Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu has joined a list of influential politicians who will get plum jobs if the Azimio coalition forms the next government. This is after she withdrew from county elective politics.
The move fits a pattern of similar political tactics that have seen Mrs Ngilu retain her place at the national political table and as an accomplished power broker in the Ukambani region.
The governor, in active politics for three decades, having first been elected to Parliament in 1992 as Kitui Central MP, is one of the senior-most female politicians in Kenya.
With 20 years of uninterrupted service – 13 as a Cabinet minister and five as governor – Mrs Ngilu has acquired enormous political experience in her 30 years in politics, rising to national prominence in the male-dominated field.
As in previous elections, her support in the presidential race is highly sought by leading contenders, but choosing the winning side has defined her remarkable career in national politics.
In four of the past six elections that she was on the ballot, Mrs Ngilu was on the right side of history – consistent in casting her lot with national coalitions that emerged victorious, while still maintaining a firm presence in Ukambani politics.
Her ability to read the political mood of the country in every election and sticking her neck out on the direction she believes the country should take has earned her respect and admiration.
After serving her first term as MP, Mrs Ngilu created a sensation in the 1997 General Election when she announced her bid for the presidency – to unseat President Daniel Moi – making history as the first woman in Kenya to run for the top office.
Her bold presidential campaign stirred up the country, with the “Masaa ni ya Ngilu” slogan inspiring many young women leaders, including Cecily Mbarire, Wavinya Ndeti and Rachel Shebesh to join elective politics.
Mrs Ngilu’s courage and boldness helped her break the political glass ceiling, which was unheard of since independence, says Dr Temi Mutia, a university don and value chain expert.
Her go-getter philosophy
“Nationally, she is known for her go-getter philosophy and reputation of being courageous and daring, and the experience she has acquired over the years is best utilised on the national scene for the good of the entire country, not just in Kitui,” said Dr Temi.
Even though she lost the 1997 election, emerging a distant fourth, she made a mark and forced her way onto the national table, as the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with a sizeable number of MPs in Parliament.
After that loss, she joined hands with President Mwai Kibaki, then the Democratic Party leader, and Kijana Wamalwa of Ford Kenya in crafting an alliance of opposition political parties to take on the then ruling party, Kanu.
That became the genesis of her political supremacy battles with Wiper party leader Kalonzo Musyoka, then a defender of the Kanu regime.
In the 2002 General Election, she was part of the National Rainbow Coalition that swept Kanu out of power, earning a slot in President Kibaki’s Cabinet. But she still maintained her strong voice in pushing for radical policy changes like the introduction of universal health coverage.
In 2007, she broke ranks with President Kibaki and joined hands with ODM leader Raila Odinga, vigorously campaigning for him across the country. Mr Odinga appointed her the minister for Water in the Grand Coalition government.
She was to surprise Kenyans in 2013 when she bolted out of Mr Odinga’s Cord coalition at the last minute to join Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, despite the Jubilee duo facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Governor Ngilu has mastered the art of correctly predicting the direction of the country’s politics and properly aligning herself with the possible winners, and her withdrawal from defending her seat in Kitui fits a pattern spanning more than 20 years.
In the Azimio coalition, she was the first to call for leaders to coalesce around Mr Odinga as early as two years ago and has consistently been opposed to DP Ruto’s candidacy for the presidency.
In June last year, during the burial of former Kibwezi MP Kalembe Ndile, she boldly told Mr Musyoka to drop his presidential bid and rally behind Mr Odinga, saying he didn’t have the necessary numbers to win and should not run for the sake of it.
“Please, be wary of ‘fake loyalists’ within your party who have perfected the art of winning elective seats at your expense. I know they want to hang onto your coattails to secure re-election, without caring what happens to you,” Mrs Ngilu told Mr Musyoka.
During the search for Mr Odinga’s running mate, Mrs Ngilu was shortlisted and invited for interviews but strongly endorsed the eventual pick, Martha Karua.
For months, she has accompanied the Azimio candidate to almost every major political rally across the country and was part of delicate negotiations that saw Mr Musyoka’s Wiper party finally agree to back the Odinga-Karua ticket.
Her decision to quit Kitui politics had been a long time coming but caught Wiper by surprise and denied its leader and long-time political rival in the Ukambani region, Mr Musyoka, an opportunity to settle scores with her at the ballot box.
Mr Musyoka and his allies have never forgiven Mrs Ngilu for snatching the governorship from their grip in 2017, when she beat Governor Julius Malombe and Senator David Musila.
Mrs Ngilu seems to have lost interest in Kitui politics starting more than a year ago, and despite submitting her nomination papers to the IEBC last week, all indications were that she wasn’t keen on defending her seat.
Signs of her focus on national politics began showing when she started delegating to others the supervision of county flagship programmes that had been designed to politically endear her to the electorate ahead of the next elections.
For instance, by the time Mr Odinga announced that he wanted the governor to be part of his Cabinet, Mrs Ngilu had not printed a single poster for her campaign, let alone branding campaign vehicles.
Since she was elected the second Kitui County boss, Mrs Ngilu has endured social media bullying and a hostile Wiper-dominated county assembly. At one point, she likened the governorship to an elevated chairmanship of a county council.
On Thursday, the Nation learnt that Mrs Ngilu had decided to drop out of the governor’s race as early as April last year, after Mr Odinga formally announced he would run for President, but she opted to wait for the perfect timing to declare it.