Fashioning the best reformist and progressive presidential ticket was perhaps what was in the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s mind when he named Martha Karua as his running mate on May 16, 2022. But the elevation of Karua has momentarily sparked the ‘Karua wave’ now washing over the vote-rich Mt Kenya region and emphatically changing the future of power ahead of the August 2022 elections. The wave has familiar echoes in the “Ngilu wave” of the 1997 elections. But who are the winners and losers in the Karua wave?
Odinga is the man of the moment. He went against the grain and settled on Kenya’s veteran female politician few imagined would ever rise again and return to the helm of power, let alone stir a political wave.
True, Karua is a heroine of Kenya’s Second Liberation, a courageous, principled and steadfast leader. But she lost the fierce battle for Kibaki’s mantle to what she parodied as a “rich boys’ club” that has reigned supreme in Mount Kenya since 2002. Specifically, her principled move to resign as Justice minister in 2009 stoked the ire of the powerful “Kibaki men”. So did her decision to contest the 2013 presidential election. Many saw her loss in the 2017 gubernatorial race in Kirinyaga County as part of the larger scheme to cage her.
From the margins of power
But some birds are not meant to be caged. Karua has fought back from the margins of power. Two victories have given a new shine to her star. First, together with other human rights activists, Karua led the Linda Katiba movement to victory when the Supreme Court nullified the constitutional Amendment Bill (2020), dubbed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), only two months ago, on March 10, 2022. BBI, she argued, was “not a national conversation but a conversation of two friends and their allies to the exclusion of others”. He accused Kenyatta of using BBI to extend his stay in power, poking fun at the initiative as “a Breaking Bridges Initiative”.
A silent rebellion in Mt Kenya catapulted her back to the limelight. On September 20, 2021, a section of Mt Kenya leaders unanimously elected her the spokesperson of the Interim Mt Kenya Unity Forum. Despite these odds, Odinga bit the bullet, listened to his advisers and appointed Karua, rejecting two nominees of President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party: Murang’a woman rep Sabina Chege and former Gatanga MP Peter Kenneth. The Odinga-Karua ticket was also a triumph to Karua’s intellectual and civil society compatriots in the Professor Makau Mutua-led Azimio think tank.
The Karua wave is changing the odds in Mt Kenya politics in favour of Azimio. Any gain here is good for Odinga, who won 44.94 per cent of the total vote in the August 8, 2017 presidential contest, 5.16 percentage points shy of the 50 per cent plus one he needs to clinch the presidency. Theoretically, Odinga requires only about 10 per cent of the 5.9 million registered votes in Mt Kenya to win. As such, his overarching strategy is to hold on to his traditional strongholds in Nairobi, Nyanza, Western, Lower Eastern and the Coast region while winning new grounds in the Rift Valley, Northern Kenya and the Mountain region. Karua completes Odinga’s strategy of using regional kingpins to lead Azimio’s effectively decentred campaign.
Equally important is Azimio’s gender card. Raila picked Karua, a champion of justice and women’s rights and whose gender appeal goes beyond the narrow confines of Mt Kenya politics, to win the female vote. Azimio’s gender card seeks to trump the Hustler Nation’s hustler-dynasty class narrative and give Raila a “safe pair of hands” as he plans to wage the war on corruption and integrity leadership.
With Karua’s entry, Kenyatta has come to his ‘road to Damascus’ moment. Jubilee mandarins have announced that they will not campaign for Raila in the Mt Kenya region. Kenya’s only former president after August 9 will not launch a final blitz against the Hustler bastions to ‘paint Mt Kenya red’, but will stick to his neutral role as the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief until the elections are held. A publicly partisan stance can only undermine the integrity of the presidency and pose an existential threat to a peaceful transition. However, although Kenyatta remains Jubilee’s party leader and chairman of Azimio, power has shifted.
Kenyatta’s exit from electoral politics has emboldened Azimio and neutered the Hustler Nation’s grand strategy. Ruto had shrewdly made Odinga an agenda in the Mountain region. In this configuration, Odinga was a “Government project”, a ‘buy-one-get-three’ deal that enabled Kenyatta and the Jubilee éminence grises operating in the shadows of party policy-making to continue wielding power behind the curtain. In the light of this, a Kenyatta-led campaign against the Hustler brigade was a perfect booby-trap. Inversely, Kenyatta’s absence from Azimio’s campaign in Mt Kenya has reduced mudslinging. The President can now focus on his post-retirement legacy.
Force a re-run
Kalonzo responded to the Odinga-Karua ticket by launching his own bid for the presidency to deny Ruto and Raila an outright win and force a re-run. But the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has rejected his presidential bid, and his allies want him back in Azimio.
Flexibility – both in strategy and action – is a cardinal principle of tactics in warfare. Ruto, whose victory will rest on an overwhelming and emphatic victory in Mt Kenya to maintain Jubilee’s tyranny of numbers in 2013 and 2017, will pay a heavy price for inflexibility. Apparently, appointing Rigathi Gachagua as his running mate was Ruto’s tactical move to get an experienced ‘gladiator’ and grassroots mobiliser to neutralise the anticipated Kenyatta-led Jubilee onslaught and retain supremacy in Mt Kenya. With the President’s decision to stay away from campaigns, the Gachagua card is slowly becoming a poisoned chalice.
Social media is opening up the cupboards, exposing skeletons of past (mis)deeds. Gachagua is slowing Ruto’s surge in the region. Karua’s reception across the region – has sent shockwaves in the Ruto camp. Hustler Nation mavericks like Moses Kuria are warming up to her. The Hustlers are back to the drawing board in search of a strategy to break the Karua wave.
Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently the Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.