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How Mt Kenya leadership crisis is powering Raila to top seat

By Moses Nyamori and Rawlings Otieno | January 17th 2020 at 09:40:00 GMT +0300

President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga shake hands after they reconciled in the famous handshake following the bitterly contested August 2017 Presidential Election. [File, Standard]

Vote-rich Mt Kenya bloc, which for the first time since 1992 looks set to be without a serious presidential contender, has been flipped into a battleground region that could swing the 2022 presidential race.

If past voting patterns hold, Deputy President William Ruto needs the region’s overwhelming support to replicate Jubilee’s past victories under President Uhuru Kenyatta. Voter apathy and any splitting of the bloc will fatally undermine his quest for the top seat.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, if he is to vie, will benefit from voter apathy in the region since it hurts his rival’s cause and securing a fraction of the Mt Kenya vote for himself, assuming he holds onto his strongholds, will strongly boost to his bid to become Kenya’s fifth president, according to The Standard’s analysis of 2013 and 2019 voting patterns.

With 5.3 million votes, which is 31 per cent of the 19.6 million voters registered by 2017, the nine counties of Mt Kenya, plus Nakuru, have been Jubilee’s springboard to State House. The bloc accounted for more than half (53 per cent) of the 7.4 million votes that Uhuru polled in the October 2017 repeat presidential election, which was boycotted by Raila. With his legitimacy questioned, Uhuru had to rally his region to come out almost to a man, securing nearly 4 million votes with a turnout that averaged 98 per cent. Rift Valley, Ruto’s stronghold, was second, followed by Nairobi.

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Tyranny of numbers

In 2013, Uhuru and Ruto swept to power by the combined force of the two blocs, a political strategy popularised as the tyranny of numbers. Then, Uhuru polled 6.1 million to secure 50.07 per cent of the national vote to avoid a runoff. Raila bagged 5.3 million in the election that Uhuru barely went over the 50-per cent mark by only 800,000 votes.

Uhuru widened the lead over Raila to 1.4 million in the 2017 presidential vote whose results were, however, nullified, occasioning the repeat vote. An analysis from these past two polls indicate that the wins for the TNA-URP coalition in 2013 and Jubilee Party in 2017 could not have come without the huge voter turnouts averaging above 90 per cent in their strongholds.

This demonstrates why the Mt Kenya bloc comprising Kiambu, Murang’a, Nyeri, Embu, Kirinyaga, Nyandarua, Laikipia, Meru and Tharaka Nithi, as well as Nakuru, has been crucial to both victories. By 2017, the eight Rift Valley counties of Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, Nandi, Baringo, Kericho, Bomet, West Pokot and Samburu that overwhelmingly voted for Jubilee had 2.5 million registered voters. 

The Mt Kenya bloc is now up for grabs since the President is serving his final term. Ruto is viciously courting the region because if previous voting patterns are replicated in the next election, the DP needs the bloc to vote for him almost to a man, with an equally high turnout of above 90 per cent. Any drop in support here would undermine his quest to succeed Uhuru.

Conversely, for Raila, if he were to maintain his traditional support bases, voter apathy in Mt Kenya would be a welcome development because it would hurt his competitor, Ruto. Even better for Raila, were a fraction of Mt Kenya’s vote to go his way, which is now not far-fetched, given the political realignment caused by his handshake with Uhuru, he would win hands down.

This means that for Ruto to be president, he must maintain Jubilee’s 2013 and 2017 magic wand, over and above eating into Raila’s strongholds of Nyanza, Western, Coast, and Nairobi – which is not impossible, but comparatively more difficult, given previous voting patterns.

Significantly, the data suggests that even without a presidential candidate, the Mt Kenya region will not be banished from power because whoever wants its support must offer the region prime slots on the high table. Practically it means Raila and Ruto should pick Mt Kenya running-mates, over and above promising the region influential positions in government, including the premiership if the Constitution is changed.

For Raila, whose previous presidential runs have been undermined by the region’s opposition this is a windfall that only the handshake could deliver to fulfill his dream. Since the return of multi-party politics in 1992, Mt Kenya has fielded strong presidential contenders in successive elections and the voters have always voted for their own. In 1992, the vote was split between Ford-Asili’s Kenneth Matiba and Democratic Party’s Mwai Kibaki, the divisions benefiting the incumbent President Moi, who was reelected with 1.9 million votes. Combined, Kibaki and Matiba had 2.3 million.    

In 1997, Kanu’s Moi polled 2.4 million to trounce his closest rival, DP’s Kibaki, who garnered 1.8 million. Central Province accounted for 89 per cent of Kibaki’s vote. Kibaki rode on an opposition alliance, Narc, to dislodge Kanu from power in the 2002 election in which he beat Uhuru. In the 2007 presidential vote, Uhuru, then the opposition leader, backed Kibaki, who was reelected controversially, an outcome rejected by his main challenger, Raila. To end the subsequent post-election violence, Kibaki and Raila shared power in a grand coalition government.

Kibaki would later hand over power in 2013 to Uhuru, who is now set to retire in 2022. Without a possible strong presidential contender, at least for now, the region is set to become the kingmaker. Analysts suggest that the region remains a key factor in the 2022 polls, explaining several inroads by Ruto and Raila’s decision to strike a deal with Uhuru.

Ruto is banking on his ‘loyalty and support’ for Uhuru in 2013 and 2017 polls. Raila, who has in the past been demonised as an anarchist to rally the region against his presidential candidature, is seeking to endear himself to the community through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

By working with Uhuru, at a time the president faces a revolt from his deputy, Raila hopes to rekindle the connection he had with the region in 2003, when on a victory tour with then newly elected President Kibaki, he was hailed by residents as ‘njamba’ (hero) in stopovers on the way to Nyeri. It was a symbolic road trip for Kibaki, a Nyeri politician who had achieved the feat of riding the presidential motorcade past river Chania, dismantling the political myth by rival politicians, who had vowed during Jomo Kenyatta’s reign that power would remain in Kiambu.

Prime minister post

The BBI has proposed the creation of the position of Prime Minister, seat analysts believe Raila may dangle to the community to win their votes. The region’s leaders have insisted the community must play its cards well to ensure it has a stake in the next government, whoever forms it.

Until the March 9, 2018 handshake, the region was Ruto’s for the taking — or so it was assumed — courtesy of a memorandum of understanding within the ruling Jubilee Party leadership. However, the political rapprochement that calmed the toxic political climate in the aftermath of the 2017 polls has triggered a sharp split in the region, with Ruto’s quest to succeed Uhuru being the source of the conflict.

The Tangatanga wing of Jubilee is backing Ruto, while the Kieleweke, which is allied to Uhuru, and which has the backing of Raila’s camp, is working to scuttle the DP’s presidential ambitions. Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu, who is among the founders of Kieleweke, says the region will determine the 2022 poll.

“I expect the bloc to be united, and whoever it will decide to back will be 50 per cent through the race. If Uhuru is able to finish his term with the region strongly behind him, then whatever direction he will take is what will be followed by the region. He just needs to sort out the issue of coffee, milk, and tea, and he will remain a key determinant,” he says.

Former Mukurwe-ini MP Kabando wa Kabando says Uhuru’s influence cannot be ruled out just yet.

“If Uhuru succeeds on coffee, tea, and milk - and crashes graft - he’ll be an indispensable factor. Mt Kenya may stick together once more, subject to Uhuru staying the course on the war on graft, BBI, and agribusiness delivery,” Kabando argues.

Gatundu South MP, one of the vocal Ruto supporters, says the 2022 poll will be a unique one, as the region would likely back an outsider.

“Obviously this will be a unique election because there would be a likelihood of a candidate outside the region,” says Kuria.

Political analyst Edward Kisiangani says Ruto may still command the region.

“It is true that the contest will be much tougher for Ruto without the Mt Kenya support. But he can still win without the region because he seems to have eaten into Western Kenya, which has traditionally backed Raila. Ruto would still eat a bit of Kisii,” says Prof Kisiangani.

Others, however, opine that Raila and Ruto should battle for support from other regions and only use the Mt Kenya vote as a top-up.

The threat of voter apathy

They cite a possible voter apathy, saying the region only gets excited and comes out in large numbers to cast a ballot when the candidate is one of their own.

“When Ruto is doing his arithmetic, he should not factor in Mt Kenya. He can campaign as many times as he wants in the region, but remove central vote as part of his winning strategy,” says Herman Manyora, a political analyst.

Manyora adds: “Ruto must go out and eat into Raila’s support base. He needs to woo the Maasais who have remained with Raila. He should eat into Raila’s 2 million votes outside Rift Valley if he is keen to win because voter turnout in Central will be bad for him.”

He also cited suspicion about the region not being ready to back an outsider. “The region is not reliable. You can only count on their votes once they are cast.”

But Manyora suggests that Raila is likely to benefit more from the region if he sticks with Uhuru through the latter’s second and last term. He argues that the truce and the push to amend the Constitution that could be crafted to hand the region a key role in the country’s governance may work in Raila’s favour.

Kisiangani, however, argues that Ruto will get substantial votes from the region, even if Uhuru decides to back Raila. He claims past scare-crow narrative against Raila citing his “abrasive and rebellious” style of leadership still reverberates among the common Kikuyu folk.

“The fact of the matter is that at the grassroots level, a Mt Kenya voter would be more comfortable with Ruto and not Raila. The narratives about Jaramogi and Raila during Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki reigns are still there,” says Kisiangani.

Javas Bigambo argues that the Kikuyu people have a political history of voting to secure their interests.

“Ruto might not get eight out of 10 counties in 2022. But what is obvious and true is that he will not get zero votes. He has reached out to many and he will be lucky to get the sympathy votes, depending on his relationship with his boss,” he says.

Lawyer Martin Oloo argues that by confronting his boss head-on, Ruto is losing and not gaining trajectory.

“The increasing abrasiveness against the BBI is an indication that he has taken on his boss. Ruto is daring where no other vice president or deputy president has dared before. He is on a losing rather than a gaining trajectory,” says Mr Oloo.

Oloo says Ruto needs Uhuru’s support to win.

“He is simply undermining the president and the mistake he is doing is that he thinks that he can do without the president. He is deluding himself and this will not help him,” says Oloo.

University of Eldoret don Philip Chebunet says the DP has made significant inroads in the region and may benefit from the region’s growing disillusionment with government.

“Ruto has developed networks in Coast, Central and Western regions. He was a key figure in the 2013 and 2017 polls and his Tangatanga movement has made him a national leader,” says Dr Chebunet.

Nominated Senator Isaac Mwaura says the DP may benefit from the absence of a Kikuyu candidate, but the voter turnout might be lower compared to the 2017 elections.

“Anyone underestimating the influence of President Uhuru in his region is taking the wrong premise,” said Mwaura.

Before the handshake, the DP was largely expected to inherit Uhuru’s political constituency, thanks to a presumed poll pact. Uhuru, however, threw the spanner into his succession dynamics late in July last year when he said the race was open.

“I have no idea who will succeed me. Only God knows who will be elected in the coming polls. It is time to work,” he said in Ruiru, Kiambu County.


Mt Kenya bloc 2022 presidential race Uhuru Kenyatta William Ruto Raila Odinga
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