In Ukambani, a political contest unfolds

From left: Governors Charity Ngilu (Kitui), Alfred Mutua (Machakos), Kivutha Kibwana ( Makueni) and Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Only Prof Kibwana of Makueni is nominally in Mr Musyoka’s Wiper, having decamped from the outfit in the last election. Now the governor is singing his own tune
  • In recent months, the checkered politics of the region has been added more colour after Mike Sonko, the flamboyant Nairobi governor, hinted that he might shift his political base to Machakos.

From his ancestral home in Mwala, Machakos County, Governor Alfred Mutua would only need to ascend and descend the Mbooni and Kilungu Hills and he would be smack in his Makueni counterpart Kivutha Kibwana’s kraal in Mwanyani, near Emali. That is, if one wished to borrow some tobacco from the other. 

But the two men have bigger political cravings than a fleeting urge to inhale snuff. Both have declared interest in the highest office in Kenya and, were they to go the whole hog in their presidential run, this would be one of the most dramatic contests to watch.

Yet still, in the far north of the vast region, in the parched plains of Tseikuru, former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka believes now is his time to ascend to the House on the Hill. Yesterday, Mr Musyoka launched a whistle-stop tour of the lower eastern and coastal regions with a visit to the Konza technopolis on the Machakos/Makueni border.

The tour of Konza, the site of a dream city billed as the future Eldorado of the region, but one that has been in a near-stillbirth for a decade and only last year fluttered to life with the building of basic infrastructure, appeared aimed at jumpstarting the former VP’s own lackluster political season.

Then there is Charity Ngilu, the indefatigable Kitui governor, whose crystal ball for the mood of national politics is legendary. She hasn’t yet shown where she will cast her lot.

No scenario best captures the state of Ukambani politics today as these four political titans who all read from different scripts. Analysts say they are all positioning themselves for an anticipated coalition building rather than a realistic stab at the presidency.

Checkered politics

Mr Musyoka’s governor, Ms Ngilu, is the Narc party leader, while Dr Mutua has his own Maendeleo Chap Chap. Only Prof Kibwana of Makueni is nominally in Mr Musyoka’s Wiper, having decamped from the outfit in the last election. Now the governor is singing his own tune.

On the other side of the spectrum, former Machakos Senator Johnstone Muthama, the hawkish operative who has campaigned for ODM leader Raila Odinga in the last two elections, is now Deputy President William Ruto’s point man in Ukambani. Last week he hosted the DP in the populous Athi River and Kitengela urban sprawl in Machakos and Kajiado counties, respectively.

In recent months, the checkered politics of the region has been added more colour after Mike Sonko, the flamboyant Nairobi governor, hinted that he might shift his political base to Machakos. Occasionally, he has been seen throwing a few stunts from his home, perched on Mua Hills.

Yet, the second tier of the political class in the region is even more disparate. Despite Mr Musyoka having been the running mate for the opposition coalition in the last two elections — and bringing an impressive 900,000 presidential votes against President Kenyatta’s just-under 200,000 — the region has had a number of government-leaning and independent MPs across the region, including in his Mwingi backyard.

Clear kingpin

From Emali in the south to Mwingi in the north; and from the fringes of Nairobi in the west to the skirts of the Tsavo in the east, the land of steep hills and vast plains where the sun burns fiercely doesn’t seem to have a clear kingpin.

This is a charge that Mr Musyoka’s supporters will hear none of. In a commentary last week, the former VP’s publicist Onesmus Kilonzo could not entertain any suggestion that his boss’s hold on the region was threatened. Citing past political trends and a “Musyoka wave”, Mr Kilonzo wrote that Mutua, Ngilu and Kibwana will be of little consequence in the 2022 presidential contest.

So, is it a bad or a good thing that the region is at a crossroads with a hydra-headed leadership?

“It’s a good thing,” says Sunday Nation columnist Prof Makau Mutua, speaking from the State University of New York Law School in Buffalo, where he teaches.  “The so-called (Kamba) nation, or any other nationality in Kenya, shouldn’t have an ethnic kingpin. I long for the day when the ethnic kingpin — the bane of Kenyan politics — will be consigned to the dustbin of history,”

Prof Mutua blames the kingpin phenomenon for preventing the emergence of a national consciousness and asserts that the aspirations of the region should be addressed by leaders who recognise those desires and address them without demanding to be made tinpot potentates.

Kamba kingpins

“Perhaps if the Akamba are freed of kingpins, they would vote as Kenyans and individuals, and not an unthinking herd. So neither (Alfred) Mutua nor Kibwana should be aspiring to become the Kamba kingpins to keep the Akamba enslaved and in poverty.”

It is a position that both Dr Mutua and Prof Kibwana hold. Still, I put it to them: Kenyans have, for as long as we can remember, always voted along tribal lines, with past leaders who tried to walk the unbeaten path the two have taken falling by the wayside. What makes them think that this time around Kenyans will vote any differently?

The reason Kenyans euphorically vote along tribal lines is that they are attracted to tribal kings “like moths to fire”, is how Prof Kibwana put it. Yet he hopes to ride on what he describes as an “inclusive approach in electoral planning and designing, which he believes will make Kenyans own the process and go beyond the tribal card “and embrace issue-based politics”.

The second-liberation stalwart thinks the next election will mirror the fight for independence and the struggle for political pluralism which “took a national, not an ethnic, dimension”.

Acknowledging that all politics is local and that he has to appease his base, Dr Mutua has pledged to include in his government his two competitors if he wins. He also bets on the age card.

Mature leader

“Kenya needs a young, energetic, visionary and mature leader, and so do the campaigns because they will be very gruelling and tedious. That’s why at my age, I consider myself prime for the top job,” argues Dr Mutua, 50.

Both Mr Musyoka and Prof Kibwana are 66 and the latter has taken the age factor to his advantage, vowing that if elected he would outdo Mwai Kibaki in his record. Mr Kibaki, who took over at 71, is widely considered the most development-conscious President in Kenya’s history.

Dr Mutua says most Kenyans are hurting today from economic hardship, not because of their tribe, but because of lack of visionary leadership.

“That’s why my appeal is to the disempowered and suffering individual Kenyans who yearn for a revolutionary change in their lives now. They constitute my political base, and they are all over Kenya.”

For David Maillu, the foremost writer from the region, today’s political situation aligns with the traditional Kamba system of leadership. “It was always a stateless society. The Kamba never had one central leader. It was a complex but efficient system of rule by a council of elders.”

Presidential contenders

But the jostling of the three leaders also makes the region a stomping ground for presidential contenders from outside the region as its more than one million votes will make or break a candidate.

It is in this light that Dr Ruto’s forays in the region can be read. Which opens another question: Even as all the key political players from Ukambani deny the regional kingpin contender tag and insist on going the whole hog in their presidential run, in the end only one will carry the regional vote or be a kingmaker. Who will it be?

“It is too early to tell now,” says former Water minister Mutua Katuku.

Whatever the case may be, he believes the current power struggle between Mr Musyoka and Governors Mutua and Kibwana has to do with the Building Bridges Initiative, which is expected to create three more positions at the top, that of prime minister and two deputies.

“I think they are positioning themselves for anticipated coalition building rather than a realistic stab at the presidency,” says Mr Katuku, a former MP for Mwala.