The Meru gubernatorial race is a three-horse contest pitting two former allies-turned-foes, and a vocal evangelist who pulls no punches while dealing with real or perceived political enemies.
With a bullish incumbent, Kiraitu Murungi, who prides in never having lost any of his six elections, Senator Mithika Linturi riding on the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party wave and ‘lone ranger’ Woman Rep Kawira Mwangaza on an Independent ticket, the Meru race promises to be a battle of the titans.
Mr Murungi has gone into the six elections on different parties since 1992 when he won the South Imenti seat on a Ford Kenya ticket, and is this time round, he’s running on the Devolution Empowerment Party (DEP) that he launched last November.
In the 2017 General Election, Mr Murungi, Mr Lithuri, then Woman Rep Florence Kajuju and East African Legislative Assembly MP Mpuru Aburi, who was Tigania East MP, ganged up to oust first governor Peter Munya, now Agriculture Cabinet Secretary.
Dropped out of race
Mr Murungi won with 280,793 votes against Mr Munya’s 231,420. Mr Munya was touted as the incumbent’s main challenger in this year’s contest but dropped out of the race at the eleventh hour on February 9, choosing to remain in Cabinet.
As the scramble for the county’s 780,858 intensifies, political pundits say Ms Mwangaza, who had initially been dismissed as inconsequential, could pull a surprise and floor the men.
Meru has the third highest number of voters after Kiambu (1,293,309) and Nakuru (1,052,681) among counties considered to be inhabited by people from Mt Kenya region.
Mr Murungi is banking on his development record in the past five years to defend his seat.
The governor has also won the hearts of many in Tigania and Igembe, where residents largely voted for Mr Munya in 2017, by drilling boreholes in a region that is largely semi-arid.
“While former governor Munya drilled only 20 boreholes we have done 198. This is an indication of my performance record and given another five years, I will turn Meru into a more prosperous county,” the governor said recently.
He also rolled out the ward fund—a first in Kenya—an annual Sh20 million allocation to MCAs that helps them carry out development in their areas, boosting Mr Murungi’s image across the county.
Vision 2040 blueprint
The governor is also credited for introducing consultative and inclusive leadership by forming the Meru Advisory Council whose patron is former Head of Public Service Francis Muthaura.
The council came up with the Meru 2040 Vision blueprint, which details various projects that will be set up before the year 2040.
The Meru Youth Service (MYS) he introduced in 2018 has been largely successful and hundreds of youth have been trained on various skills including masonry, welding and carpentry.
The governor has promised to set aside Sh1 billion each for empowerment of women and youth groups, Sh500 million to put up value addition plants and Sh300 million for provision of free healthcare for residents aged 65 and above.
However, Mr Murungi is facing an onslaught from Mr Linturi and Ms Mwangaza, with the senator riding on the UDA wave, while the Woman Rep is banking on her aggressive rural presence in the Tiganias, Igembes and Buuri sub-counties.
The senator has the backing of MPs John Paul Mwirigi (Igembe South), Kirima Ngucine (Imenti Central), Mugambi Rindikiri (Buuri), Kubai Kiringo (Igembe Central), Kathuri Murungi (South Imenti, who is also vying for the senate seat), Gichunge Kabeabea (Tigania East), Halima Mucheke (Nominated, who is also vying for Imenti North seat) and Dr John Mutunga (Tigania West), who are defending their seats on the UDA ticket.
MPs Maoka Maore (Igembe North) and Mr Aburi are supporting Azimio la Umoja presidential candidate Raila Odinga while Imenti North’s Rahim Dawood is running as an independent.
Main voting blocs
The Meru vote is largely determined by Imenti, Igembe and Tigania sub-tribes, which are the main voting blocs, with the candidates selecting their running mates with regional balance in mind.
Mr Murungi, who hails from Imenti, retained his current deputy Titus Ntuchiu (Tigania), Mr Linturi chose Ms Linda Kiome (Imenti) since he comes from Igembe while Ms Mwangaza, who is from Imenti, chose Rev Isaac Mutuma (Igembe).
While Mr Murungi has his South Imenti backyard solidly behind him, he is also banking on support from the Tiganias, Imenti Central and North Imenti.
Mr Linturi has the Igembes behind him while Ms Kawira has mainly Buuri, Tigania and Igembe where she has a huge grassroots following.
Political analyst Gitile Naituli argues that sub-tribe politics is unlikely to play a crucial role in this year’s contest. He says voters across the county are likely to vote for Mr Murungi, who is supporting Mr Odinga’s presidential bid, because of his development record.
“In my view, despite the UDA wave, the Meru voter will not vote based on the six-piece pattern and the sub-tribes,” Prof Naituli said. They’re likely to cast their presidential vote separate from the rest of the seats thus benefiting the incumbent,”
The state of health services in Meru has also emerged as a major issue. According to financial records, the Health department is the biggest spender taking up more than 30 per cent of the budget every financial year.
Mr Murungi has been on the receiving end from his two rivals who have accused him of running down the health sector and mismanaging workers. They cite lack of drugs, stalled hospital projects and a demotivated workforce as Mr Murungi’s failures.
Funds disbursement delays
But Governor Murungi blames delays in disbursement of funds for challenges in the supply of drugs.
“We’ve worked hard to free our people from disease. We’ve facilitated completion of an ultra-modern ward block at the Meru Teaching and Referral Hospital,” Mr Murungi said.
He said his administration established an intensive care unit, a renal unit, a cancer centre besides a modern oxygen plant to increase access to advanced medical care.
Access to drugs
But Senator Linturi has blamed the appointment of an ‘incompetent’ executive member for various 'failures' in the health sector.
“It is a shame that there are no drugs in health centres. Maternity wards have stalled,” Mr Linturi said at a recent campaign rally.
He says that if elected, he will transform the health sector to ensure access to drugs and facilities.
“In my assessment, the health sector is in ICU. If elected, I will streamline the supply of drugs through proper management systems. Our hospitals should be able to have ICT systems that indicate the availability of pharmaceutical supplies and drugs. As at now, the morale of our health workers is at its lowest” the senator said recently.
Ms Mwangaza cites mismanagement of health workers as one of the county government’s failures.
“There is frequent bickering and industrial action by health staff demanding rights such as delayed salaries, promotions and remission of statutory deductions,” Ms Mwangaza said.
She promised to review the health workers’ employment policy, stop intimidation of workers who resort to industrial action and improve health service delivery.