Sonko's governor quest reignites debate on elusive upcountry vote

Former Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko. [David Njaaga, Standard]

The entry of former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko into Mombasa politics has re-ignited debate on the role of the upcountry vote and ODM’s dominance in the county’s politics.

Last week, Sonko was given the Wiper Party ticket for the county governor’s seat. He will be deputised by Kisauni MP Ali Menza Mbogo who agreed to step down for him.

Debate is raging in Mombasa whether Sonko was out tap into the frustrations of 65 per cent of upcountry vote who for years have decried alleged marginalisation in the county’s leadership.

For decades, trouble has been brewing in Mombasa with upcountry people claiming that a clique of powerful tycoons from a minority tribe have dominated the politics of Mombasa.

These views could largely be exaggerated and utterly bogus but are widely held by most voters and there are fears within ODM ranks that Sonko could be out to exploit these feelings.

Some political analysts argue that Sonko could take advantage of gullible upcountry voters who could see him as a “saviour” that represents a break from years of political xenophobia.

The tale-tell signs that the upcountry voters were out to assert their place in Mombasa politics started in 1992 following the election of Kennedy Kiliku as Changamwe MP.

His election was also seen as a sign of changing demographics of voters in Mombasa. Most of the voters in Changamwe were then said to be from Kiliku’s Kamba tribe.

In 2013, Hezron Awiti from the Luo community also stormed to victory in Nyali Constituency on Wiper. Meanwhile, people from the upcountry tribes have also won a number of ward seats.

Other than a shift in the voters demographics in terms of tribe, in the recent years ODM’s grip in some areas in Mombasa have also been waning.

Hezron Awiti. [Gideon Maundu, Standard]

In 2017, Ali Mbogo who will, in this election, be Sonko’s running mate also won the Kisauni parliamentary seat on a Wiper ticket.

“Sonko’s entry in the Mombasa governor race is an October surprise. ODM did not see it coming and do not know how to handle it,” said Caleb Ng’wena who is vying for Bamburi Ward seat.

The October Surprise theory is an event that may influence the outcome of an upcoming election whether deliberately planned or spontaneously occurring.

This theory is particularly common on the US presidential polls. In 2016, Hillary Clinton presidential candidature was punctured by WikiLeaks that cost her the election.

In the last election, the October Surprise was seen as the May 2020 killing of George Floyd or the outbreak of Covid-19 which cost President Donald Trump a re-election.

Former Kisauni MP Ananiah Mwaboza said Sonko could also be out to tap into the frustrations of businessmen who have for years complained about high county levies.

“I expect Sonko to endear himself to voters disenfranchised by the ODM party primaries and those who see Abdulswamad Nassir (Mvita MP) as a continuation of Hassan Joho’s rule,” said Mwaboza.

Mwaboza believes there would be a “protest vote” against Nassir by supporters of businessman Suleiman Shahbal during the General Election.

Shahbal has publicly declared support for Nassir. On Tuesday, he however hinted that he could vie for the governor seat as an independent candidate.

Meanwhile, 1,151 voters have also signed an online petition asking Shahbal to run as an independent. The online petition launched on Sunday last week sought to collect 1,000 signatures.

Former Kisauni MP Ananiah Mwaboza. [File, Standard]

Multiple sources indicate that Shahbal has agreed to lead a team tasked to mobilise campaign resources for Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

“He is a clever businessman. He knows when to cut his losses and move on,” said Mr Ng’wena who is vying for Bamburi Ward seat on United Party of Independent Alliance (UPIA) ticket. 

Mombasa lawyer Abubakar Yusuf however said the current excitement about Sonko could fizzle out once the other candidates start poking holes into his “disastrous leadership” in Nairobi.

“It is a bubble of excitement that will be punctured before the August polls. Voters will start to question themselves as to who will elect a man banned from visiting the US,” he said.

“Sonko is a brand. He will also tap into economic issues and disenfranchised ODM base,” said Prof Halimu Shauri of Pwani University adding that ODM did see it coming.

Shauri and Yusuf agreed that ethnic diversity is slowly displacing old dynamics that have long shaped Mombasa politics, hinting to changing demographics of the county’s voters.

Balance-ticketing, as described by the analysts, is the biggest quagmire facing Nassir as he starts to fish for his running mate and fortify his support or chances.

Other factors expected to play out however are the candidates’ financial muscle, incumbent’s performance and Jubilee’s and ODM’s handling of primaries to tame fallouts.