From Jomo to Rigathi, Karua and Mwaure: The evolution of Mt Kenya politics

Martha Karua

Azimio la Umoja deputy presidential candidate Martha Karua (left) and her Kenya Kwanza counterpart Rigathi Gachagua.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

For the first time, the populous Mt Kenya region is going to the polls without a presidential candidate – if you erase the lacklustre candidature of Mwaure Waihiga from the picture.

Previously, the region, now with a total of 5.1 million voters, was regarded as politically selfish for always fronting one of its own for the top seat and taking advantage of its demography to politically conspiring against the rest of Kenya. This time, Mt Kenya voters will have to make a choice between two “outsiders”: former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto, the two leading presidential candidates.

A populous region with thriving coffee, tea, rice, dairy and manufacturing industries, data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows the region contributed 26.2 per cent to Kenya’s GDP in 2017, even though local politicians claimed it contributes 60 per cent as they sought more funds allocation. Data on revenue allocation for the Mt Kenya counties indicates they receive 20 per cent of the equitable share of the national revenue.

For the last five years, the DP has pitched tent in the region that overwhelmingly voted for Jubilee in the last two elections, selling himself as the natural successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta, whom he has accused of betrayal for backing Mr Odinga.

How much of the former Jubilee bloc followed him to the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) will be known after the August 9 elections, though opinion polls show that Dr Ruto enjoys massive support in the region.

Multiparty democracy

The ten counties that comprise the Mt Kenya bloc, used by politicos are Kiambu with 2,417,735 registered voters, Murang'a (587,126), Meru (702,480), Kirinyaga (349,836), Embu (309,468), Nyeri (456,949) and Laikipia (246,487). Others are Nyandarua with 335,634, Tharaka-Nithi (213,154) and Nakuru (949,618).

Since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1990, this bloc has always had serious contenders for the top seat, including President Kenyatta, former President Mwai Kibaki and former Cabinet minister Kenneth Matiba. Historically, it has, besides the Nyanza region, played a commanding role in Kenya’s politics.

The death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978 threw the region into political confusion after Daniel Moi managed to outsmart the Kiambu elites to become president. While the 1970s politics in the Mt Kenya region was done under the aegis of the Gikuyu Embu and Meru Association (Gema), an outfit that was more political than cultural, President Moi started his presidency by forcing it to abandon its name and adopt the less political Agriculture Holdings.

Registered in 1971, Gema had emerged to fill the void left by Kanu, though it had a commercial subsidiary with a public shareholding and which invested in land-buying and businesses. So powerful was Gema that it played a key role in elections in the former Central Province, Nakuru and Nairobi. It also tried to guard the Kenyatta presidency from the likes of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Bildad Kaggia and the anti-Kiambu elites such as J.M Kariuki. At one point, members of the community took an oath to protect the presidency.

Political novice

But Mt Kenya lost its political might after Kenyatta’s death. Though Moi, had picked Mwai Kibaki as his Vice President, he later alienated him and then dismissed him, replacing him with Dr Josephat Karanja, a political novice compared to Kibaki, and then with Prof George Saitoti.

While Prof Saitoti’s family had roots in the Mt Kenya region, he cast himself as a Maasai and had his powerbase in Kajiado. It was safe that way.

The fall of Kibaki from the Moi presidency came as the president weeded the Nyayo regime of former Kenyatta-era power brokers. The first to fall was former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, who went through a humiliating judicial commission and later forced to quit politics.

It was during the re-organisation of Mt Kenya politics that Kenneth Matiba, then a Cabinet minister, clashed with some Kanu leaders, including Joseph Kamotho who was emerging as Moi’s man in Murang’a district. An attempt to rig Matiba out of Kanu backfired and he resigned as a minister.

Interestingly, it would be Matiba and Kibaki who would be the political beneficiaries of Mt Kenya’s wrath against Moi and Kanu. Matiba had set the ball rolling, together with Charles Rubia, when they openly called for multiparty democracy, giving momentum to previous agitation.

Matiba’s detention, and near death from of a stroke, made him popular in the Mt Kenya region. Despite ill-health, he captured the imagination of Mt Kenya politics through his Ford Asili party, which had split from the original Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford) in May 1992.

Kibaki had in 1992 decided to form the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP), taking advantage of Matiba’s absence from Mt Kenya and since he could not fit within the radical Ford politics.

The 1992 election saw Matiba and Kibaki divide the Mt Kenya votes, with Matiba commanding Murang’a, Kiambu and Nakuru while Kibaki took Nyeri, Laikipia and Nyandarua. Meru had an interesting mix with Jaramogi’s Ford Kenya having a foothold through Gitobu Imanyara and Kiraitu Murungi. In Kiambu, only Paul Muite of Ford Kenya survived the Matiba wave.

While Matiba emerged as the Leader of Official Opposition in 1992, his erratic behaviour and contempt of Parliament – where would make technical appearances to safeguard his seat – saw Ford Asili lose its clout within Kenya and in the Mt Kenya region. By 1997, and after Matiba announced that he would boycott the elections, it was Kibaki who would command the Mt Kenya bloc.

However, there was the surprise element of Charity Ngilu who snatched two seats from the region through her Social Democratic Party. Mr Muite’s Safina also got some foothold.

In terms of charisma, Kibaki could not match Matiba’s firebrand politics. His cool mien and elitist behaviour saw DP lose some of its key members through defections. By 2002, DP was a shadow and Kibaki was trying to craft a winning formula together with Ngilu and Wamalwa Kijana when the Moi succession took a different twist and threw Kanu into turmoil.

The turmoil within Kanu saw Mr Odinga, who had joined Kanu in the hope of succeeding Moi, edged out of the race after Moi picked Uhuru as his heir. 

Uhuru was young, unknown and with no public record. Coming in at a time when the region had been traumatised by the Moi presidency, the emergence of Kibaki as the leader of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) – which now had Mr Odinga – saw the region vote to man against Kanu, apart from Kiambu, which voted for Uhuru.

But shortly after, Kiambu MPs started a working relationship with Kibaki, which later led to the appointment of Kanu’s Njenga Karume as a Cabinet minister. This relationship also saw Uhuru soften his stand and by 2007, he was wholly supporting Kibaki for a second term.

The 2007 race was tricky since by then Kibaki had fallen out with Odinga. Narc had also collapsed and in the confusion, the Mt Kenya region had no solid political party. Politicians were running on various parties, but all in support of Kibaki.

Three months to the election, Kibaki crafted the Party of National Unity (PNU). This was both a party and a coalition of a dozen independent Kibaki-friendly parties. 

PNU and its affiliates dominated the Mt Kenya politics in 2007 and in the race for presidency, it was a close race between Kibaki and Odinga. This culminated in the post-election violence, with the Mt Kenya diaspora in the Rift Valley being targeted over historical grievances.

The Kibaki succession saw the Mt Kenya elites figure out a successor, and Uhuru stood out. He had been endorsed by the likes of John Michuki and Karume. In addition, due to his pending case at the International Criminal Court, where he had been charged with offences relating to the post-election violence, he had emerged as Mt Kenya’s favourite.

Uhuru abandoned Kanu, which was an affiliate party of PNU, and formed his own The National Alliance (TNA) with its roots in Mt Kenya region. By building a strong grassroot party, Uhuru managed to take over both the Matiba and Kibaki strongholds of yesteryears. He then joined with Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) and won the 2013 race on the Jubilee Alliance ticket.

Intrigues and plotting

For the last ten years, President Kenyatta has dominated the Mt Kenya politics, though he has lost part of that clout in the last few years. How this happened is a story of intrigues and plotting by his deputy, who took advantage of the handshake to galvanise an unstable Mt Kenya.

Whether the President will be able to retrieve this base, or how it will shape up in future is tricky, but the elevation of Martha Karua as Mr Odinga’s running mate and Rigathi Gachagua as DP Ruto’s, brings a new dimension to the region’s politics.

Karua, a former Cabinet minister does not have a strong base at the moment, and the same can be said of Gachagua who only got into the position after backdoor deals that saw frontrunner Prof Kithure Kindiki edged out.

While Kindiki could have been a man to watch, he has announced that he will quit politics after this election. Other Mt Kenya titans like Peter Munya, Ndiritu Muriithi, Wanjiru Chege, Kimani Ichung’wa and Ndindi Nyoro have been touted as possible contenders. Kirinyaga’s Karanja Kibicho, who, though not a politician, has been playing politics in the region, is also seen as a contender. But their influence will be determined by the role they play post-Uhuru’s presidency.

It will also be interesting to see which political parties will get their roots in Mt Kenya. Jubilee is fighting to defend its stronghold, which might be overrun by UDA as Ruto seeks to replace Uhuru as the Mt Kenya spokesman.

Mt Kenya faces an uncertain future; for the first time, since the days of the Kenya African Union in 1950s, it has lost its political leadership.

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