Once the heartland of the Mau Mau freedom movement, the Mt Kenya region is back on the cusp of a seismic and potentially turbulent political transition. Nearly 10 months to the August 2022 General Election, the region is embroiled in a fierce battle for President Uhuru Kenyatta’s mantle.
Power is quickly shifting from Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party to the newly formed Mount Kenya Unity Forum (MKUF), which is emerging as the new site of re-engineering regional politics. Will the ensuing night of the long knives break the Hustler wave? This is the million-dollar question for the region. Five developments appear to be stemming the Ruto wave.
First, with Kenyatta entering the twilight of his presidency, the regime’s operatives locked in power wrangles and unable to deliver on the ‘Handshake’ and reforms under the now defeated Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), Jubilee power is inexorably crumbling. Political initiative seems to be shifting to a “coalition of the angry” with an axe to grind with Jubilee Party, Kenyatta and Ruto.
Martha Karua is the face of new politics of interests in Mt Kenya. Her elevation as the spokesperson of the Mount Kenya Unity Forum on September 20 has put her in a front-row seat in the Kenyatta succession. It also signals the return of the Kibaki-era intellectual and nationalistic power elite. Karua has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of defeat in the 2013 presidential election and the 2017 gubernatorial race in Kirinyaga to become a key figure in the anti-BBI coalition.
As Ruto dithered to openly lead the campaign against the proposed Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, 2020, Karua and her Linda Katiba lobby group emerged as the de facto leaders of the “No” campaign.
“A government that fights its citizens never wins,” she declared.
She described the May 2021 court ruling that declared the BBI as null and void as progressive.
Karua is Ruto’s fiercest critic, and has always made it clear that she should not be seen as a Ruto ally. Recently, she told KTN’s Point Blank that Ruto is the least qualified to be Kenya’s President.
She has also cobbled together an unusual alliance with the foremost critics of both Jubilee and Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA). One is Moses Kuria, the maverick Gatundu North legislator, who is widely viewed in the corridors of power as the Frankenstein monster that is ruining the life of its creator by becoming the chief strategist of the ‘Hustler Nation’ and its best marketer in Mt Kenya region.
The other is Festus Mwangi Kiunjuri, who accused President Kenyatta of kicking him out of the Cabinet despite his decision to fold up his Grand National Unity (GNU) party and join Jubilee Party in 2016 and his support for the Jubilee Party in the 2017 General Election.
Second, and related to the above, Kuria and Kiunjuri signify the unravelling of Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) in Mt Kenya in the face of a new sweltering internal rebellion.
White knights of Hustler Nation
As two white knights of the Hustler Nation in the region, Kuria and Kiunjuri are rattled by the demand that they wind up their parties and join UDA, contrary to the initial expectation that it would be a coat of many colours. After Kiambaa, the duo are fronting their own parties. By making Karua as their spokesperson, they have paved the way for breaking of the Ruto wave in the region.
It also signals the likely end of the Hustler experiment of eating soup with a knife – a strategy to replace ethnic politics with a new divisive class narrative in Mt Kenya. The “eating soup with a knife” gambit seeks to replicate Jubilee’s victory in 2013 and 2017 by uniting Kikuyu and Kalenjin voters behind Ruto in 2022.
This strategy has three strands. It creates an artificial separation in the Ruto-Kenyatta integrated presidency, turning Kenyatta into the scapegoat for all the regime’s socio-economic woes and giving all its credits to Ruto. It is the fear and hate of the devil that keeps faiths together.
In this configuration, Kenyatta is now effectively the devil that keeps the Hustler Nation united.
While pushing a class narrative to the hearts and minds of the poor majority in the region, the strategists of the Hustler rebellion are silently tapping deep into the veins of ethnic politics in the Rift Valley to keep the Kalenjin vote intact and minimise the depredation by Gideon Moi’s Kanu. Based on this ethnic logic, they have tactically ceded the marketing of UDA, the new vehicle of Kalenjin politics, to Mt Kenya politicians.
Fourth, ODM wonks are considering the option of exiting the Handshake with Jubilee and returning to the radical populist base of the party’s politics as the best strategy of securing victory in 2022. The power barons around Kenyatta have not convinced their ODM partners that they can be relied on to take Raila to State House. They are embroiled in power games to succeed themselves as the spiders weaving post-Kenyatta power.
Many ODM wonks now fret that the fight between Uhuru and Ruto might be stage-managed to hoodwink Ruto’s challengers. The offer by the conference of Catholic bishops to reconcile Kenyatta with Ruto is giving legs to the view that Uhuruto might come together soon, leaving Raila high and dry.
ODM is unhappy with Mt Kenya’s wobbly support to ODM-Jubilee unity. Its leadership has been struck mute by Anne Waiguru’s move on September 22 to ditch Jubilee Party for Ruto’s UDA.
After switching alliance from supporting National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi’s presidential bid to supporting Odinga, Meru Governor Murungi, a key figure in Mt Kenya politics, has denied endorsing the former Prime Minister for president.
Faced with the most unique and uncertain transition in its history, Mt Kenya’s choices are stark: The region has to either back one of the top contenders for power who best articulates its interests or quickly get its own flagbearer if its interests are not met. Breaking the Hustler wave requires a radical shift from the politics of personality to the politics of interests.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute, Nairobi.