William Ruto's grand plan to build big party, have influential allies in regions

In December 2020, after he was successfully boxed out of the then ruling Jubilee Party, President Ruto set out to recreate such a behemoth in the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). The collapse of Jubilee had disappointed Ruto, and he would constantly state his regret in seeing the party crumble.

Counting on his support from Mt Kenya and Rift Valley, his first course of action was to have allies from the said regions sign up to the new party. If he would net them all, he would start at an advantage in the game of numbers. It paid off in the elections, with UDA securing the most governors (20), MPs (138) and senators (22), making it the single largest party.

With the experience of Jubilee's collapse, some allies had founded parties, which they would use to bargain with prospective partners. Aware of the threat that such fringe parties could pose to his intention of having an outright majority in Parliament, he rallied their leaders to fold them up, a call that faced opposition.

Party leaders such as Mwangi Kiunjuri of the Service Party and Moses Kuria of the Chama Cha Kazi were open to working with candidate Ruto. They were just uncomfortable abandoning their parties.

The reason for the initial resistance was similar to the reasons for Ruto's push to have them dissolve their parties - they all understood that it was more powerful to lock in allies within a political party than it was within a coalition, which many of Ruto's allies favoured.

Defecting from a party - though the staple in Kenya - was a more difficult approach as it involved losing an elective seat if one was to resign from their party. Quitting a coalition, procedurally, has no such strictures.

Just as former President Uhuru Kenyatta had locked his allies in Jubilee, Ruto would seek to lock his supporters in UDA. It mirrored the philosophy that Ruto has long peddled, that of having large parties, driven by an "agenda." He has insisted on the need to have strong parties since he dissolved his United Republican Party into Jubilee with little hesitation.

But Ruto would soon learn that it was better to drop his rigid act if he was to secure the most support. The first concession came when he moved to explore the opposition strongholds of Western, Ukambani and Coast.

For the longest time, Raila Odinga's ODM has dominated Western and Coast, with Kalonzo Musyoka's Wiper having a stranglehold in Ukambani. Moses Wetang'ula's Ford Kenya and Musalia Mudavadi's Amani National Congress have also had their share of Western.

However, new dynamics in the run-up to the August 9 polls threatened to upset the status quo in the three regions. Other parties had formed up - Alfred Mutua's Maendeleo Chap Chap (Ukambani), Amason Kingi's Pamoja African Alliance (Coast) and Wafula Wamunyinyi's Democratic Action Party-Kenya (Western) - all intent on claiming their space in the respective regions.

Ruto would drop his hardline stance and courted Mudavadi, Wetang'ula, Mutua and Kingi, letting them keep their parties as they formed the Kenya Kwanza Alliance.

His decision to give the parties outside his strongholds a free pass, stems majorly from the realisation that he needed to go through the said parties and their respective leaders to access the support that helped tilt the scales in his favour on August 9.

He extended the same leniency to parties in Mt Kenya, even as he urged residents in his native Rift Valley to vote "six-piece." The tactical retreat paid off in keeping the rival Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition party from enjoying an absolute majority.

Now with the support of parties seeking to leave Azimio, Ruto enjoys a majority that could see him get his proposals through Parliament easily, even in the rowdiest of days, as it was the case with the former Jubilee.

Azimio has not taken his raid of the coalition party kindly, with Raila and other leaders accusing the president of seeking to have the country under a one-party rule.

The president understands the power that comes with having grand parties, and he is likely to push to have more allies, some of whom he has rewarded with government positions, to dissolve their parties.

As an outsider, he watched how the National Rainbow Coalition effectively muzzled a weakened Kanu, deflated by defections in the run-up to the 2002 elections.

Though Ruto's initial call for dissolution faced resistance, that could change, with the dissolution of Kuria's (CCK) party offering to do so, an indication of things to come.

The dissolutions could spring from the appointment of some party leaders into Cabinet positions, and thus barred by law from holding office in political parties. Given that most parties are briefcase entities that can barely survive without their leaders, keeping them around would be untenable.

Besides CCK, other parties that have their leaders nominated to Cabinet are Mudavadi's ANC and Mutua's MCC.

"The president may try to have parties dissolve, but that would not be wise," university lecturer Macharia Munene says. "Party leaders survive by being in parties. The tactic has been tried before and failed."

As a political student of the late former President Daniel Moi and Raila, Ruto understands the need to have 'regional' point persons in one's circle.

In 2007 election, the president was Raila's point man in Rift Valley, trusted to deliver votes in the former prime minister's basket as part of the "Pentagon", as the Azimio leader would brand it.

The Pentagon also included Mudavadi (Western), Najib Balala (Coast), the late Joe Nyaga (Mt Kenya) and Charity Ngilu (Ukambani).

President Moi, on the other hand had trusted hands from the major voting regions. The difference was that Moi had several figureheads, a strategy that ensured his allies would be constantly at loggerheads.

For instance, he had several allies in the Mt Kenya region, including Joseph Kamotho, Moi's vice president Mwai Kibaki, Waruru Kanja and Kuria Kanyingi, among others.

The late former Mvita MP Shariff Nassir, a Kanu-era minister, was his foot soldier at the Coast, as was Katana Ngala, with former MPs Oloo Aringo and Odogo Omamo playing the role in Nyanza.

Simeon Nyachae and Sam Ongeri also featured in Moi's lineup in Nyanza, with Mulu Mutisya, Kalonzo Musyoka and Jackson Mulinge being his allies in Ukambani.

On Thursday, the president declared the end of personality cults, but his recent actions betray his intentions. In forming his government, Ruto has seemed keen to prop select politicians from all corners even as he seeks to neutralize others.

In Mt Kenya, he has left tracks in his path to achieving total control. He set his plan in motion in 2017, when he took charge of the Jubilee Party primaries.

After contested primaries, strongmen such as former Kiambu Governor William Kabogo, then touted as a possible successor to Uhuru, were licking the wounds of defeat.

In the region where Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua hails from, Ruto has trusted hands in Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichung'wa, Ndindi Nyoro (Kiharu), Alice Wahome (Kandara), Moses Kuria and other allies from Mt Kenya East such as former National Speaker Justin Muturi and former Tharaka Nithi Senator Kithire Kindiki.

Although he has propped himself as the Mt Kenya kingpin, claiming credit for delivering Mt Kenya for Ruto, Gachagua is yet to emerge as the region's top gun.

The president's nomination of Kindiki Kithure, Wahome and Kuria as Cabinet Secretaries and that of Justin Muturi as Attorney-General may have been a way of rewarding Mt Kenya, which handed Ruto most votes.

"These are people who worked hard for the president," Prof Munene says of the cabinet nominees. "They did what needed to be done and were rewarded for it."

Prof Munene believes Ruto is not interested in taming his deputy, given that it would not guarantee he remains unchallenged.

"He is always going to be challenged," he says, "The question is how he will deal with the challenges."

By awarding Kingi the Senate speakership, Ruto has made the former Kilifi governor the fourth most powerful person in the government behind the president, the deputy president and the speaker of the National Assembly. Former Kwale Governor Salim Mvurya and former Malindi MP Aisha Jumwa complete Ruto's coastal power circle.

But the circumstances at the Coast are different from those in Mt Kenya, where Ruto is hoping to snatch the region from the opposition's hands, unlike Mt Kenya where he enjoys support.

Others that Ruto has assembled with the probable goal of flipping them into his bases are Garissa Township MP Aden Duale (North Eastern), Mandera Senator Ali Roba (North Eastern), Alfred Mutua (Ukambani), Eliud Owalo (Nyanza), Ezekiel Machogu (Nyanza). He also has the support of Ugenya MP David Ochieng' and his Movement for Democracy and Growth party.

Although Ruto has largely kept off the Western region, leaving it to Wetang'ula and Mudavadi, his UDA party has won seats from the five counties that form the region - Kakamega, Vihiga, Bungoma, Busia and Trans Nzioa - with varied success. His nomination of Ababu Namwamba will likely add him political value in Western.

But the tactic of propping up regional leaders through Cabinet appointments may not be all successful. "If a minister doesn't perform, it would be useless to say that they come from your village," Prof Munene adds.