The recent by-elections triumphs of candidates backed by Deputy President William Ruto in the ODM stronghold of Msambweni constituency and various wards have laid bare campaign strategies being fine-tuned by his team into a well-oiled machine for the 2022 General Election.
The plans being tested in various by-elections are centred around Dr Ruto’s personality and targeted visits in vote-rich regions since 2013. His dedication to the “Hustler Nation” brand, religious leaders, trusted loyalists, a strong online presence and dishing out of money have begun paying dividend.
The campaign machinery is intended to be so well-oiled that Dr Ruto does not have to be physically present to support his preferred candidates but is briefed almost constantly as key politicians in each region are supported by seasoned colleagues from elsewhere in a grassroots-centred mobilisation.
As the DP faces resistance in his attempts to control the Jubilee Party, insiders in his camp say supporting “friendly” contestants and independent candidates, is a strategy that will be deployed in by-elections and in 2022 with the arrangement that the presidential vote will go to Dr Ruto alongside parliamentary loyalty.
And the success of his affiliates in the December 15 mini-polls in Msambweni constituency, Gaturi and Lakeview wards in Murang’a and Nakuru counties is now being used by his advisors to build momentum for two by-elections in western Kenya— Kabuchai and Matungu constituencies — and a possible referendum battle, if need be, before the big one in 2022 .
Deploy same plan
Despite not setting foot in these areas during the recent campaigns, and against a government and ODM juggernaut, his men and women easily floored the ODM and Jubilee candidates, who had the backing of the parties’ top leadership.
Yesterday, Dr Ruto and his allies said they are set to deploy the same plan in Matungu and Kabuchai constituencies by-elections early next year.
The Tangatanga camp has crafted what they call a “people-driven strategy” for the next General Election. Former Machakos Senator Johnson Muthama, who was a lead strategist and player in the Msambweni by-election shock win for Ruto-backed candidate Feisal Bader, says they are applying an “Ujamaa-style strategy”, which involves working from the village-level upwards to the national level.
Mr Muthama, former Kakamega senator Boni Khalwale, Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi, Kimilili MP Didmus Barasa and others form a clique of rabble-rousers have been instrumental in “shaking the ground” whenever they are called upon. They appear forceful and politically savvy—but sometimes crude in their sharp remarks that spare nobody, including President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Dr Khalwale and Mr Barasa were deployed to Kibra in last year’s by-election, where they faced rowdy youths head-on as they campaigned for the DP’s candidate Macdonald Mariga, who eventually lost. The whole idea, however, was to puncture the idea that Kibra — and similar constituencies — was ODM leader Raila Odinga’s impenetrable stronghold. Although Mr Mariga lost the election to the ODM candidate Imran Okoth, the Tangatanga brigade left a mark in Mr Odinga’s “bedroom”.
Yesterday, Mr Muthama said they have started constituting campaign committees in villages in every corner of Kenya to solidify the DP's popularity.
"From the Msambweni by-election, we have realised that everyone should be involved in campaign, we are going the way of Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi, where campaign committees begin from the village," Mr Muthama said.
According to former Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar, the DP’s foe-turned-ally who is in his inner circle, ultimately, power lies with the people in any democracy.
“Therefore, after Msambweni, we will continue engaging people with humility and respect," he said.
But Mr Barasa says the beauty about their strategy is that it is fluid and can be changed easily to suit the situation.
"We change depending on the audience and our target group. Our patron the DP built ODM from scratch and he understands the cost of relying on one strategy for a century. ODM’s strategy, which they have perfected for years is of bravado, chest thumping, vitendawilli (in reference to Mr Odinga’s use of riddles in public meetings) and creating contests where they should be none can only thrive in an area where we have ignorant people."
The DP's allies have capitalised on engaging their supporters and opponents on social media, with Dennis Itumbi leading the team and the likes of Senator Kipchumba Murkomen (Elgeyo Marakwet), Aaron Cheruiyot (Kericho), Millicent Omanga (Nominated) and Nelson Koech (Belgut), among others, bringing in their legions of followers into the fray. The strong social media presence, that imcludes the DP’s regular posts, also fits into the overall plan to mobilise the youth vote.
Keiyo South MP Daniel Rono says social media is now ahead of the mainstream media “so we move with the times”.
Bomet Senator Christopher Lang'at echoes this.
The DP is always diplomatic and civil on social media pages handled by his press team, but whenever a story he disagrees with appears in the newspapers, all diplomacy is dropped. He exhibits raw emotion in his posts. Currently, he has 3.6 million followers on Twitter and 1.6 million on Facebook. He regularly updates on his engagements and, save for the few outbursts against the press, the real battles are taken up by his online team, led by Itumbi, a former director in the State House communication team known for his “system ya facts” slogan.
Dr Ruto has a whole constituency in the church. On Wednesdays, he is said to avoid political engagements to meet with religious leaders. It is also his praying and fasting day.
He has carefully cultivated the image of a God-fearing leader despite allegations of corruption surrounding him. The relationship with the church is cemented by frequent harambees that have, however, been disrupted this year by the pandemic.
Aldai MP Cornelius Serem, who camped in Msambweni for two months in the run-up to the by-election, said they are working closely with the church to ensure that they reach out to as many people as possible even as they strategise on how to battle with the Raila camp for the presidency in 2022.
But the Ruto machine requires money to oil it. Church fundraisers, youth empowerment programmes and all manner of donations have characterised Ruto’s social engagements. While some have termed this bribery, Mr Emmanuel Talaam, the DP’s deputy spokesman, said what has won Dr Ruto the hearts and minds of the people is not money but ideas.
“There's no money involved, just attractive ideas that resonate with the masses. There are people who believe the only way to persuade voters is through bribery. That is where they go wrong and think the DP is using money. They are in for a rude shock,” he said.
Bearing in mind the huge number of youthful voters, he has rolled out a programme targeting the young entrepreneurs and given them donations to improve their lot and cushion them against the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Ruto has been telling the groups that he understands where they are coming from, often repeating his rags-to-riches tale as a “hustler” who rose from a chicken-seller in Turbo even as he gives them equipment worth millions of shillings.
The vocal Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi and his Mumias counterpart Benjamin Washiali, say the future of this country lies with the youth.
"Whenever we discuss our interests as leaders, the youth must be the priority and that's why in Ruto's camp, young leaders are playing vital role, which will bring others on board," said Mr Sudi.
"In most families, it is the youth who are influencing decisions on who should be elected and in case you ignore them, you're likely to fail and that is why as Ruto's camp, they remain integral part of our campaign," said Mr Washiali, a former Majority Whip.
"The youth should form the basis of our manifesto and commitment. When programmes that benefit the youth are implemented, the rest falls into place. This is an age bracket that accommodates 80 per cent of hustlers," added Mr Barasa.
Is the momentum sustainable? Machakos town MP Victor Munyaka, an ardent supporter of Dr Ruto, says it is.
“The hustler movement is sustainable because a majority of Kenyans associate with it. Religious leaders and former legislators are also a good idea because going to elections you need everyone on your side. A majority of Kenyans are hustlers and find a perfect movement in Ruto’s messaging. We are not asking for anything from the 5 per cent who have made it, we wish them well. The neglected and abandoned have found a home in this movement,” said the third-term MP.
Hesbon Owilla, a research associate at the Aga Khan University, has however warned the DP’s camp against thinking that the battle is won after Msambweni.
“A win in a constituency and a few wards cannot be used as a yardstick for 2022, because the people who campaigned there will be in their own areas fighting for self-survival. Also, dynamics change,” he said.
He said the Building Bridges Initiative captures all the aspirations expounded by the hustler movement and if Dr Ruto were to expressly support the referendum, his hustler movement would collapse.
“We can’t take it away from them that they won because politics is about rallying people to your cause and creating perceptions. They will use wins as a momentum but will this give us an indication of how things will be in 2022? Absolutely not!”