Low key presidential campaigns in William Ruto's Rift Valley turf

Deputy President William Ruto addresses Karatina residents in Nyeri county. [DPPS, Standard]

The Rift Valley region is witnessing unusually low-key campaigns for the presidency.

Deputy President William Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza partners appear not to be giving the Rift the same attention like in other regions in their hunt for votes, with the assumption that it is the DP's turf and is 'locked'.

During Ruto's last rally in January at the Eldoret Sports Club, governors and other leaders pledged to ring-fence the region to allow him seek support elsewhere.

"We have heard leaders from other regions asking we release DP Ruto so he goes out to seek support, and I confirm that as a region we have freed him to other Kenyans," Nandi Governor Stephen Sang said.

Governors Jackson Mandago (Uasin Gishu), Josphat Nanok (Turkana) and Stanley Kiptis (Baringo) pledged to take charge of Ruto’s campaigns in the region.

It was expected that Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition headed by former premier Raila Odinga would consequently raid the region, but they have not.

Except for a few appearances by party leaders in the North and South Rift regions early this year, the Rift Valley, with a voting bloc of more than five million, has largely remained quiet.

In the past two elections, the region witnessed high voltage political campaigns that propelled President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy to State House.

Dr Ruto has since fallen out with President Kenyatta, who has picked Raila as his preferred successor.

Apart from their running mates, Rigathi Gachagua and Martha Karua, who toured the the region recently, presidential political campaigns by the two formations have been left to candidates who were cleared by the IEBC.

Mr Gachugua toured Bomet, Kericho, Nakuru and Baringo counties where he spearheaded economic forums organised by Kenya Kwanza to try and understand the peoples' needs ahead of the launch of their manifesto at the end of June.

Ms Karua campaigned in Eldoret and Nakuru counties a month ago where she told voters to be careful not to be left out of the next government, if Raila wins.

Political experts say the voting bloc could be disadvantaged for being considered a Ruto 'stronghold’. Kenya Kwanza’s focus, they note, has shifted to Mount Kenya, Coast, Ukambani and Western in a bid to build new support bases.

Political analyst Masibo Lumala of Moi University said specific counties that are known to align with Ruto have been affected.

“Counties like Nandi, Uasin-Gishu, Bomet, Kericho and Elgeyo Marakwet are already taken for granted for being considered Ruto strongholds. High octave politics concluded after the party nominations,” said Prof Lumala.

The absence of principals has left candidates to conduct quiet campaigns. In the South Rift region, many candidates have resorted to town hall meetings, village barazas, and social functions like weddings, funerals and graduations.

There are fewer roadshows and public rallies compared to the past. In Nakuru, most of the candidates appear to be targeting specific groups of voters such as youth, women, men, professional groups and business communities with a view of giving audience to their specific needs.

Some have resorted to dishing out goodies like cooking oil, maize flour and other foodstuff to their supporters.

Since June 1, Governor Lee Kinyanjui has held town hall meetings with members of various communities and multiple mini-rallies daily, with the most recent one bringing together youth representatives from 11 constituencies.

"I signed a charter with the youth after a lengthy discussion on issues affecting them and solutions. This charter will guide our engagement going forward,” said Mr Kinyanjui.

During the meeting, the governor, who is a Jubilee candidate, promised to expand the Sh100 million County Enterprise Fund to extend credit to those intending to establish and expand small and micro-enterprises.

“Roadshows have been popular, but often miss out engaging voters to really know their needs. This is why I decided to change tack and pick the specifics of what I should address in my second term,” he said.

His opponent Senator Susan Kihika, who is a UDA candidate, has employed similar strategy and last week held a meeting with stakeholders in the public transport industry.

The senator has been holding organised meetings targeting various ethnic group residing in the county. She has occasionally held rallies where she takes on the current administration for its failures.

“Our continuous engagements with communities helps us identify the most immediate needs and prioritize community projects,” said Ms Kihika.

In Nyandarua, Governor Francis Kimemia (Jubilee) has chosen to focus on his development projects.

Last week, he hosted Health Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi to inspect the Sh550 milion Mashujaa Ward complex at JM Kariuki Hospital in Ol Kalou.

"I want the residents to judge me by my promises. That is why I am going round showing them what I have been able to achieve in the last five years as I seek my second term," he said.

His competitors, among them UDA candidate Ndirangu Badilisha and Speaker Ndegwa Wahome, have been holding rallies especially during the weekends.

In Kericho, Dr Erick Mutai has been out and about for two weeks solidifying UDA votes.

In the North Rift, leaders say campaigns are ‘half-hearted and cosmetic’ owing to the absence of Ruto and Raila. There is growing disquiet with UDA, as Independent candidates and smaller parties grow in popularity.

Former UDA deputy chairman Kipruto Kirwa, who defected to Azimio, said: "I left Kenya Kwanza for lack of democracy; our voices are just not heard. There are many other leaders within UDA who are silent for fear of repression."

Kirwa claimed the region was no longer a Ruto stronghold. “Azimio is not necessarily using large political rallies in its aim to garner votes in Rift Valley. We are using other strategic ways to reach the main communities of the Rift,” he said, adding that Azimio had also given an alternative home to minority groups in the region.

“The Rift Valley should think beyond 2022 ballot. The Kalenjin leadership should not feel like pariahs every time they have opinions that are divergent to those of Ruto,” Kirwa said.

Cherangany MP Joshua Kutuny (Jubilee) agreed that there was a slump in political campaigns. He attributed the trend to "evolving voter dynamics where the voter is now more interested in the choice of local politician for better representation and service delivery".

“After 10 years of Ruto at the helm of national politics, the region is aware of the sacrifices it has to make. Focus has now shifted to the quality of grassroot leaders in the General Election,” he said, adding the region had evolved to accommodate divergent political ideologies.

Then there is the threat of strong Independent candidates, who include Timothy Toroitich (Marakwet West), Alfred Keter (Nandi-Hills), Stephen Kewa (Kapseret), Cornelly Serem (Aldai), Vincent Tuwei (Mosop), Caroline Ng’elechey (Women Rep Elgeyo Marakwet), Tecla Tum (Emgwen) and Silas Tiren (Moiben). The govenor candidates are Zedekiah Buzeki (Uasin Gishu) and Cleophas Lagat (Nandi).

Mr Toroitich said that while their campaigns might not affect Ruto's presidential bid because they support him, they would have a huge impact on the region’s parliamentary representation. “Most independent candidates are feeling shortchanged by UDA. The party could not accord them a free, fair and verifiable election."

Mr Kewa said he was more interested in serving his Kapseret electorate. "I will support the presidential candidate that will win in the August 9 General Election. I am more interested in service delivery."

Nandi Senator Kiprotich Cherargey, however, rubbished claims of discord among Rift voters, saying the region’s support of Ruto was unrivalled. "There is only one kingpin in Rift Valley, that is William Ruto. Kenya Kwanza continues to campaign through its leaders and supporters until victory is sealed."

[Rael Jelimo, Kennedy Gachuhi, James Munyeki, Niko Tanui and Gilbert Kimutai]