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Battle of titans: Martha Karua vs Rigathi Gachagua

NARC Kenya Party Leader Martha Karua addressing during Gatundu South Member of Parliament Moses Kuria thanksgiving prayer rally at Thika Stadium on February 19, 2022.[Boniface Okendo, Standard]

The country’s eyes are set on the Mt Kenya region, where an estimated 5.8 million votes will make or break the presidential ambitions of Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga.

The man and woman on whose shoulders the responsibility of delivering these votes is wider than the 60km that separate Hiriga village, where Dr Ruto’s presumptive deputy Mr Rigathi Gachagua was born and Kimunye in Kirinyaga, where Ms Martha Karua, Mr Odinga’s designated principal assistant hails from.

Although the two villages face Mt Kenya from different directions, Mr Gachagua and Ms Karua are as diametrically opposed as the rising and setting of the sun. Their ideologies are equally contrasting.

Nine days remain before the official campaign period begins, but Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga’s running mates are not waiting for the whistle.

As soon as she was named the running mate to Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate on Monday, Ms Karua hit the ground running, holding a series of rallies in Mt Kenya in the past few days. She started at her home county Kirinyaga on Tuesday, touring Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties in the days that followed.

Mr Gachagua would have hoped for a better homecoming, but his apportionment coincided with the death of his elder brother.

There was no time to mourn, for a day later, he was part of Dr Ruto’s entourage in a campaign tour of Nakuru, which saw them address town hall meetings and public rallies.

Their prompt activity is turning the August 9 General Election into a battle of the running mates in Mt Kenya, a region shaping up as a battleground. 

The decision by Azimio la Umoja and Kenya Kwanza alliances to pick Ms Karua and Mr Gachagua as running mates respectively may be the determining factor in August polls.

Political analysts say the two leaders are not laid back.

They say Mr Gachagua and Ms Karua are not pushovers, and none of them will sit pretty should Mr Odinga or Dr Ruto, whoever becomes President, neglect the Mt Kenya region.

This is despite the Mathira MP’s pronouncements that he will be a yes-man and that he will fully support and compliment Dr Ruto to run government if elected President. “I will be a Yes-man, the current scenario of bad blood between (President) Uhuru (Kenyatta) and Ruto will not happen under my watch,” said Mr Gachagua.

He admitted that a section of leaders felt he would be too strong a Deputy President for Dr Ruto, but he promised to assist his boss to steer the country forward.

Mr Brian Theuri, a Nyeri based politician, thinks differently. “Gachagua is an abrasive leader and is known to take charge of his area of jurisdiction. When things go south, he may mobilise leaders from his backyard against Ruto and there will be no difference between him and Ruto the DP.”

Mr Gachagua’s influence has been felt in Mathira and Nyeri and if anything, he will have Mt Kenya region under his control if his team wins.

Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua at his home in Sagana Scheme in Mathira constituency, Nyeri County on May 12, 2022. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

That is why some UDA leaders were against him. They fear that he may reprimand and whip them to line. “We wanted a soft leader who is reconciliatory and we saw that in Prof Kindiki Kithure. Some of us will take a back seat and concentrate in our campaigns,” a UDA leader from Mt Kenya region who was opposed to the Mathira MP said.

Mr Gachagua is known for his acumen on mobilisation, eloquence that moves crowds and decisiveness.

His 30-year stint in public service that took him to different regions in the country is an added advantage.

Kiharu MP Mr Ndindi Nyoro says Mr Gachagua will unite the Mt Kenya region and secure its interests. “He is the perfect example of bottom... He is firm and intelligent, and will represent us,” the MP says.

While Mr Gachagua vows to play to Dr Ruto’s tune, Ms Karua maintains that she will defend and protect the interests of Mt Kenya. She too has promised to be Mr Odinga’s principal assistant. In her tours in Meru, she assured locals that together with Agriculture CS Peter Munya they shall safeguard the interests of Mt Kenya.

“I don’t laugh when it comes to work. We shall ensure that the interests of our people are protected and prioritized,” she said.

Prof Gitile Naituli says Mr Gachagua and Ms Karua have their advantages and disadvantages to their political coalitions.

While describing the two as leaders who are not laid backs, he says the Mr Odinga’s decision to pick the Narc Kenya leader will enhance his chances in Mt Kenya region and may diminish the Mathira MP’s chances of delivering high percentage votes to Dr Ruto.

Prof Naituli notes that while there has been a perception of corruption tag for Dr Ruto, Mr Gachagua comes with a baggage of active court cases which is a major contrast to Ms Karua.

“This begs the question of Ruto’s commitment to fight graft after picking Gachagua while at the same time, vindicating Raila in his promise of eliminating and jailing the corrupt,” he says.

One of the Azimo presidential candidate’s pledge is to fight graft and save the Sh800 billion money which he claims to be stolen and instead use Sh1.5 billion to initiate the social protection fund on yearly basis. Prof Naituli says Mr Odinga was vindicated when he picked Ms Karua while Ruto picked Mr Gachagua.

But Mr Charles Ng’ang’a believes the narrative may not sell, since the Narc-Kenya leader is not known to be an astute ground mobiliser like the Mathira MP. “Gachagua knows how to whip emotions and represents himself as a son of Mau Mau and victim of bad blood between Uhuru and Ruto and locals listen.”

He says despite Ms Karua being perceived as a leader of integrity, she is not popular on the ground and may not effectively galvanize Mt Kenya region which seem to be leaning to Dr Ruto. “Raila is seen as Uhuru’s project at a time when the region is suffering due to harsh economic times, Gachagua and Ruto are presenting themselves as saviours while Raila is promising continuity,” says Mr Ng’ang’a.

But Prof Naituli says by Mr Odinga picking Ms Karua he deals with the “project” tag and removes President Kenyatta out of equation.

“The contest is now framed between Gachagua and Karua and there is nowhere Uhuru is coming in. In any case, we have seen reports that Uhuru will not campaign for Raila,” he says.

He says the Raila-Karua ticket demystifies the belief that Kenya’s electoral cycle is only about the Kikuyu-Kalenjin affair, and brings in the issue of Luo and women. “It has always been about Kikuyu and Kalenjin, but with Karua, a nationalist, the issue of women vote comes in aided by the undecided votes factor,” he says.

“In the next one month, I opine a major systematic shift from Kenya Kwanza to Azimio, especially from Mt Kenya region,” says the don.

Kandara MP Ms Alice Wahome says of the Raila-Karua ticket: “It is bait to appeal to the women vote. But we are not looking for one position.”