The rise and rise of Susan Kihika

Nakuru Governor-elect Susan Kihika

Nakuru Governor-elect Susan Kihika gives her acceptance speech after she was declared the winner in the gubernatorial race on August 12, 2022.

Photo credit: Cheboite Kigen | Nation Media Group

When Susan Kihika arrived in Kenya from the United States 10 years ago, she was a political greenhorn in need of clout.

Until 2012, Ms Kihika, the daughter of the late veteran Nakuru politician Dickson Kihika Kimani, practised law in Texas.

She had lived in the US for 20 years and returned to Kenya to join politics. But her political future was uncertain.

Fast-forward to 2022 and she has been elected the first female governor of Nakuru.

Ms Kihika was on Friday declared the winner of the Nakuru governor’s race, walloping the incumbent Lee Kinyanjui, who was seeking a second term.

The electoral agency said Ms Kihika garnered 440,707 votes against her closest opponent Lee Kinyanjui’s 225,623.

Ms Kihika's steady rise has not been a walk in the park.

When she returned to Kenya, she plunged into Nakuru politics. She tested what was in store for her when her bid to oust Mr Kimani Ngunjiri from the Bahati parliamentary seat flopped.

But in 2013, she was tapped to contest the position of Nakuru County Assembly Speaker.

To everyone's surprise, she defeated 12 men and became Speaker, becoming one of the most powerful and influential individuals in Nakuru County politics.

Ms Kihika, nicknamed the Iron Lady of Nakuru politics, then made inroads in the male-dominated political arena in Kenya, rising from county assembly Speaker to senator.

And in 2020, she announced her bid for the Nakuru governor’s seat.

With her political past clear, political pundits predicted a battle of titans with Governor Kinyanjui.

Nakuru Governor Lee Kinyanjui speaks during a security meeting in Mawanga estate in Nakuru City on June 26, 2022,

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

During her campaigns, Ms Kihika popularised the slogan 'the future is female', and true to her dream, she is one of six women elected to top seats in Nakuru.

The other women who triumphed in the male-dominated field in Tuesday’s polls were Tabitha Karanja (senator) and MPs-elect Charity Kathambi (Njoro), Irene Njoki (Bahati), Jayne Kihara (Naivasha) and Martha Wangari (Gilgil).

Ms Kihika has been described by political pundits as a “refined reincarnation of her father, and an emerging Iron Lady of Nakuru politics”.

She rose to become the Senate majority chief whip, before she was ousted in the Jubilee Party wars between Deputy President William Ruto and his boss President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Ms Kihika was born in 1974 and attended Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls in Nyeri County before going to the US in 1993 for further studies.

The mother of two girls holds a degree in political science and government from the University of North Texas in Denton.

She also obtained a doctor of law degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

She once served as chief prosecutor in the US, responsible for prosecuting thousands of criminal cases.

She founded the Kihika Law Firm in Dallas.

Ms Kihika does not shy from tackling thorny issues head-on.

She branded herself a lawmaker who speaks her mind and is arguably one of the most outspoken politicians in Nakuru, speaking forcefully on the floor of the Senate and outside.

She is a politician who is ready to get things done the right way or bulldoze her way through.

"As a woman, to fit into the male-dominated Kenya politics, I have taught myself to fight and hit even below the belt if need be to make sure I achieve my goals,” she told the Nation in an interview earlier this year.

As Speaker of the Nakuru County Assembly, she led the House to pass more than 80 motions that became laws.

In the male-dominated assembly, Ms Kihika was loved and hated in equal measure, but she stood firm to make sure the assembly delivered on its key responsibilities of oversight and legislation.

Since 2013 her rise in politics has baffled friend and foe.

She rose quickly to become Nakuru senator in 2017, when she beat several male contestants, including seasoned politicians like former MPs John Njenga Mungai (Molo) and Koigi Wamwere (Subukia) by polling more than 270,000 votes.

She conducted high-profile and well-oiled campaigns, crisscrossing the county in choppers.

She made history by becoming the first woman senator in Nakuru County.

Because she enjoyed total support from the Jubilee hierarchy, she secured the position of Senate majority chief whip, which she later lost due to wrangling in the party.

For the past decade, she stamped her authority in Nakuru and national politics and earned herself the nickname the 'Iron Lady of Nakuru politics'.

If there was a politician in Nakuru who gave President Uhuru Kenyatta a major headache in the past three years, then Ms Kihika fits the bill.

Unlike other Dr Ruto-allied Nakuru lawmakers who criticised the President behind the curtains, Ms Kihika attacked Mr Kenyatta openly. For instance, she vowed to do whatever it took to ensure the DP succeeded President Kenyatta in 2022.

Senator Kihika recently reached a truce with her political foe, Mr Kimani Ngunjiri.

And in the run-up to Tuesday’s polls, they read from the same script as key allies of Dr Ruto.

Since the political atmosphere in Jubilee turned toxic after Mr Kenyatta’s March 9, 2018 handshake with ODM leader Raila Odinga, the firebrand politician exchanged political blows in public with the President.

But her increasing bare-knuckle attack on the President and her appetite for stinging criticism of the Jubilee administration prompted Mr Kenyatta to crack the whip on her.

Senator Kihika and her Elgeyo Marakwet counterpart Kipchumba Murkomen were replaced as Senate majority chief whip and majority leader respectively, a move political analysts argued would deal a heavy blow on their political careers.

But it turned out to have been a blessing in disguise.

But just who is Senator Susan Kihika?

Nakuru county gubernatorial aspirant Susan Kihika after casting her vote at Komongo polling station in Bahati Nakuru county on August 9, 2022

Photo credit: Cheboite Kigen | Nation Media Group

To her critics, she is a mere gadfly that always attacks or critiques others to be seen to be on top of things and gain popularity.

But Anne Cherutich, a political commentator, argues that Ms Kihika is a go-getter, a fighter, a dreamer and an ambitious politician with a bright future.

"Ms Kihika is just a complete political talent, natural, obviously politically savvy and has electrifying oratory skills, enormous confidence and calm, fierce ambition and a keen sense of timing, and an uncanny knack for making friends and forging connections in all the right places. Her future is luminous,” Ms Cherutich said.

Senator Kihika is also no stranger to controversy, having been caught up in several confrontations.

In August 2019, a video went viral on social media of a scuffle between her and a woman believed to have been a member of President Uhuru Kenyatta's security team.

The altercation occurred when the security officer confronted Ms Kihika during the President's visit to the Nakuru County Assembly premises.

In the video, other leaders, including Nakuru West MP Samuel Arama, Gilgil MP Martha Wangari and County Speaker Joel Kairu, are seen trying to intervene and calm the senator.

Ms Kihika apparently refused to have her bag searched.

Later the same year, Senator Kihika and Nakuru East MP David Gikaria were denied access to an event that President Kenyatta was attending in Nakuru.

The politicians arrived at the Rift Valley regional headquarters where the President was set to issue over 2,000 title deeds to residents.

But they were blocked at the entrance by General Service Unit (GSU) officers, who told them that they had orders ''from above'' not to allow them into the venue.

The leaders had a heated exchange with the officers before they left.

Political pundits say Ms Kihika has the gift of the gab. It is partly responsible for her rise to the top, but it may also have made her lose her position as Senate Majority Chief Whip.

Ms Kihika has made inroads in Kenya’s male-dominated politics, rising to senator and now governor.