Why high-stakes battle for region is Martha Karua versus Rigathi Gachagua affair

Kenya Kwanza Alliance running mate Rigathi Gachagua and Azimio la Umoja's Martha Karua. [File, Standard]

Seduction, says renowned American non-fiction author Robert Greene, “is a game of psychology, not beauty, and it is within the grasp of any person to become a master at the game”.

This outlook has found relevance in the Kenyan context in the presidential poll slated for August 9, especially in the vote-rich Mt Kenya region.    

With all the cameras facing the region which has an estimated 5.8 million votes – about a quarter of the total number of registered voters – leading presidential contenders Deputy President William Ruto and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya flag bearer Raila Odinga, are locked in a battle of seduction over the Mt Kenya political bride.

The two have opted for two different approaches to charm their way into the hearts of the Mt Kenya voters. While Ruto has gone directly to the people, Raila has opted to charm his way through local emissaries – President Uhuru Kenyatta and lately his running mate, Martha Karua.

In his book “The Art of Seduction”, Greene points out that successful seduction starts with who you are, your style of approach and the type of seductive energy you express, in which case – judging by their approaches and energy levels – Ruto and Raila are firmly on course for the top prize. 

Influence and popularity

And to up their game, they have separately roped in the services of Karua and Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua who is Ruto’s running mate. Following a nearly four-year Ruto-Raila political ping-pong, observers are in agreement that the last few days to the August poll could come down to the influence and popularity of the running mates. 

Political analyst Macharia Munene describes Karua as energetic and exciting – “not because she is a woman but rather her firm and combative approach”.

Kenyans, says Prof Munene, ordinarily admire fighters “and Karua has just arrived on the scene with a promise to fight for them”.

On the other side, after sieving through his list, the DP was left with two leading contenders – Rigathi and Tharaka Nithi Senator Kithure Kindiki: “Kindiki is more philosophical and professorial, as compared to Rigathi who is at home with the rough and tumble of our society. In the circumstances he was the better of the two in as far as voter mobilisation and fighting off political intrusion from rival camps is concerned.”

According to Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro, the Kenya Kwanza fraternity is comfortable with Ruto and Rigathi as presidential candidate and running mate, and are accordingly unperturbed by whatever dimension the campaign takes: “We are okay with either, because Ruto and Rigathi are the best candidates in this race. We care less whether the last leg of the campaign will focus on Ruto or Rigathi – locally and nationally.”

Nyoro argues that the selection of Gachagua as deputy presidential nominee solidifies the team’s vote. The Mathira legislator, he points out, is best placed to safeguard Ruto’s votes particularly in Mt Kenya region, where the DP’s side of the coalition has major interests in the outcome.

His approval of Rigathi’s qualities notwithstanding, Nyoro – just like a host of Ruto’s backers – however, insist that the focus should remain on Ruto and Raila, “because the contest is practically between the two UDA and Azimio candidates”.

Support cast

This factor has been supported by none other than Gachagua himself, who has challenged Raila “to stop hiding behind our daughter, Karua”, and face his rivals on the campaign trail as he seeks votes in Mt Kenya region. Speaking early last week in Nyeri County, the Mathira MP stressed that the battle was between Ruto and Raila and that he and Karua were mere support cast in the poll drama. 

That Ruto currently enjoys popularity in Mt Kenya is not in doubt. And Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu attributes this reality to the fact that the Mt Kenya residents dislike Raila more than Ruto.

“Do not be mistaken that we love Ruto. It  is only that our people dislike Raila more owing to decades of misinformation during campaigns. And Ruto and his allies know this fact, and that is why they are uncomfortable with Karua’s presence in the rallies because they would wish to deal with Raila directly,” says the MP.

In the meantime, Karua has vowed to camp in Mt Kenya region for the remainder of the campaign period until she reverses the gains made by the rival camp. Stating during her tour of Kirinyaga County a day after her selection as Raila’s running mate, she said time had come to plant the all-important political seed and that she would return to water the plant before harvesting it in August.

“Every week and every day she is on the campaign trail, she chips away some votes from the rival camp. And we can argue about the percentages, but not the fact that Martha is continuously eating into Ruto’s share of votes,” says Ngunjiri.   However Nyoro maintains their side of coalition is not afraid of the forays of Azimio’s nominee: “Forget the general excitement elicited by the entry of Karua onto the scene. She is just a passing cloud whose fame is short-lived and will soon fizzle out. Karua is chasing the wind as Gachagua is the real deal because he has real votes.” 

Between the two running mates, Nyoro argues that Gachagua has a better track record when it comes to performance, as a government officer and businessman, “unlike Karua who served as Cabinet minister under Mwai Kibaki but has nothing to show for it, other than her dramatic exit from government.” 

Fresh breath

Ngunjiri hails the selection of Karua as Raila’s running mate, stating that she brought into the campaign some fresh breath and dynamism. He describes her as a strong character – just like the Orange party leader – who is greatly complementing Raila’s campaign messaging. 

Raila, explains Ngunjiri, always speaks about his reform credentials and having fought against dictatorial tendencies of past regimes. But this message hardly resonates with some in Mt Kenya, who view his approach as dwelling so much on history: “But it has taken a fellow reformist, Karua– who understands Baba (Raila) well – to articulate this factor vividly by linking the reforms drive to better governance and thereby taking this narrative to the next level.” The vocal legislator says that while Rigathi enhances Ruto’s negative qualities, Martha enhances the positive qualities of Raila, especially with regard to the resolve to fight against graft.

At a meeting with the civil society on Friday, Karua conceded to the assertions that she was stubborn and strong-willed, and wondered why Raila risked by selecting her as his running mate. He would have played safe with other politicians, she said. “But by taking the gamble on me, he has demonstrated genuineness in fighting graft and streamlining operations in government.”

And Ngunjiri, who is the chairman of Jubilee Party’s Caucus in Mt Kenya, observes that Raila’s gamble has indeed paid off: “Our people have all along been afraid of Raila because of his strong qualities and the absence of a presidential candidate in the leading parties from our amidst worried them even more. But the arrival of Karua is reassuring. And this is because she is equally strong and has stood down Raila before on several occasions, including at the KICC tallying centre in 2007, in defence of our very own, Kibaki.”

Members of the Kikuyu community, alongside their neighbours in the larger Mt Kenya region, have historically not voted for any presidential candidate other than their own. Out of Kenya’s four presidents since independence, three – Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta – are from the region, and during his reign as the second president, Moi, largely drew his support from the Kalenjin, amongst members of other communities across the country. Majority of the Mt Kenya communities were in the opposition then, solidly behind Kibaki and Kenneth Matiba, amongst others.  

This year’s poll accordingly offers a unique scenario where the locals are set to rally behind a “foreign” candidate, other their own.

Intense contest

And with excitement on Raila and Ruto dying down, the contest is getting interesting as focus shifts to the Karua and Gachagua, who hail from the neighbouring Kirinyaga and Nyeri counties. Observers say the entire contest might partly narrow down to the capacities and abilities of the two individuals.  

Singling out his experience in provincial administration in previous regimes and the thriving of his multimillion chain of businesses, Nyoro, for instance, states that Rigathi is an experienced and successful manager who is “as tough and thorough as they come”.

Compared to Karua, however, the one-term MP has a relatively weaker political experience. Karua, who first joined elective politics in 1992 aged 35, is the party leader of Narc-Kenya, having served as Cabinet minister during the 9th and 10th Parliament under the Kibaki administration and vied once for presidency. 

And as Prof Munene says, while Martha is distinguished more for her reformist agenda, Rigathi is known more for his business acumen and tough political stance. His series of attacks on President Kenyatta, who has publicly expressed support for Raila, are a case in point.

Prof Munene, who teaches at the United States International University-Kenya (USIU-K), explains that the absence of President Uhuru Kenyatta from the campaigns is intended to elevate Raila as the candidate, considering that Uhuru’s involvement has the effect of diminishing the candidate’s prominence.

If Rigathi was hired with the view of “dealing with Uhuru” then as Prof Munene says, he is wasting time because the Jubilee leader is not the candidate. Prof Munene says Azimio operatives are bound to make him as idle as possible, the same way they would Karua, if her primary brief is to face off with Rigathi: “Ruto appears more popular in Mt Kenya region than Rigathi, who is a resident of the region, meaning he is likely to be kept in the wings of the DP in their campaign approach, even in Mt Kenya”.