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Shift in political tectonic plates likely to create new formations

By Special Correspondent | April 11th 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta (C) his deputy William Ruto (L) and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

The season of political horse-trading is here, as Kenya rolls into the homestretch to next year’s General Election. The ending week marks exactly 16 months to August 9, 2022, when the election takes place.

Accordingly, the political top brass must begin absorbing reality. Necessity dictates embracing political pragmatism, beyond the regular heroics and caustic rhetoric that defines the Kenyan political class. The end game is political survival and relevance after the election date.

The ground is shifting and unlikely consultative meetings have started, as top politicians start to drop public hard lines. The sense of urgency is rushed by the fact that there will be a period of not less than sixty days of initial activities. This places the electoral homestretch to about June 9 and by then, political partnerships and allied horse trading should be in a safe place. 

The politicos need enough time to test and market their alliances, parties and candidates. They also need enough lead time to address fallouts and unhappiness that could arise from difficult decisions. There are, indeed, going to be major hard decisions and much eating of political humble pie at the top. Some of this may not be pleasant to bedrock populations. The top brass is, therefore, now moving swiftly to put political parties, coalitions and partnerships in order. This calls the lie to the view that electioneering has started early. 

Not to be left behind, political acolytes and caddies are on the alert. The political caddy is a mercurial and clingy lot. Yet they are also restless and shifty. They jump ship on instinct. For they survive by hanging on the coattails of the ace politico in their region. They don’t mind if the fat cat they have supported for president wins or loses. While they should like him to win, this is a secondary consideration. They will, accordingly, nudge the local giant all the way to the wire, even when defeat clearly stares him in the eye.

Ahead of this season, the political ace class has been on the stumps, saying all manner of unsavory things about each other. In concentric circles, the innermost power class comprises President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga. In the next ring are Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka, Kanu chair and Baringo Senator Gideon Moi, ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi and Ford Kenya leader Moses Wetang’ula.

Within both circles are supporting casts of governors, senators and members of the National Assembly. Speakers and MCAs bring up the rear. Yet they are not to be taken lightly. When push comes to shove the MCAs can create an electrifying mood at the grassroots and make or destroy careers at the top. The top brass is aware of this. 

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Self-interest and treachery

A third circle has Narc leader Martha Karua, Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua and his Makueni counterparts Prof Kivutha Kibwana and, lately, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi. Others like Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya and Mombasa’s Ali Hassan Joho would also fit in this category. They, however, belong to the Odinga supporting cast, even when they have postured like they could run against him for the ODM 2022 flag. Kitui governor, Charity Ngilu, also belongs to this set. Her role in next year’s election will also be key. 

It is behind these elaborate realities that emerging tectonic happenings in the political arena are best appreciated. The plates have only begun shaking. More will come. The players may have to part to meet, and possibly meet to part again, before the final formations are in place.

Various balloons will be floated and experiments done. Self-interest and treachery are the only sure coins in the game, if the past teaches us anything. There is treachery within the elite political class, and treachery by the supporting casts. There is a feeling around the DP that President Kenyatta has used and betrayed his deputy. Equally, Odinga is perceived as betraying the NASA team. And Odinga is increasingly seen as having been taken for a ride in the March 9 handshake.

Yet the real treachery may still lie ahead. People are likely to change partnerships and directions many times. As in the past, the treachery is set to be alloyed in inducements and bribery, and in threats, intimidations and blackmail. And so the season is of the ultimate reggae that nobody can stop is on. 

So far, it is looking like a three horse race with the possibility that future alliances of convenience could reduce them to two. The first tryst involves Kalonzo, Moi, Mudavadi and Wetang’ula. Their experiment of togetherness in recent byelections worked well for them.

Conversely, together with other byelections in Ugenya, Msambweni and Embakasi South, they have humbled ODM. They have left the Orange party grouching about the perceived hidden role of fat cats in the inner state. 

ODM feels most insecure where it previously thought it was safest. Did the now legendary handshake between Raila, and president Kenyatta lead the ODM top cream into quicksand buoyance?

Has a succession of defeats and staying out of byelections jolted them into the harsh reality that they could be sinking? At the time of this writing, there were fears of possible defeat in the impending byelection in Bonchari Constituency. This is a must-win for ODM. There are concerns that Jubilee Party refused to support ODM for the seat. ODM captains are worried that there could be a scheme to bury the party. 

The tryst quartet, however, comes on board initially as the third option. For the race has so far appeared to be between Odinga with his ODM, running against DP Ruto and his Tanga Tanga squad. The two camps have been mutually cantankerous. As it became increasingly clear that President Kenyatta had traded in the support he previously enjoyed from his deputy for support from Odinga.

The DP and Odinga got progressively hostile to one another, yet, suddenly, they begin warming up towards each other. While the topmost generals have not come out to pronounce a truce, the silence of the guns is obvious. But, even without the silent guns, they have both stated in national broadcasts that if circumstances dictate that they should work together, they will not fight the tide.

Emerging moves and remarks by Odinga’s auxiliaries and assignees have also been revealing. The curtain raiser was the grouse by Senator Orengo and Rarieda MP, Amolo Otiende against top public servants. Soon after, Oparanya and secretary-general Edwin Sifuna questioned the logic of a BBI referendum in the middle of a Covid-19 crisis. They began sounding like Ruto. 

But more telling was the ended week’s lengthy meeting between Oparanya and Ruto. Oparanya has admitted that Odinga was aware of the meeting. It was not, therefore, a matter of Oparanya on a personal mission as some initially thought. Either Odinga is preparing to bolt out of Uhuru’s sphere, or he is baiting the president for concessions. Time will tell. Meanwhile, if Odinga and Ruto will work together, they will need the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). The initiative is necessary for expanded space at the top for their supporting casts. To secure this, they need the cooperation of President Kenyatta. If anyone can stop this reggae, it is Uhuru.

President Kenyatta, however, may need the success of the BBI process just as much as any of his adversaries. Here, therefore, it is the DP who may have to go easy on the position he has previously taken against the BBI.

But how would the DP and Odinga distribute power between them? How would they bring their supporters on board to attract votes across the country? Mercifully for both, they have fanatic home base constituents who will fly with them, no matter where they go. The complication between them is first legal and second ego.

Legally, the DP cannot be a running mate next year. The constitution bars him. Can Odinga, therefore, accept to play second fiddle and accept to run as DP, if the present Constitution stays? Can he wait for Ruto to appoint him Prime Minister if the BBI Bill succeeds at a referendum before the next general election?

Will Odinga condescend to running for a parliamentary seat in order for him to be appointed premier, as contemplated in the BBI Bill? These are weighty questions. Meetings between Odinga and Ruto and their men are likely to be on the rise in the coming days, if indeed the present optics are not meant for the gallery. 

Before now, it appeared that the DP was going it alone. This, some observed, is a slippery path. The DP has succeeded in shifting the election conversation somewhat from competition between tribal alliances to class contestation. Yet Kenya remains a heavily tribal country, when critical decisions are made at the ballot. It is risky to believe that the power of persuasion and the logic of class inequality could generate enough fervor to override ethnic considerations. This might just be Ruto’s waterloo. He may have to take alliance formation in the political class a lot more seriously. 

Next to that is what has looked like the DP’s attempt to fight the last war. The DP’s attempt to secure victory by mobilising the Mt. Kenya vote and that of Rift Valley could prove catastrophic. 

The DP may also want to remember that all the great military successes in history have been preceded by war agreements among the great commanders of the day. Each understands that if one is attacked, the rest must consider themselves attacked, too. Those who do not get into an alliance with you are forced to sign treaties of neutrality, or be considered enemies. By ignoring the people he has called tribal leaders, Ruto could be committing a big sin against himself. The same is true for Odinga, who has trashed his former friends in NASA. 

The informal One Kenya Alliance of Moi, Mudavadi, Kalonzo and Wetang’ula has the potential of causing an upset. This is especially so if it should enjoy the president’s support as has been claimed in some circles. That Odinga has lost his clout in Western is not in doubt. Mudavadi is the one person sitting pretty in Western. He still has some homework to do in Busia, however, where both Tanga Tanga and ODM have some presence. His other challenge is that he will hold this constituency together on condition that he runs as his coalition’s presidential candidate. 

Baringo Senator Gideon Moi with Moses Wetangula, Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka and ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi. [John Muia, Standard]

Overly confrontational

The feeling on the ground is that the voters here would rather lose the election behind him than win with him behind somebody else. It is a fixed suicidal focus by this electorate. It will have to be educated on the need for flexibility and pragmatism in formation of alliances. 

The arrival of Kituyi in this space has been considered a possible problem to the One Kenya Alliance. Kituyi is, however, unlikely to have much impact. He was last elected as MP for Kimilili in 2002. His detractors also dismiss him as self-limiting and overly confrontational. If you don’t agree with him, he is less likely to try to win you over through persuasion.

Odinga’s meddling with Kituyi is unlikely to add him much mileage. Yet there is always the surprise card, and we might have to wait and see what rabbits Kituyi could pull out of his bag of political tricks.

The Akamba vote seems to be sitting well with Kalonzo, while Moi will contend with Ruto for Kalenjin Rift Valley. Wetang’ula remains Mudavadi’s understudy in Western. 

One consideration remains, however. Where are these formations leaving the rest of the country? There is growing disquiet among the rest of the Kenyan communities over what is seen as the arrogance of the big tribes.  Both the One Kenya Alliance and the Odinga-Ruto axis must think deeply about how to take the rest of Kenya along, without making them feel that they are less Kenyan. 

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