With only a week to the 2022 General Election, Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential flag-bearer Raila Odinga and Kenya Kwanza’s William Ruto have intensified their fight over the nearly one million vital Maasai community votes.
In a bid to galvanise their support in the Maasai-speaking counties of Narok, Kajiado, Samburu and Laikipia, the duo has made more than a dozen trips there.
Narok and Kajiado have a total of 800,000 registered voters, per the 2022 Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission records, making them key voting blocs for the two presidential candidates.
The other two counties of Samburu and Laikipia have a total of about 150,000 registered voters.
To shore up numbers in the four counties both Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto have branded themselves the solution to the Maasai community’s historical land problems and champions of the conservation of the Mau water tower.
On Saturday, for instance, Mr Odinga was at the historic Suswa grounds in Narok County, where he received the blessings of Maa communities at the so-called fifth Suswa declaration.
Elders, led by Narok Maasai Council of Elders chairperson Keleina Ole Nchoe, declared their unwavering support for Mr Odinga, expressing faith that he would resolve historical land issues affecting the Maasai Nation.
“For a long time, land has been our main problem, but we are confident that Mr Odinga will deal with it. We have resolved to rally behind Mr Odinga,” said Ole Nchoe.
The Suswa event was attended by elders and members of the communities from Samburu, Laikipia, Narok, Kajiado and Nakuru counties.
This was not the first time Mr Odinga was in Narok County, a region perceived as his stronghold since the 2017 polls.
In his tours of Narok, Mr Odinga has reignited the debate on the controversial Mau forest reclamation that significantly cost him Rift Valley votes in the 2013 General Election, saying he supports the bid by Environment Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko to conserve the key water tower.
Mr Odinga, cautioned the Maasai community from voting for DP Ruto, saying he would not safeguard the restored Maasai Mau forest.
Speaking in Narok West, for instance, Mr Odinga reiterated that his administration would prioritise environmental conservation.
"I fought for the restoration of Mau Forest in 2009. They threatened me that I will not be voted for, but I told them that even if it takes me going to Kibera to sell mandazi, I was willing as long as we conserve the Mau Forest,” he said.
“The other team will not protect your forests. Those people should not be trusted as far as environmental conservation is concerned.”
Mr Odinga claimed that people evicted from the Mau forest were eagerly waiting for DP Ruto to be elected President so that they could return to the forest.
In his forays, Mr Odinga’s strategy has been to portray the Ruto-led Kenya Kwanza coalition as corrupt, incompetent and not concerned about the plight of pastoral communities.
His men have told the community that Mr Odinga will address land matters, Maasai Mau forest conservation and other historical problems facing the Maasai.
"We the Maasai nation are fully behind Mr Odinga because he is the best placed to address the plight of the Maasai community, including addressing historical land injustices," said Narok Senator Ledama Ole Kina at the Suswa rally on Saturday.
But on his own tour of Narok a week ago, DP Ruto told Mr Odinga not to ‘incite and hoodwink’ Maa voters, referring to the Mau forest eviction issue.
Dr Ruto stated that the 2019 evictions were no longer political fodder.
“I want to tell Mr Kitendwali (Odinga) because it seems he is confused. Us people in Narok have already concluded the Mau matter. You kitendawili man, look for another business and pledge. Issues of Narok and Mau we have concluded. What is only remaining is the fencing of the forest,” Dr Ruto said.
Mr Odinga is on record taking credit for the Mau evictions, saying his handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta made it possible.
Dr Ruto also revisited the land debate, saying his administration would review the matter of the controversial Kedong ranch.
“We have no issues left about the Mau Narok, we will continue with fencing of the Mau Forest. Because we have concluded the Mau issue, what is left is the Rose Farm and here in Kedong Farm,” he said.
“This is so that the initial owners of the land property will be given back their land and the government will pay for that. That property will go back to the Maasai people.”
We must conclude the Kedong ranch issue. Kedong has its owners. The 4,000 acres that was promised to the Maasai is little,” said Ruto.
He accused Azimio leaders of applying double stands on issues of land.
And on Tuesday, he heads to Narok as he winds up his tours of his Rift Valley backyard.
The cosmopolitan Narok County is dominated by the Maasai but has a significant Kipsigis population mainly in Emurua Dikirr, Narok West and Narok South, as well as the Kisii and Kikuyu communities. In the last election, Narok voted largely for the Jubilee duo of President Kenyatta and DP Ruto.
However, there appears to be a spirited effort to return the county to Mr Odinga’s corner that is spearheaded by Narok North MP Moitalel ole Kenta, Senator Ole Kina and Mr Tobiko.
DP Ruto boasts about a large following in Narok West (66,596 voters), Narok South (76,065) and Emurua Dikirr (44,040) and part of Kilgoris constituency like Angata Barikoi (10,634) and Keyian (10,241).
It is also believed that Mr Odinga commands a huge following in Narok North with 88,665 voters and Narok East (46,535).
Mr Odinga has deployed his point men, including Mr Tobiko, Kajiado Governor Joseph Ole Lenku, ex-governor David Nkedianye, Mr Ole Kenta and among others. He wants to assure the community in the four counties that he is focused on providing long-term solutions that would lift residents from cycles of drought, floods, famine, poverty and marginalisation.
Mr Odinga is also betting on Kajiado Central MP Elijah Memusi and former National Assembly Speaker Francis ole Kaparo, among other leaders from the region, to shore up his numbers.
For Dr Ruto, he has moved to consolidate the Rift Valley bloc.
“I have always heard them say that Narok is a battleground county, but today I want to tell them that this is a Kenya Kwanza zone,” said Dr Ruto during his campaigns last week.
Both sides are going flat out to turn the tables against each other in Kajiado, Samburu and Laikipia.
Political pundits say that compared with the 2013 and 2017 elections, Mr Odinga has made significant inroads in Kajiado, Narok, Samburu and Laikipia, which are seen as part of DP Ruto's Rift Valley backyard.
"In 2017, Mr Odinga obtained a significant number of votes in the Maasai nation. As the August 9 polls beckon, Mr Odinga has been making forays in the regions, keen to tilt the scales against DP Ruto," observed lawyer and political analyst Steve Kabita.
Dr Ruto has also put up spirited campaigns to get a firm grip on the Maa community and edge out Mr Odinga, who received huge support from them in previous presidential elections.
The DP, who has been hosting delegations from Narok, Kajiado and Samburu, is keen to have all 14 counties in his Rift Valley home turf in his firm grip.
In Narok, DP Ruto is banking on MPs Johana Ngeno (Emurua Dikirr), Lemanken Aramat (Narok East), Gabriel Tongoyo (Narok West) and Soipan Tuya (Narok woman representative).
He is also depending on Governor Josphat Nanok, who also sits in his strategy team, to tilt the scales in the regions that voted overwhelmingly for Mr Odinga in 2017.
Mr Nanok is in charge of the consolidation of the Rift Valley –the Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu who dominate the region.
In 2017, Mr Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement won three parliamentary seats in the entire Maa community – Kajiado Central (Mr Memusi), Narok North (Mr Ole Kenta) and Narok senator (Mr Ole Kina).
Insiders in the Ruto and Odinga camps say that their respective political think tanks have been burning the midnight oil strategising on how to win a significant number of votes in the counties.