Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua’s political grip on Mt Kenya appears to be slipping away amid fierce jostling for the region’s kingship position, with the vote-rich region unsettled on who its political point man is.
With former President Uhuru Kenyatta exiting the stage and his political clout taking a beating after Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition leader Raila Odinga, his candidate in the 2022 presidential election, lost to President William Ruto, Gachagua has never hidden his preoccupation with inheriting the region’s leadership mantle.
However, the quest to become the region’s de facto leader has seen the former Mathira MP, who is eyeing his own presidential bid in the future, ignite vicious political battles in the region.
The plan to wield power and influence in Mt Kenya region has been met with resistance by political leaders from the vote-rich area with similar ambitions.
It is not lost on the public that Mr Gachagua’s selection as Dr Ruto’s running mate last year almost split the region as it was not well received by the Mt Kenya brigade of the Kenya Kwanza Alliance.
The DP has been locked in a supremacy battle with Public Service Cabinet Secretary (CS) Moses Kuria, with no love lost between the two.
Recently, Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua and embattled Jubilee Party Secretary-General Jeremiah Kioni have joined forces to form a new political movement.
Known as the Kamwene Leadership Forum, the new formation aims to champion the interests of Mt Kenya region with Ms Karua, saying the movement is a space through which the region's leaders speak.
“This is Kamwene Leadership Forum, a group of people who are not in Kenya Kwanza, neither are they in Azimio, but are pushing the interests of the Mountain,” said Mr Kioni.
Former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga also appeared to throw his hat into the ring for the position of Mt Kenya kingpin last month, saying Mr Kenyatta was expected to hand over the region’s political mantle this month.
Attorney General Justin Muturi, who was crowned last year at the Njuri Ncheke shrine in Meru and Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga in Murang’a, is also seen as one of the region’s experienced leaders who could also pose a threat to Mr Gachagua’s ambitions.
Other likely candidates for the position include Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro, a close ally of the President, and Interior Cabinet Secretary (CS) Prof Kithure Kindiki, although they have remained tight-lipped about their next move.
The battle is so intense that President Ruto alluded to the jostling for Mr Kenyatta’s throne when he hosted King Charles III at State House last month.
“There is a vicious contest for this kingship position which literally amounts to nothing. But this week, all contests about kingpins have been suspended because the King himself is in town,” the Head of State said.
By virtue of his position, Mr Gachagua is the most senior politician from the Mt Kenya region and has in the past rallied the region together to forge a common front.
Immediately after taking office, he vowed to unite the region following the hotly contested August 9, 2022 election.
As part of the plan to stamp his authority on the region, the DP successfully rallied Kenya Kwanza lawmakers from the region to vote for the Azimio-backed candidate, former Kieni MP Kanini Kega, in the East African Legislative Assembly elections.
“What is kingpin all about? What I know is that I am the Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya and I am the senior-most leader from the region,” the DP said during an interview with NTV on September 18, 2023.
“So, the way people perceive me, I leave it to them. But what I also know is that I talk to the people of Mt Kenya in their own language and they listen to me. Uhuru Kenyatta talked to them, but they disregarded what he told them. I asked them to go in a particular direction and the majority of them were in agreement,” he added.
But even before that, while speaking in Rongai, Nakuru County on August 24 last year, and Rigathi noted that there won't be a vacuum left in Mt Kenya when Uhuru hands over power.
“People asked who will fight for Mt Kenya when Uhuru retires. I want to assure you that I am here, I will fight for the people,” he said.
The DP’s political activities have also painted a picture of a man keen on steering the region around him with an eye on the post-Ruto presidency.
He has fought for reforms in the tea, milk and coffee sectors, as well as more resources and positions for his Mt Kenya backyard in the Kenya Kwanza government.
Mr Gachagua has also been keen to mend fences with his political ally-turned-foe Mr Kenyatta, as he has made clear his ambition to bring the 13 per cent who voted for the opposition in last year’s election into President Ruto’s camp ahead of the 2027 election, and increase the region’s share from 47 per cent to 60 per cent.
However, CS Kuria – who is politically senior to the DP, has been embroiled in a fierce political tussle with Mr Gachagua, with the two rarely seeing eye to eye.
The former Gatundu South MP has launched veiled political attacks on the DP, with reports suggesting the two are eyeing the same position.
At the end of King Charles III's visit, Kuria sent a cryptic message to the DP, saying tribal kingpins who had been vying for the control of regions could now take the stage.
“Sasa venye King amerudi kwao (Now that King Charles is back to England), fake Kingpins you can take over,” said Kuria.
However, last month, the DP appeared to change his tune, saying he was no longer interested in the kingship position.
He told Mt Kenya leaders battling for the position that he was “busy” as the country's second in command and did not have time to jostle
Mr Gachagua said his priorities were to unite and consolidate the Mt Kenya Region to rally behind President Ruto and give him the support he needs to achieve his development agenda for the country both at the county and national levels.
“There is no provision in the Constitution that talks about kingpins. I have no time or desire to aspire for any other office because the work I have as Deputy President is a lot. I have no time for that kingpinship nonsense. I am so busy that I can hardly cope. That debate should end and those interested in kingpinship positions can pursue that,” Gachagua said during a service at the Anglican Church of Kenya's St James Cathedral in Kiambu town.
He said he had no desire to be recognised as the region’s kingpin, noting that he was happy with his current role as the DP.
“When I called for the unity of this region, I did not call for the unity of this region behind me, I called for the unity of this region behind President William Ruto,” Gachagua said.
The Mt Kenya kingpin is a position of influence previously held by leaders such as Dedan Kimathi (pre-independence era), Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978), Kenneth Matiba (1993-1997), Mwai Kibaki (1997-2013) and Uhuru Kenyatta (since 2013).
In 2002, when then President Daniel Moi left office, the Rift Valley region slowly settled on President Ruto.
In 2013, when Mwai Kibaki was leaving office, the Mt Kenya region quickly and seamlessly settled on Mr Kenyatta.
Last month, a number of Mt Kenya MPs claimed that a plan to have more than one deputy party leader in UDA was part of a wider political plan to curb Gachagua's influence in the 2032 succession politics at play.
Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga and Senator Wahome Wamatinga said the position of deputy party leader should be reserved for DP Gachagua and demanded that the secretary-general’s position be given to a leader from Mt Kenya region.
“We will not stand any effort to water down the position of the deputy party leader and we maintain that the party constitution must conform to the constitution of the Republic of Kenya. Any plans to twist the region will be met with unequivocal opposition,” Kahiga said.
Kioni has also poured cold water on Gachagua's quest, saying it will take time for the DP to speak on behalf of Mount Kenya.
“He is not the kingpin of Mount Kenya but is just thinking of the community just like others. The kingpin of the region is the former President because the majority listen to him. Getting another kingpin will take time,” said the former Ndaragua MP.
Former Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu said it is the residents who will decide who their political spokesperson is, arguing that it is a process that takes time and is determined by how a person has championed the interests of the community.
However, he said that since assuming office as DP, Gachagua has shown that he is ready to protect the interests of the region and if he continues on this trajectory, he would automatically become the kingpin.
“If he continues doing this, he could very easily be made the regional kingpin by the people, especially as the position is currently vacant after Uhuru’s retirement from active politics,” Wambugu added.