house-Kenya Kwanza.

In a statement sent to newsrooms, Raila’s confidant and Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o, dismissed Kenya Kwanza leaders, claiming the visit is an indication of changing political tides.

He dismissed Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei’s claim that Raila’s political influence in the region was waning.

“Let it be known that the people of Kenya support Raila Amollo Odinga as our leader and crusader for the Second Liberation of this nation, so does the Nyanza region where UDA does not exist,” said Nyong’o.

He claimed they welcomed the president in the region because he came in an official capacity as the president, adding that the people from the region are hospitable.

Minority Leader in the National Assembly and ODM’s secretary for political affairs Opiyo Wandayi also dismissed the prospects of the visit making significant gains for Ruto politically.

“The Luo people are renowned for their hospitality and pragmatism, and they cherish visitors,” Wandayi says.

However, Wandayi explains that visitors don’t easily change their perception and attitudes on important issues since Luo Nyanza people are principled.

For him, President Ruto has a democratic right to seek support from the Luo nation.

However, he says, the only route to the Luo political hearts is Raila. “Any other route is futile,” Wandayi says.

In an interview with KTN News, Raila downplayed the visit as having any major impact and described it as UDA politics.

In the late 1960s, the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, made several attempts to wane the support of Jaramogi, who had built a political fortress of support in Luo Nyanza.

Mzee Kenyatta died in 1978 before reconciling with Jaramogi, who resigned as his VP in 1966. In 1969, the two clashed in Kisumu, a move that saw Kenyatta throw Jaramogi into detention for two years after banning his Kenya People’s Union (KPU).

Kenyatta never set foot in Nyanza again after the Kisumu confrontation.

His son, former President Uhuru, would later amend the relationship through the 2018 Handshake with Raila. Through the Handshake, Uhuru won the hearts of the region and enjoyed a good relationship at the end of his term in government.

And as Nyanza residents prepare to enjoy the projects  Ruto has brought to the region, it remains to be seen if it will translate to political support.