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Justin Muturi’s coronation sparks power struggles in Mount Kenya region

By Special Correspondent | May 31st 2021
National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi joins worshippers at St. Paul’s ACK Cathedral in Embu town on Sunday, May 30, 2021. [Muriithi Mugo, Standard]

That the Mount Kenya political elite are pulling in opposite directions is no longer in doubt.

Riding on the uneasy energy of sub-regional power-and-control rivalry, the tug-of-war threatens to alter the character of politics in the Mountain region ahead of next year’s General Election. The question is how far the rivalry could go, and with what political outcomes for the fortunes of the region and the country.  

The recent coronation of National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi by a section of elders as spokesman for the region has thrown the Mountain into a political cyclone, in competition for regional supremacy. There is a clear contest for ethnic dominance between the Kikuyu in the West, and the rest of the Mountain communities in the East.   

Heavyweights from the West claim that the Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga traditional grounds on which Muturi was coronated have been defiled. They plan to ‘cleanse’ them. Muturi has himself chimed in, urging the Mountain communities to pull together, but also telling the West that it must now support a regional kingpin from the East.  

The rapture has been coming for some time, with the imminent retirement of President Uhuru Kenyatta as the catalyst. Governor Kiraitu Murungi of Meru County fired the first warning shot in March. In a widely publicised piece of writing about a conversation with his soul, Kiraitu lamented about some of the positions he had previously taken on public affairs. 

As a sign of things to come, Kiraitu lamented, two weeks ago, that the Jubilee Party had lost both sense of direction and wider regional relevance. “I am still in Jubilee, but I am doing my mathematics on which formation to follow in 2022,” he told a gathering in his home base, “It was a party of that time (but one) that has failed to stand the test of time.” 

In his earlier written reflections, Governor Kiraitu reported that he had just emerged from a close brush with death, having contracted and agonised in the grip of the new coronavirus. His ailment had given him a quiet period to listen to the still small voice deep within him. From now on, he said, he was going to make some major adjustments in his political life. He reported that he had “made a decision to appreciate myself and to reclaim my life. 

“From now on, I (will) follow the desires of my heart. I (will) ignore all the noise, the psychological burdens of friendship and idiocies of politics. I, too, have a fundamental duty to live a happy and decent life in the remaining years of my life.” 

He said that he would “no longer fight for ideas and anxieties which were not genuinely my own. I had given in too much to political and social expectations of others.” He would pursue his dreams without seeking approval from anybody.  

In his post-corona experience, Kiraitu last Saturday hosted key Mt Kenya East politicians at what has been dubbed his homecoming. It is in essence a second homecoming. For, the governor had another homecoming soon after he was elected the second governor of Meru County in 2017. Indeed, he has also had other homecomings as a Member of Parliament. His latest homecoming is, therefore, of wider significance than all previous returns.

Happening in the wake of the Muturi coronation, the homecoming is pregnant with meaning. It is not just Kiraitu’s return, it is the political homecoming of a whole cluster of communities.  

The assembly, attended by Speaker Muturi, did not mince its words. A clear message was sent to Mt Kenya West politicians who have refused to recognise Muturi’s crown. “Go and tell them that we are ready to chart a new path,” Kiraitu said, referring to a team of basically Kikuyu politicians, led by governor Mwangi Wa Ira of Murang’a, Mutahi Kahiga of Nyeri, Anne Waiguru of Kirinyaga and Lee Kinyanjui of Nakuru. They have been vehement in their denunciation of Muturi’s new crest of glory in the region.  

National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi shares greetings with Governor Kiraitu Murungi at his home in Nkubu town, Meru [Gerald Mutethia, Standard]

The Mt Kenya East political class avers that it has played second fiddle to the West for too long. It is now time for the West to return the hand of political goodwill, barring which they will walk alone.

Accordingly, the Mountain is agitated, like the mountain that is told of in the fables of Aesop (620 – 560 BC). Like Aesop’s fabled mountain in labour, Mt Kenya is groaning with what seem to be birth pangs. The people who assembled at Kiraitu’s homecoming say these are the birth pangs of separation and self-determination by the Meru, Embu and Mbere people, from what they see as historical domination by their Kikuyu cousins and neighbours to the West.  

Tragically, when Aesop’s mountain’s time of rapture came, it only gave birth to two little mice, for all the wailing, and associated the noise and drama. What difference should Kenyans expect from Mt Kenya? Is Kiraitu’s homecoming a symbolic representation of the reawakening of the Meru, Mbere and Embu? How seriously should the country take their clarion cry for self-guidance and determination in local and national affairs?  

 Only time will tell, informed by the vagaries of realpolitik. The one thing that is not in doubt is that the Mt. Kenya East political leadership is settling on Speaker Muturi as their political lead horse. Whether the wheelers and swing horses will toe the line remains to be seen.

And there are some key royal rebels too, prominent among them Cabinet Minister Peter Munya. Munya scoffed at the Muturi coronation. He caustically wondered aloud what the rest of the people should do with their own mouths, now that someone was “claiming to speak for them.”   

Also to be watched keenly will be Igembe North MP, Maoka Maore, who has been working steadily on regaining political glory that began fading with the loss of his then Igembe South Parliamentary seat in the 2007 elections. Maore is the Majority Whip in the National Assembly, a position he took in a recent Jubilee parliamentary purge that marginalised MPs loyal to Deputy President William Ruto.  

Maore is ensconced in a comfortable zone. It should disturb him to have to decide what next, should the differences between the East and West of the Mountain gain traction. But Maore is not averse to being the lone-standing man when necessary.

He previously remained in Kanu when the region was solidly in the Opposition. He later shifted to ODM, when Kibaki was in power, only to be beaten on this ticket in 2013. He woke up realpolitik to join Jubilee in 2017 and won the Igembe North seat in the National Assembly. 

Mt Kenya East politicos are fabled for their independent decisions. Ahead of the present political rumblings, a cluster of leaders from the region had already rebelled against the Jubilee Party, to work closely with the deputy president. They include Senator Mithika Linturi, who has been steadfast in his avowed opposition against dominance by the West. Also on board has been nominated MP, Cecily Mbarire, a scion of the influential Stanley Njagi Mbarire family of Runyenjes.   

Other Mt Kenya East leaders who have previously taken independent political stands against tempestuous winds in the region include lawyer Gitobu Imanyara, East African Legislative Assembly MP, Mpuri Aburi and the late Joseph Nyagah, who served as a Minister under Presidents Moi and Kibaki.

Imanyara was in 1992 elected to Parliament on a Ford Kenya ticket, alongside Kiraitu, when everyone else in the region was with either the Democratic Party of Mwai Kibaki, or Kenneth Matiba’s Ford Asili. In 2007, Imanyara was once again elected against the tide, on a Chama Cha Uzalendo ticket, when the region was with President Kibaki on Party of National Unity.  

Like the Abaluhya, the Kisii and the Akamba, the Mt Kenya East people have been known to make fractured political decisions at key moments. The emerging attempt to speak with one voice against their cousins to the West represents the very first time that they have taken a shot at a solid stand, away from the influence of the West.

Much of the way ahead will depend not just on how resolute they are, but also on where this leaves President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is perceived to be close to the man in the eye of the storm, Speaker Justin Muturi. 

The bond between Muturi and Uhuru goes back to their time in Kanu, when they sometimes took political body blows, but stood faithfully with one another. Muturi lost his Siakago seat in Parliament to Lenny Kivuti in 2007, and the Mbere North race to Muriuki Njagagua in 2013. Uhuru stood with him, helping him to chair the Centre for Multiparty Democracy after his first defeat, to become the Speaker of the 11th and 12th Parliaments after the 2013 debacle. 

The goings on in the Mountain will test the bond between the Speaker and the President. It is instructive, however, that one of the architects of his coronation to speak for the Mountain is Kung’u Muigai, Uhuru’s first cousin, alongside an array of Kikuyu notables. Kung’u says that the coronation has the President’s blessings.

So why are Mt Kenya West politicos nervous about Muturi’s coronation while also pledging unwavering loyalty to the President? Next to that, where will the new happenings leave the deputy president’s Tangatanga people in the region? Mt Kenya politics are going to be exciting to watch in the coming days, especially as President Uhuru begins gathering his personal effects, in readiness to leave State House.


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