What you need to know:
- It should have been an easier job for Raila Odinga to win Nairobi in 2022.
- Deputy President William Ruto’s Kalenjin community has minimal numbers in the capital.
ODM leader Raila Odinga has consistently won elections in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi, for the past three general elections. This has been impressive given that Raila has been facing candidates from the Kikuyu community, the single largest ethnic group in Nairobi.
It should have been an easier job for Raila to win Nairobi in 2022. Kikuyus have no serious presidential candidate to warrant mobilising Nairobi against Raila. Most importantly, Raila has been endorsed by serious Kikuyu influencers, including President Uhuru Kenyatta.
It can also be argued that, in a tribal Kenya, Deputy President William Ruto’s Kalenjin community has minimal numbers in the capital.
However, various factors give a clear indication that Raila is all set to lose terribly in Nairobi. It is very surprising Raila is not seeing the obvious danger ahead.
First, the current economic problems have impacted Nairobi uniquely. Kenyans’ voting pattern has been tribal and hence Raila’s past Nairobi strategy has been to tie all non-Kikuyu vote as against Kikuyu candidates. However, this election is showing signs of a pivot towards issue-based politics, where Nairobians might vote largely cross-ethnically. Raila and Ruto have done a good job of framing the election in fairly non-tribal terms.
Nairobi gubernatorial contest
But the economic context within which the new-fangled issue-based politics of 'hustlers versus dynasties' or 'bottom-up versus trickle down' is being played does no justice to Raila. Rising fuel prices, inflation and unemployment impact Nairobi more than other places by virtue of being an urban concrete jungle with no home-grown food to mitigate such an economic downturn. Given that Nairobians are relatively more open and better educated, they will be the first to pivot towards issue-based politics and shed their tribal lenses.
With Raila being viewed as a state project, Nairobians will troop to the voting booths to punish the government by voting him out. Related to this is the idea that this 'de-ethnicisation' of Nairobi politics may not have started with the 2022 elections.
Maybe Raila has been winning Nairobi previously because he has been fashioning himself as the opposition candidate. With Raila now a de facto government candidate, Ruto benefits in Nairobi. This hypothesis has a universal basis. Autocratic governments like Uganda and Turkey, despite opaque electoral systems, find it impossible to win in respective major urban areas.
Second, let us assume my first point is erroneous and tribe will remain a major factor in Nairobi politics. Raila has miscalculated his tribal arithmetic for the Nairobi gubernatorial contest and by extension his presidential vote.
His city numbers have largely been a combination of Luhya, Kamba, Luo and Kisii. By taking away Tim Wanyonyi's Azimio ticket, Raila has played into Kenya Kwanza's trap. Luhyas’ anti-Raila emotions will be whipped up. While the Azimio Nairobi deputy governor's slot has been given to Philip Kaloki, the latter’s Kamba vote will stick with Azimio only if Kalonzo gets Azimio's deputy president slot.
Break from ethnic politics
All indications suggest this will not happen, and hence Kambas might peel away from Azimio. Johnson Sakaja, and by extension Ruto's national vote in Nairobi, might be a coalition of Kikuyu (who remain largely pro-UDA), aggrieved Luhya (who view Sakaja as one of their own alongside Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula), the unhappy Kamba and whatever percentage of non-tribal voters may be aggrieved by the current bad economic conditions.
Richard Ngatia would have done a better job in attempting to galvanise the Kikuyu vote in Azimio's favour, at least for the gubernatorial contest. He came across as a macho and go-getter candidate with strong business grounding, having served in the chamber of commerce. Polycarp Igathe has a sassy character that appears unfit for the rough and tumble of Nairobi politics.
His 2018 resignation as Mike Sonko's deputy governor exacerbates his political problems.
Third, the youth vote matters greatly in Nairobi by virtue of their sheer urban numbers. Raila's handlers have done a good job of remaking his image to look youthful. But this will not suffice and identity politics will work in Ruto's favour.
All these factors, which point to a possible Ruto win in Nairobi, were clearly manifest during UDA nominations. I had the benefit of seeing the entire list of persons seeking UDA tickets for various seats in the entire republic and I compared it with the Jubilee 2017 contestants’ list. I noticed the numbers of aspirants went up comparatively in urban areas like Nairobi and Mombasa.
In Nairobi CBD ward in Starehe constituency, for example, the UDA ticket attracted almost 20 aspirants. My conclusion was that UDA in Nairobi and Kenya generally represents something bigger than tribe. It represents a break from ethnic politics. Nairobi might be the greatest test lab for that new ‘issue-based’ politics. And Raila will be the greatest loser in that test come August 2022.
Dr Kang’ata teaches law at Catholic University of Eastern Africa. He is the Murang’a Senator and a former Chief Whip of the Senate.