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Demystifying Rift Valley’s vote numbers: No one has area locked

ODM leader Raila Odinga campaigning with Nakuru Governor Lee Kinyanjui in Molo, Nakuru County, March 2,2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Kenya’s Rift Valley region is a rich political cocktail. This cosmos of the entire Kenyan nation has ties that would ordinarily bind clusters of populations while also distinguishing each from the rest, and with it their political choices, beyond the usual ethnic considerations. Political ethnic affiliations, however, continue to rule the way people vote, with the leanings of key regional leaders pointing out the way forward.

The August 9 presidential election does not promise to be any different. A uniform voting pattern would seem to be out of the question, making it a pipe dream to imagine that any one issue or individual could lock up the Rift Valley.

All communities in the country are domiciled in the region, either as permanent residents or temporary migrant wage workers. They bring with them political inclinations by diverse communities from elsewhere in the country. Frontrunners, Dr William Ruto and Mr Raila Odinga must come to terms with this reality in their stumps and barnstorms across the country. How they are received in largely homogeneous communities elsewhere in the country will shape their reception among migrant populations in the Rift Valley. Besides, the valley also has its own indigenes, who will walk the path blazed by their key leaders. 

There is no shortage of livelihood issues, the cost of living and a medley of other concerns that could drive higher aspirations. As you enter the region from Nairobi, you encounter mixed communities all the way from Mai Mahiu, united in the search for livelihoods, but separated by ethnicity and, next to ethnicity, politics that pay little-to-no dividend to the ordinary man or woman. Their vote has yet to be aligned with the voter’s welfare. 

Your first encounter brings you in contact with the agrarian and commercial Kikuyu people in the escarpments. They sprawl the terrain all the way to the floor of the valley in Naivasha and Nakuru, where their beehive commercial enterprise is breathtaking, at macro-and micro-scales, graduating into medium and even large-scale activities. They are enjoined in this by people from other communities indigene to the valley and from farther beyond. The Kalenjin excel in dairy production and small-scale agrarian activities. Other migrant populations bring invaluable labour. 

In the Laikipia plateau, Maasai pastoralists look after their herds, sometimes all the way into the sprawling Mara Park, and in Trans Mara. Water and pastures are key issues to them, especially the unending question of encroachment and depletion of pastures and water sources. Controversy over the Mau Forest sticks out like a sore thumb. It drives a troublesome wedge between them and migrants seeking settlement in the water towers. In the adjacent Kericho and Nandi areas, tea production and dairy rule the landscape. In Molo and Olenguruone, there is also animal and dairy production, predominantly by a migrant Kikuyu community that goes all the way to Uasin Gishu, via Londiani. 

Ace politicians at the local and national levels make political fodder out of the livelihood issues in the sub-region, often giving it an ethnic face. Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto have unresolved contestation over evictions from the Mau Forest during the days of Mr Mwai Kibaki. Dr Ruto cast himself as the friend of the evictees, while Mr Odinga passes himself off as the friend of the Mau and the Maasai pastoralist communities in the region. 

Deputy President William Ruto campaigning in Muranga town, March 20, 2022. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

While other parts of the country seem to be locked up, such controversies make it difficult to lock up the region. The consideration in the case of the Mau, however, is not strictly issue-based. Ethnic sentiments have been whipped up, with the forest acting only as the catalyst. Equally significant is the question of land ownership and permanent settlement. Mr Odinga claims to speak for the indigenes against encroachment by outsiders, while Dr Ruto positions himself as the votary of free settlement based on the willing-seller-willing-buyer principle of the 1960s.

 As usual, presidential voting potential is beginning to show a variegated character. This could explain, at least in part, why the presidential campaigns in the region are so varied, with some areas seeming to be asleep while others are almost excessively energised. Counties in the Central Rift – like Nakuru, Narok and Laikipia - have witnessed recurrent forays. Yet, there has been little focus on the North and South Rift, beyond the occasional inroad by both sides. 

It is all in the character of the region. The most we could accurately say about the Rift Valley is that it will always be variegated. And in this character, there will always be different campaign patterns and, with them, different voting patterns. It is even impossible to objectively speak of one rallying leader or political formation that is acceptable across the board. 

Turkana County up north is presumably Dr Ruto-friendly. Governor Mr Josephat Nanok heads the Dr Ruto presidential campaign not just in the county but nationally. This should give the Deputy President a head-start in the county. Yet, Mr Odinga has rallied his troops in the county around Energy CS John Munyes. Through Mr Munyes’ activities, Azimio la Umoja is expected to give Dr Ruto and Kenya Kwanza a good run for their political monies. At the very minimum, Azimio should be able to claim the 25 per cent benchmark required from 24 counties.

In West Pokot, Governor Prof John Lonyangapuo leads Azimio troops under the Kenya United Party (KUP). KUP’s split from the Mr Gideon Moi-led Kanu took the cockerel party by surprise. Even more curious is that both parties have chosen to work with Mr Odinga in Azimio. Their mysterious differences aside, the combined effort of the two make West Pokot a hard nut for Kenya Kwanza to crack. 

Next door, Trans-Nzoia is an easy one for Kenya Kwanza, following the emerged partnership that now binds Mr Moses Wetang’ula’s Ford-Kenya, Dr Ruto’s UDA and Mr Musalia Mudavadi’s ANC. Political power and control in the county has in recent times been dominated by the three leaders. The county is theirs to lose. If they do not mess it up through scurrilous party primaries, they will take it early in the morning.

Equally sewn by Kenya Kwanza are Elgeyo Markakwet and Nandi Counties. Next door, Uasin Gishu, is set to give Azimio some sizable votes through migrant urban populations in Eldoret town especially. The county, however, is set to go to Kenya Kwanza. 

Kericho is a curious county, with significant urban and quasi-urban populations in such places as Kericho Town, Sotik, Bomet, and Londiani. By-elections in the county following resignation by Mr Charles Keter from the Senate to take up a Cabinet position showed that Mr Odinga had some useful support, even if the old-look Jubilee Party carried the day. Mr Odinga will be counting on this support, once again, even as he knows the county will go to Kenya Kwanza. Besides, he will be awakened to the fact that Mr Mudavadi and Mr Wetang’ula have gone away with some of the support he previously enjoyed in urban areas in Kericho. These have probably been compensated by Jubilee shards sympathetic to President Uhuru Kenyatta, his patron in Azimio la Umoja. 

The Kikuyu and Kalenjin dominate Nakuru politics and elections. By-elections in the county have demonstrated that Dr Ruto has a strong following in Nakuru. It is difficult to see how Mr Odinga will turn the tables, as the two dominant populations are rallying behind Dr Ruto. Samburu County previously went largely the Kanu way. Nothing much seems to have changed. Indications are that it will  remain with Kanu and Azimio.

Laikipia has the traces of a battleground, with Governor Mr Ndiritu Muriithi leading the Raila campaign nationally. Yet the bulwark of the Kikuyu population in this county seems to be with Dr Ruto. Mr Odinga is likely to bank on the Maasai population here, as well as on votes from other migrants in the county. Narok and Kajiado are also battlegrounds, but with Dr Ruto likely to carry the day, with preponderant votes from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities in the two counties. 

Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

It all boils down, however, to a region that no one party or person could place under the wraps. At the apogee of the powerful Kanu regime under President Daniel arap Moi, there emerged the notion of the Kamatusa nation – that is to say an attempt to agglutinate the Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu communities into an informal political confederacy following the Kapkatet Declaration of 1991. The edict sought to enjoin these communities into a solid political unit. Yet this did not gain lasting traction. In the Uhuru Project fallout of 2002, the Kamatusa spectacle fell apart, with the component tribes voting freely. 

In today’s drift towards devolved marginal political parties, it is curious that little by way of presidential campaigns is going on in this region, outside Nakuru, Narok and Kajiado. Nor is there much in the character of emerging village parties, as is happening elsewhere in the country. Batteries of small parties have sprung up in Mt Kenya, Western, Coast, upper and lower Eastern, as well as in Nyanza and even Northeastern, each under the leadership of individuals who can only be described as owners of parties. 

In Rift Valley, the dominant parties remain UDA and Kanu. Mr Kenyatta’s Jubilee may try to put up a good fight. It is doubtful, however, that it will gain much for itself, besides getting some presidential votes for Mr Odinga. There is also Governor Mr John Lonyangapuo’s KUP and former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto’s Chama Cha Mashinani. Ford-Kenya also retains a significant presence in Trans-Nzoia. However, KUP and UDA are the new outfits here. They will be the two parties to watch. 

In terms of barnstorming the place for the presidential poll, you do not see the scale of activities the main contenders have demonstrated for the Mt Kenya region, Nairobi, Coast, Western, Kisii, and Maasai Rift Valley. These regions are revisited virtually every week. Yet there is no corresponding activity in most Rift Valley counties. Is it possibly a factor of the belief that Rift Valley could be under lock and key to the various formations? 

Some believe that Ruto has the entire region under his belt, hence there is not much reason to spend inordinate time barnstorming the region, especially the North Rift. This notion, however, is largely a fallacy, as everyone seems to have a bit of the pie. UDA is, however, dominant.

When the UDA fraternity made one of their rare forays into Uasin Gishu, Meru Senator Mr Mithika Linturi got into instant trouble when he betrayed the thinking in the DP’s camp. Mr Linturi declared that there would be no patches in the voting pattern, across party lines. His detractors understood that he was calling for some kind of ethnic purity. The courts have since rested the matter in his favour.

Even if it should be assumed that Rift Valley is largely locked in for Ruto, the low level of political activity there is a big gamble. Voters always need to be galvanised to come out to vote. Ruto may very well sweep the boards in the valley clean. Yet they may not count for much, if the voter turnout is low. His team may want to restrategise for the region. Mr Odinga’s team may also want to consider making regular forays into the region, to cut down the degree of Dr Ruto’s presumed dominance.