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Why Uhuru will never look back after painful loss of the mountain

Former president Uhuru Kenyatta outside DoD during a farewell event held in his honour by KDF on September 9, 2022. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

There is still an unwritten rule among Uhuru Kenyatta’s diehard supporters that prohibits any comment on the incredible margin by which his successor and former deputy defeated his preferred successor in the August presidential election, causing him to lose his Mt Kenya backyard.

The former president’s devastation is said to be so great that he rarely engages politicians outside of a small circle and spends most of his free time in the retirement home he built on his ranch in Trans Mara.

As a consummate politician, Uhuru now appears to be more at ease mingling with battle-scarred Congolese in the DRC’s East than having a roast meat lunch at Burma market.

What could have compelled a devoted fan base to inflict such a painful blow on a man who had provided such a diverse array of development to his home base? For the foreseeable future, this will be a major topic of discussion among political observers and historians of Kenya.

In Mt Kenya, his party, Jubilee, and the entire Azimio la Umoja Alliance did not achieve any notable electoral victories. As opposed to 2013 and 2017, today Jubilee has only five MPs and no senator from Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Kirinyaga, Kiambu, Murang’a, Nyeri, Nyandarua, Nakuru to Laikipia.

The party MPs are Dan Kiili in Igembe Central and Dr Shadrack Mwiti in South Imenti constituencies of Meru; David Kiiraho (Ol Kalau) and Kwenya Thuku (Kinangop) in Nyandarua county and Irene Njoki in Bahati, Nakuru.

Even those who won did so by the slimmest of margins, propelled primarily by sibling rivalry in President William Ruto’s house - the Kenya Kwanza Alliance (KKA).

Of course, the former president’s party controls no county government, and its MCA count in the region is less than two dozen. Jubilee is not even the Minority Party in any county assembly in this region.

Kiambu, the president’s home county, has no Jubilee MP. Not even in Gatundu South, where his umbilical cord is said to be buried.

Raila Odinga, the Azimio presidential candidate, received approximately 850,000 votes, which is unprecedented for him, but it remains a tickle when you consider that he had the backing of the outgoing regional kingpin.

What happened?

Many blame Uhuru, and just as many blame Ruto’s scorched-earth campaigns.

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta looks on during a meeting on the DRC peace process in Nairobi on November 28, 2022. [Samson Wire, Standard]

“By staying away from the region for the last five years, Uhuru failed to capitalise on voters’ goodwill,” said Dr James Mithika, the JP senatorial candidate in Meru.

“He had done so much for his community but would never return, even as the campaign neared its end. He practically went into hiding, not even returning to say goodbye to his people.”

Dr Mithika highlights Meru infrastructure upgrades, including a Sh6 billion bypass for Meru town, which Uhuru was supposed to start but never did.

“That he won’t come fuelled by claims by the rival camp that he had neglected the region put us at a clear disadvantage,” he added. 

He also cites the chaos of the Azimio campaigns and the subsequent fierce sibling rivalry. 

“in Meru, for instance, we had a senior Uhuru minister campaigning against the governor, senatorial, and woman rep candidates fielded by Jubilee,” said Dr Mithika.

Former Laikipia governor Ndiritu Muriithi who was Azimio presidential campaign co-chairman and political commentator Prof Gitile Naituli, separately argued it was about the economy. 

“When he lost command of the economy, that’s when he lost the vote,” said Prof Naituli. “Many in Mt Kenya remembered he had inherited a robust economy from the late President Mwai Kibaki and for sure he did many projects and employed many residents. Only that the bulk of the voters never look at those things.”

Prof Naituli said Mt Kenya had high hopes for Uhuru and believed he would outperform Kibaki in resolving Kenya’s and the region’s problems.

“In the end, the thinking was that he was a weak leader, slow in thinking, and never got control of the economy,” Prof Naituli concluded.

Azimio la Umoja presidential candidate Raila Odinga. [File, Standard]

Murang’a Governor Irungu Kang’ata believes the idea that Kikuyus wanted to maintain their dignity by repaying Ruto’s contribution to Uhuru’s presidency was correct.

“They felt Uhuru wanted to leave them in the morally precarious position of a community that negates its word,” the Ruto ally said in an interview. 

No kingpin left

“There was also speculation that Uhuru was a little self-centred. He failed to develop a kingpin by purposefully undercutting all potential candidates,” Kang’ata said.

“Many people thought it was foolish to drag Kikuyu into an agreement with a region that had been at odds with the region, especially without a kingpin.”

The former senator had a love-hate relationship with Uhuru at the end of his term, initially benefiting from Uhuru’s rout of Ruto allies, then a spectacular fallout after he penned a letter informing the president of BBI’s unpopularity.

Ndiritu Muriithi, an economist and former governor of Laikipia, provides snippets of what went wrong in a scientific context.

Kenyans, he said, were angry and disillusioned by the stagnation or worsening of their situation.

“Welfare is deteriorating even as top-line GDP is increasing, and access to financial services is at an all-time high of 84 per cent of adults,” Muriithi said.

“They may see beautiful roads, but the percentage of Kenyans who are financially insecure has more than doubled in the last five years, from 15 per cent to 39 per cent, according to the Financial Access report by CBK, KNBS, and FSD Kenya.”

President William Ruto speaks during the launch of Hustler Fund in Nairobi. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

According to the former governor, struggling means that people are sometimes without food and medicine and thus cannot save for emergencies or invest for the future.

“Median income has declined from Sh6,500 per month in 2016 to Sh5,000 today. Kenyans are angry at the government generally. There was rioting and looting in Eldoret this week.”

According to Kikuyu Council of Elders chairman Wachira Kiago, the Ruto camp has created a fertile ground for sowing seeds of revolt against the outgoing leader.

“The truth is that Uhuru had delivered for the nation and his region but there was a lot of propaganda and outright lies. He was condemned on any imaginable ground and it seemed true because he was the one in power,” said Kiago.  

The elder sympathises with Uhuru, saying he did well considering he had to deal with a new constitutional order, the Covid-19 pandemic, the international financial meltdown, and the Dr Ruto-led rebellion.

Kiago added that because the population was feeling the economic sting, it was simple for Dr Ruto to de-campaign his boss.

He mentioned an effort by Kikuyu elders to bring Uhuru and deputy president Rigathi Gachagua together, saying it boded well for the future to have the two on the same side.

“The biggest mistake for the mountain will be seeking to disregard Uhuru’s place in our history,” warned Kiago.

Some key members of Kenya Kwanza in Mt Kenya, such as Senate Deputy Speaker Kathuri Murungi (Meru), have attributed the success of their campaign to Dr Ruto’s permanent presence there for 10 years. 

“He has been deep into villages in every constituency conducting harambees and identifying local problems. He was the familiar option and the people remembered it,” Murungi said in a past interview. 

Federation of Evangelical and Indigenous Churches of Kenya chairman Bishop Samuel Njiriri said Dr Ruto worked for his victory, citing his passionate courting of the Church.