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The Ruto Roadshow: A Radical Attempt to Transform Kenyan Politics?

8 min read.

The Deputy President’s “hustler” narrative is less significant than the structure of his campaign that seeks to transform electoral competition.

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The Ruto Roadshow: A Radical Attempt to Transform Kenyan Politics?
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Deputy President William Ruto is making waves in Kenya. His partnership with President Uhuru Kenyatta for the 2013 and 2017 elections rested on the understanding that Kenyatta would back him for the top post in 2022. During the 2017 election campaign, Kenyatta had publicly stated that he and Ruto would rule for a total 20 years.

Yet despite this, in March 2018 the president established a new partnership with his long-standing rival, Raila Odinga. The precise details of the agreement are unclear, but essentially the two leaders agreed to work together to end political instability and further their political interests. This new partnership confirmed widely held suspicions that Kenyatta might not live up to his end of the bargain to facilitate Ruto’s rise to the presidency. The Deputy President’s response was vigorous and revulsive: he began what is in effect his own presidential election campaign, and has been running it – complete with almost daily events at which he offers cutting critiques of his rivals – for the last two years.

Ruto himself is anxious to emphasise the novelty of his political offering. His pitch rests on a narrative about what he and his supporters call the “hustler”– that he himself began poor, and worked his way to wealth and status through determination, and that everybody should have that opportunity. This approach is often explicitly depicted as being, if not revolutionary, then transformative at the very least. In contrast to “old school” Kenyan politics that was based on ethnicity and clientelism, Ruto is speaking a more populist language that explicitly critiques political dynasties and promotes the idea of a more meritocratic model that would both respect and lift up the country’s toiling hustlers. In his speeches, he denounces the wadosi – the rich – who make deals in hotels and boardrooms and despise the poor.

Yet, in some ways, the Deputy President’s message may be less significant than the structure of his campaign.

Probing the populism

Those of a sceptical and/or historical inclination might question how novel Ruto’s narrative really is. The idea that self-advancement comes through hard work and that the task of government is to enable this, was a fairly strong motif in post-independence Kenya, when Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, was president. Indeed, it was the concept at the heart of Kenyatta’s call to Harambee, a development policy in which it was made clear to citizens that they would only benefit from state support if they first pulled together to do something for themselves. Kenyatta was not the only one to inject an element of meritocracy into Kenya’s highly elitist and unequal political system. In the 1970s, JM Kariuki built on this appeal while explicitly critiquing the growing inequality that flourished after independence, famously arguing, “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.”

It is partly because it draws on this deeper history of politics that the language of the “hustle” has allowed Ruto to successfully recast himself as the foremost critic of inequality in Kenya. By adopting this language, the Deputy President hopes to present himself as the advocate of those excluded by a wealthy establishment that is out of touch. When Ruto works up the crowd with chants of Harambee, the deep roots of the “hustler” rhetoric are very apparent.

Nor is Ruto’s campaign blind to identity politics. His campaign itinerary suggests a belief that his best chance of winning the election is to swing the vote in the populous former Rift Valley and Central provinces.

Even some of the disingenuity and contradictions of Ruto’s campaign reflect long-standing patterns. His critics point out that he is part of the very establishment that he denounces – having come into politics in the 1990s as part of a movement that supported the then-incumbent president, Daniel arap Moi, support that involved both violence against the opposition and flagrant vote buying. Ruto has been prominent ever since, and has held the office of Deputy President since 2013. His wealth has grown remarkably through these years in politics, and he has never distanced himself from this past.

But personal wealth, however acquired, has never been a bar to populist politicking in Kenya – JM was also personally wealthy and well-connected, as were some of the leaders of the “second liberation” of the early 1990s. Being rich in Kenyan politics has never been perceived as bad – to be inaccessible or unresponsive to the ordinary person is the real offence. Ruto has not broken the mould in terms of political rhetoric – instead, he has drawn on a deeper history of Kenyan politics to achieve the remarkable feat of casting himself as the outsider. Against a backdrop of public anger at the combination of an economic downturn and government ineffectiveness, this has allowed him to emerge as a strong frontrunner.

The real transformation?

While the “hustler” narrative has attracted much comment, rather less has been said about the structure of Ruto’s campaign. Yet this is arguably more significant – both in terms of what it reveals about his overall strategy and aims, and what it may portend for the viability of his ambitions.

Since the 1990s, Kenyan electoral politics have come to revolve around the building of coalitions among groups of gatekeepers – “big men” (or, occasionally, women), each of whom claims to speak for a region of the country and promises to deliver the support of voters from that region. A classic example was the “pentagon” of five major regional leaders – including Ruto – that backed Raila Odinga’s presidential campaign in 2007.

Personal wealth, however acquired, has never been a bar to populist politicking in Kenya.

The 2010 constitution, with its requirement for an absolute majority in presidential elections, entrenched this pattern. Presidential campaigns have become bargaining processes amongst a relatively small number of leaders; the precise cast has changed a little from one poll to the next, but the assumption that support must be built through prominent gatekeepers has driven the behaviour of politicians, and the analyses of observers. But not in Ruto’s case.

Ruto has worked hard to build a network, of course, but it does not include any of the most prominent “big men”. There is no Moi, Musyoka or Mudavadi. His team is put together from politicians at a slightly lower level – mostly members of the National Assembly, with a few county governors. He is the centrepiece of his many public appearances. In other words, Ruto is not aiming for a coalition of distinct leaders each with their own group of voters to deliver, each bargaining for a place for themselves and a slice of the resources for “their” people.

This is the Ruto show.

From coalitions to parties

The absence of regional gatekeepers is partly a personal strategy to ensure his dominance – he is, incontrovertibly, the leader here. There is no other prominent leader – below him is a plateau of multiple local figures – each influential in a local area, but none with regional reach. That makes Ruto safe from challenge from within, and means that he is less vulnerable to late defections, something that has often characterised Kenyan elections.

This also fits well with the hustler narrative – one reason Ruto’s rhetoric plays well is that he has been consistent in the way he presents himself. By shunning the most obvious members of the country’s dynasties, he sustains the idea that he is an outsider and that he is eschewing Big Man politics: he is not making deals with wadosi in hotels. It also protects Ruto from embarrassment should he fail to persuade many big hitters to join his team – a real possibility given the likelihood that his allies and financiers will be targeted by the government with court cases and tax audits in the run-up to 2022.

This is opportunistic, of course. But it is not just opportunistic.  Ruto’s approach represents a genuine attempt to transform electoral competition and create a new kind of party. Kenya’s political parties are notoriously ephemeral, put together from multiple local networks in a chain of articulations – from national leader to regional big shots, and so on down to the local level. Ruto is one of a very small number of politicians to show an interest in attempting to change this.

A few years ago, Ruto to tried to turn the Jubilee Alliance that had brought him and President Kenyatta to power in 2013 into a political party with an actual presence and an organization of its own. He was motivated partly by the desire to strengthen Jubilee’s hold on power, but also by the recognition that his rivals within the alliance might seek to block his presidential ambitions, and a desire to build an institution that would protect his interests when the time came.

Ruto is not aiming for a coalition of distinct leaders each with their own group of voters to deliver.

That fizzled out, but Ruto is now making another attempt with his United Democratic Alliance (UDA). In contrast to the politics of past elections, Ruto wants one party that he controls, not a coalition of gatekeepers.

In many ways, this is a more radical ambition than the talk of hustlers. Coalition politics has been part and parcel of the claims-making that drives Kenyan politics: those elected are delegates, sent to ensure that those who voted for them receive a fair share of state resources. That is why parties have struggled – because since the end of one-party rule, no party has been able to establish itself as a mechanism for this politics of accountability, which has instead always relied on networks of individuals that tend to draw their moral force from shared ideas of ethnic or regional belonging.

Ruto wants to tame those networks and channel them into his party. It is a bold idea; apart from anything else, it threatens to cut the ground from under a cohort of “national” politicians whose status rests on their personal role as regional big shots. But because many commentators dislike and distrust Ruto – for good reason – they have not seen how potentially radical this is.

Can parties beat coalitions?

Will Ruto’s gambit work? The answer is probably not – at least when it comes to resisting coalition politics.

The Deputy President is already running into trouble with his attempts to establish a party structure. If producing a line-up of officials that doesn’t fracture the campaign is proving tricky, the task of nominating candidates in a few months will be a massive test. And when Ruto chooses his running mate he will come under intense pressure to pick a well-known figure that can be relied upon to deliver a good number of votes.

There are also likely to be challenges at other levels of political mobilization. To start with, some of the people he is trying to recast as party members are not necessarily content or comfortable in that role – partly because it diminishes their independence, but also because it pushes them into a different style of politics that foregrounds the party, not the personal role of the politician as an individual. That may not work.

Ruto has already been forced to make concessions, agreeing to grant smaller parties autonomy in local races rather than forcing them to disband and join UDA. He still maintains, however, that he will make no alliances or coalitions that include promises to other candidates and organizations ahead of the polls. According to UDA General Secretary Veronica Maina, “Our position has not changed as UDA. We are busy building our party and it’s still new. So the pressure for us to think about coalition partners [is not that strong] for now. We are looking at a national party where everyone feels they belong.”

Even this modified political model may be a hard sell to the many political intermediaries who do the crucial work of election winning – encouraging people to register, turning out the vote, serving as agents at polling stations. Nor will it necessarily persuade voters, who may ultimately care less about the party and more about whether “their” person is in an obviously powerful position that might guarantee them rewards. If this happens, the claim to be pursuing meritocracy as opposed to ethnic clientelism could backfire.

Even this modified political model may be a hard sell to the many political intermediaries who do the crucial work of election winning.

Ruto has so far been the one making the running in campaigning. But in the months to come, the “establishment candidate” – most likely Raila Odinga – will start to deploy regional Big Men to key voting grounds. It remains to be seen whether the less prominent figures that Ruto has recruited will be able to sustain his local presence and popularity when faced with the tidal wave of new projects and patronage that the government may unleash.

Ruto’s rivals will use every strategy at their disposal to prevent him from gaining power. His record gives ample reason for fear and distrust, of course, but this is also precisely because he is challenging an established model of politics and calling into question the position of a whole cohort of would-be gatekeepers. If momentum starts to move against him, the allure of boosting his chances by co-opting more prominent leaders may become too powerful to resist. And with it, the real radicalism of Ruto’s campaign would begin to fade.

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Professor Karuti Kanyinga is a Research Professor and Director, Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi. Nic Cheeseman is a Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham. Justin Willis is a Professor of History at Durham University.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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