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Fears, promises that might shape Central Kenya's direction in 2022

By XN Iraki | October 6th 2021
A tea farmer affiliated to Gathuthi Tea Factory in Tetu, Nyeri at his farm. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Central Kenya is like a beautiful girl ripe for marriage but with many suitors trying to outdo each other in impressing her. Without a clear political heir, President Uhuru Kenyatta has left a political vacuum in the mountains. Some opine that is a clever strategy to ensure his political relevance in years to come. That political vacuum is attracting all manner of political suitors to this region.

Raila Odinga and William Ruto are the two key suitors. It’s possible a third suitor could emerge before polling day in 2022. 

Before we analyse their chances, let’s speak the language of the mountain through a proverb, “mûiritu mwega ahitûkagîra thome wa ngîa.” Loosely translated, a poor man lets a beautiful girl pass by without taking any step to woo her, because he lacks enough dowry. 

Who, among the two contestants, Ruto or Raila, is a “poor” man (ngîa)? I am deliberately not asking who is rich enough. The financial “wealth” of the two is not that public. We could instead ask how much money their political fathers can give them to pay dowry for Central Kenya. In this region your father helped you pay the dowry in the past, they still do.

Today, we appeal to friends. I get requests all the time for donations for “ruracio.” 

This is one of the key Central Kenya words in addition to “macakaya” () and “ngurario” () that are becoming mainstream. 

Let’s remember that ability to get yourself a wife in this region without your father’s contribution, “kwîgûranîra” earned you lots of respect from the community leave alone his family.

In this context, would running a presidential campaign without seeking help be interpreted as “kwîgûranîra”? Assuming both Ruto and Raila get enough “ruracio” from whatever source, who will the take the mountain girl? 

If you have read “Facing Mt. Kenya” by Jomo Kenyatta (1938), you will find a traditional solution to the current political dilemma in central Kenya. Jomo wrote that in case two or more men were interested in a girl she was asked to “kuoha nyeki”. Simply put, she chose the partner herself.

Ideally that is what happens on the voting day. But voters do not vote randomly, they vote depending on their fears or promises made to them. That is what the presidential contestants are doing through their narratives in Central Kenya. Ladies also decide on who to marry depending on their fears and what the suitors promise, including lies. 

Let us start with fears. One is the fear that whoever becomes the president will interfere with the region’s economic livelihood. They have memories of slow but painful death of coffee, pyrethrum and other cash crops. Even two presidents later, coffee is still in the doldrums.

In case you do not know, coffee is the world’s most traded commodity after oil.  This fear goes beyond the region – political violence in the Rift Valley where central Kenya kins settled still haunts the region.

Many natives of Central Kenya left their colonial villages (“icagi) to seek fortunes far and wide. They had been doing that since 1890s.  The 2007/2008 post-election violence slowed that. That “inside looking” has had devastating consequences espoused by alcoholism and fight over scarce land which must now be shared legally with sisters. 

Many are now fearful of leaving their over-populated region. Early encounter with mzungu and resultant improvement in health and hygiene led to population boom.  

Add the predominance of single parenthood and you see a region in a social -economic crisis. It is one the few places in the world where bearing your mother’s name as surname has slowly but sadly become normal.  Even the next president will not resolve the region’s crisis overnight. Does this crisis make the region more politically vulnerable?

The other fear is losing political influence as they did during Nyayo era. On that, they can target the deputy president position.

Whoever among the two suitors gets the best deputy from this region could get lots of political mileage. My hunch tells me one of them will choose a woman as a running mate. Guess who?

BBI tried unsuccessfully to untie the Gordian knot that ties the president and his deputy. How will the new president and his deputy work? Is that a reason to worry for those banking on the deputy presidency?  

The other fear is historical and could work against both major suitors. Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga feuded over the political direction of the country soon after uhuru. Their sons have made peace. Some ask (in whispers) if this peace will persist into Raila’s presidency if he wins. 

Many Central Kenya natives fear the isolation that left them with one minister in the cabinet during the Moi era. They fear that could be replicated if Moi’s political offspring Ruto takes power. Others fear the next regime will neglect the region, seen to have benefited disproportionally from close proximity to political power. Others counterargue that any regime would value the thriftiness of central Kenya natives.  

There is another historical issue in this region: which side did one take during the Mau Mau war of independence? It’s still an emotive issue if you understand this war and the power structure in Kenya after independence. I suspect most presidential contenders will go silent on this.

Some equate the change in power next year to a little known Gikuyu tradition called “ituika” when one generation took over power from the other. Central had a two “party” ruling system long before Republicans and Democrats.

The parties were named Mwangi and Irungu (Maina). During Ituika, one generation took over leadership from the other. The exact ceremony in power transfer has remained a mystery. Even Louis Leakey, famous for his book “History of the Southern Kikuyu” could not crack it.

Let’s not forget that the even as the hustler/dynasty narrative has gone underground, its embers are still smouldering. It is likely that as we get closer to 2022 election date, someone will blow the fire – in Central Kenya jargon, “kûhuha mwaki.” 

What of promises? Poverty not affluence is a big issue in this region; forget the conventional wisdom that everyone there is rich. That is why the suitors are talking economics – it is the language of this region thanks to their early encounter with mzungu and capitalism. 

 Who among the suitors will revive their cash crops? Who will ensure they can run their businesses wherever they smell opportunities in the country?

One silent observation is that Central Kenya has lost its grip of the capital city an important ingredient in their economic calculus. Another observation is that after the post-election violence in 2007/2008, lots of Central Kenya natives immigrated to USA, UK, Australia and other countries.

Most homes in Central Kenya boast of a relative abroad (majuu). This was seen as “safer” than immigrating to the rest of the country. Did the 2010 constitution, particularly devolution slow down internal migration?

 What is indisputable is that fear of political and economic orphanage stalks this region. Yet close analysis shows this region does not really care who will be the next president as long as he or she takes care of their economic interests. 

Who among the two contestants will reassure this region, calm their nerves and get their votes? Will the suitor, once in power keep his promises?

Some opine that by letting “others” take power, this region will show maturity and will be rewarded with the economic safeguards they are seeking. It is also possible that because of their numbers, the region will in future decide who will be the next president without producing a president. 

Between now and August 2022, this region will remain a theatre of political activities. A clear political direction will eventually emerge, but there could be surprises? Let me be outlandish - what if Uhuru Kenyatta becomes Raila’s running mate?

What if the two handshakers support another candidate? What if Ruto supports another candidate? Are the two contestants putting all their eggs in one basket by focusing too much on Central Kenya? What if they share out the region half 50-50?  What if the mountain splits into east and west? What if the Supreme Court gives BBI a go ahead?

For game theorists, this is their moment. We still don’t know what’s being discussed in boardrooms away from limelight. But I can say with confidence we shall get a new president next year constrained by 2010 constitution. Please do not lose your sleep.

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