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Retreat or clever strategy: Why did Charity Ngilu pull out of contest?

Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu during an Interview with the standard. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

The exit of Charity Ngilu from the race for the Kitui governor’s seat did not come as a surprise to many, as she had given mixed signals leaving even her close confidants confused.

By Wednesday, when her withdrawal from the race was formally announced by Azimio la Umoja - One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga, she had not printed even a single poster or erected a billboard promoting her bid to retain the seat.

This was despite having been cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to run but not before she ordered that media be barred from covering her.

Unlike other competitors, Ngilu was not campaigning in the county, choosing instead to spend her time on Raila’s national campaigns where she has been playing a leading role.

Often times, Ngilu campaigning fiercely against Deputy President William Ruto, urging other leaders from Ukambani to rally behind Raila.

But what was a speculation for several months was finally confirmed by Raila who, in the company of Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, former Planning assistant minister Peter Kenneth and Makueni governor Kivutha Kibwana, made the announcement at Mutha market in Kitui South.

The former prime minister repeated the same in Mutomo, Kitui and Mwingi towns during subsequent rallies in Ngilu’s presence.

But it was at Kalundu market in Kitui town and Mwingi where Raila was more electrified about his decision to pluck Ngilu from the Kitui contest and proposed a national government position for her should he clinch the presidency on August 9.

Preferred candidate

During the rallies that were attended by thousands of people, Raila made it clear whom the coalition was supporting for the governor’s race - Wiper’s Dr Julius Malombe.

“Huyu mama Ngilu nitapeleka Nairobi, sawa sawa? Halafu hapa Kitui ni Dr Malombe, sawa sawa? (I will work with Ngilu in Nairobi and here you will choose Malombe, is that okay?)” he announced at Kalundu.

Kalonzo, who was seated nearby sprang to his feet and quickly grabbed Malombe  and Ngilu’s hands and together with Raila, raised them to a thunderous applause from the crowd.

And during a rally in Mwingi town where Raila reiterated his strategy, Kalonzo said:  “Now you have seen my brother Raila has picked Ngilu for another assignment in Nairobi. The governor now is Malombe.”

 Wednesday’s events left no doubt that  Malombe, the pioneer governor who lost to Ngilu in 2017, is the preferred coalition’s candidate for the Kitui contest.

This is despite the fact that David Musila, a former senator, is running on the ticket of Jubilee Party, which is part of the Azimio coalition.

Curiously, Musila boycotted all the rallies with sources in his camp intimating that he had attended a Jubilee event in Nairobi.

According to Wiper insiders, Kalonzo has struck a deal with Raila to zone Ukambani for the party.

But the lingering question in the minds of many is why Ngilu chose to withdraw from the race.

Did Ngilu chicken out after sensing defeat or has she set her eyes on a higher position at national level? This remains the unanswered question.

Dr Temi Mutia, a scholar who comments on Kitui politics, described the governor as a clever politician who saw an opportunity at the national level and went for it with gusto.

National appeal

“She identified an opportunity and decided to grab it. It is now certain that she will be appointed a Cabinet secretary if Raila wins. That is a plus and a good gesture for the lower Eastern and the Kamba community and people should support it,” Mutia told The Standard.

He noted that Ngilu has a national appeal that fitted well into Raila’s campaign strategy of embracing strong women politicians, adding that she will be rewarded for her legwork.

But Campbell Munyambu, the Mwingi Professionals Forum coordinator, was of the view that Ngilu decided to pull out in order to avoid humiliation at the ballot where voters were waiting to punish her for her failure in county administration.

“The ground is very hostile for Ngilu and voters are angry and she knows it. As a governor, she did not deliver and so to avoid humiliation at the ballot,” Munyambu explained.

On Malombe, Munyambu said the endorsement gives him an assured leap to the county top seat, adding that Musila, the Jubilee candidate is now holding the short end of the stick.

A director at the county government, who asked not to be named, agreed that Ngilu’s re-election chances were slim.

“Most of the projects she initiated, though well intentioned, were unpopular, while others like Kicotec are long term and people have not seen their value yet,” said the officer.