Whichever way the August 9 General Election goes, the political clash between Kenya Kwanza Alliance running mate Rigathi Gachagua and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition’s Martha Karua is a race for the next Mt Kenya supremo as President Uhuru Kenyatta retires.
In just 20 days, the 5.8 million vote-rich region will face a reality test, the first election since the return of multi-party politics in 1992 that it lacks a front runner on the ballot.
The main presidential contenders are Deputy President William Ruto of Kenya Kwanza and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Azimio.
Others in the race are Roots Party of Kenya candidate George Wajackoyah and his Agano Party counterpart David Mwaure Waihiga.
Even though recent opinion polls have placed Dr Ruto ahead of the pack in the Mr Kenya region, because he is an outsider, political observers believe the community needs one of its own to offer socio-political and economic direction in the absence of President Kenyatta.
They believe the naming of the two leaders from Mr Kenya, Mr Gachagua and Ms Karua, as running mates for Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga, respectively, could give rise to a new political supremo in the region if either of the two presidential candidates wins the coming election.
Mr Gachagua and Ms Karua are today expected to face off in a deputy presidential debate at Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA), an event likely to spark discussions on a future regional grandee after the elections.
President Kenyatta, the de facto Mt Kenya political supremo, has repeatedly said that he is not interested in any responsibilities past his second and last term, which ends after the August 9 elections, implying that he would not take active roles in politics, a situation that might leave the community exposed.
But despite these assertions, the President has taken a key role in the Azimio coalition party as chairman of its top decision-making organ, the Council, which gives him a chance to continue pulling strings from behind the scenes.
His Jubilee Party has also retained him as its leader, suggesting that Kenyans are likely to see him active in the political arena after the elections.
Nonetheless, either Mr Gachagua or Ms Karua, whoever becomes the country’s second in command after the polls, could easily take up the role of Mt Kenya leader.
Just as President Kenyatta rose to the position after succeeding former President Mwai Kibaki in 2013, Ms Karua or Mr Gachagua could be a heartbeat away from becoming Mt Kenya supremo. This would, however, depend on whether the candidates, Dr Ruto or Mr Odinga, win the polls.
If the DP wins, Mr Gachagua is most likely to rise and become the Mt Kenya kingpin by virtue of being a member of the community holding the number two political office in the land.
Similarly, Mr Odinga’s victory would obviously elevate Ms Karua’s stature in the community, and for the first time Mt Kenya would have a queenpin to protect the region’s interests.
President Kenyatta has already thrown his weight behind Ms Karua, noting that she is the only one capable of safeguarding the interests of Mt Kenya after his exit.
Addressing more than 1,500 clerics from the region’s counties at State House, Nairobi, on July 8, the President said: “I settled on Martha Karua not because she is my friend. In fact, you all know Martha and myself hardly agreed on anything there before. She even ran against me in 2012. But I settled on her because I have full confidence that our community is safe in her hands.”
Dr Ruto, on the other hand, continues to heap praise on Mr Gachagua, describing him as a “people’s person who cares about ordinary people” and one who emerged the best among hopefuls for his running mate slot. “Rigathi Gachagua is an accomplished public servant, a people’s person, who speaks about the ordinary people, he believes in bottom-up the way I do and that's why I chose him to work with me,” the DP said at a recent public forum.
Prof David Mwenja, a governance and strategy expert, explains that whereas being a community’s political supremo requires one to be actively involved in the socio-economic and political lives of the people, even in retirement, President Kenyatta would retain that status and become a kingmaker due to the position he holds in Azimio and Jubilee.
“[President Kenyatta] will remain the Mt Kenya kingpin but the region will still need someone in active politics, and Martha Karua will comfortably occupy that position if her side, led by Raila Odinga, wins the election,” Prof Mwenja said.
On the flip side, he argues that “in the unlikely event that Gachagua’s camp wins in August, it is unlikely” that the Mathira MP would be the community’s supremo “because he is inexperienced and his history while serving as a provincial administrator betrays him”.
Mr Gachagua is serving his first term in the National Assembly, unlike Ms Karua, who served in the House for two decades and was also Cabinet minister.
Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata says that if Mr Gachagua or Ms Karua become the next Deputy President, they would easily become the Mt Kenya supremo, but this, he adds, will depend on how each helps the community while in office.
“Definitely, their name recognition will firm up, but in politics, legal provisions do not morph into political opportunities. It’s the character of the holder of an office and the respect one appropriates,” he told the Nation yesterday.
The Jubilee director of elections, Mr Kanini Kega, said their concern for now is how to deliver victory to the Azimio side on August 9.