When Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua openly proclaimed that he had rallied his Mt Kenya region support base in Parliament behind the successful East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) bid of former Kieni MP Kanini Kega, he would not have been so naïve as to expect that President William Ruto would not take note.
What the Deputy President was publicly affirming, though not in so many words, was that he had mobilised the Mt Kenya bloc within the governing Kenya Kwanza Alliance to defy the President and back a candidate fronted by opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition.
Though both Ruto and Gachagua have since dismissed talk of a split and insisted that Kenya Kwanza remains united, the apparent rebellion over the EALA vote cannot be glossed over. It is a reflection of simmering tensions already evident between the two biggest ethnic and regional blocs over issues such as appointments to key government offices including Principal Secretaries, Cabinet Administrative Secretaries, diplomatic postings, and heads of state corporations, statutory and constitutional bodies.
At first glance, and as he is publicly proclaiming, all the manoeuvres are about Gachagua moving to rally the Mt Kenya communities — the Kikuyu and the affiliated Meru and Embu blocs — behind the Ruto government.
Mt Kenya already voted solidly for the Ruto-Gachagua ticket and gave Kenya Kwanza a virtual clean sweep of all electoral seats in the country’s largest vote basket, but there are isolated pockets still loyal to former President Uhuru Kenyatta that the DP feels constrained to raid.
Prominent Kikuyu figures
In that regard, supporting Kega’s EALA bid and thus winning his backing, as well as wooing other prominent Kikuyu figures who supported Raila’s presidential bid, looks good for Kenya Kwanza. In any case, it is a key Ruto strategy to weaken Raila by raiding Azimio and persuading MPs, governors and coalition leaders to cross over. The distinction, however, is that Rigathi’s moves could be interpreted as aimed mainly at strengthening his own political position within Kenya Kwanza and the United Democratic Alliance, rather than winning support for the Ruto presidency.
During the presidential campaigns, the forceful former MP for Mathira felt constrained at various rallies to give assurances that as DP, he would be absolutely loyal and obedient to the President, that his role would be to jump when told to do so.
His coup on the EALA vote proved otherwise, and as he moves to consolidate his own political position, it cannot be just about winning Mt Kenya support for President Ruto, but about fortifying his own position.
This would be with an eye not just on cementing his role as DP, but building himself up for his own stab at the presidency in future. When he gave assurances that he would be a loyal and obedient number two to Ruto, Gachagua must have been acutely aware that Ruto, as Uhuru’s DP, was hardly loyal or obedient. He was saying that he would not be a DP like Ruto.
The second term of the Jubilee Party administration was marked by open discord between the President and his deputy. Uhuru tore up the Jubilee presidential succession pact by going into an alliance with Raila under the Building Bridges Initiative, and eventually backing his presidential bid under Azimio.
Ruto went into open rebellion, pushing his presidential election campaign by successfully infiltrating Uhuru’s Mt Kenya base, and driving the Hustler vs Dynasties narrative that successfully turned a two-term DP into the ‘outsider’ candidate leading a popular insurgency against the governing elite.
The Uhuru-Ruto divorce was emblematic of the prickly relations between presidents and their deputies since Independence. President Kenyatta and Vice-Presidents Oginga Odinga and Daniel arap Moi; and President Moi and Vice-Presidents Mwai Kibaki, Josephat Karanja and George Saitoti. All told the story of a president who could not countenance a powerful, head-strong deputy building his own solid political base with an eye on gunning for the top seat at the appropriate time.
That was what Uhuru faced with Ruto, but was hamstrung by the 2010 Constitution, which made the presidential election a package deal. The DP was no longer a mere presidential appointee, but was elected on the same ticket and could not be sacked.
If that was the headache Ruto presented for Uhuru, it looks like it is the same headache Gachagua will present for Ruto as he consolidates an independent political base.
According to Kanini Kega, his reciprocal support for Gachagua after securing the EALA seat is based purely on the need to lobby government support for development in Mt Kenya, rather than anything to do with internal Kenya Kwanza politics. “I don’t want to comment on that because I’m not in that political formation,” he told The Weekly Review.
If there were ongoing political machinations in UDA and Kenya Kwanza around the DP, he was not privy to them and was not bothered since his loyalty remains with the Jubilee Party and Azimio. That might seem like a contradiction, but Kega insisted that agreeing to work with Gachagua was merely recognition of current realities rather than any indication that he was ditching Uhuru’s Jubilee and support for Raila under the Azimio banner. He insisted that he remains a loyal member of Jubilee under Uhuru’s leadership and its director of elections, and that his commitment to Azimio and Raila are intact.
The new reality, he said, is that Ruto is President and Gachagua his deputy, and therefore any lobbing on matters affecting Mt Kenya would have to go through the most senior person in government from the region. That meant acknowledging Gachagua’s position and having Mt Kenya speaking in a united voice in the push for development resources and other common interests.
“We can only go through the person in government, and that is the DP,” he said, adding: “We have not gone to politics of 2027”, in regard to the next presidential elections.
He explained that Jubilee makes its decisions through the proper organs, and since the elections has not met to review its membership of Azimio, so that status quo remains.
That however leaves open the possibility that the review could be forthcoming.
It is notable, however, that prominent Mt Kenya Azimio figures such as Kega and former Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu now saying they will work with the government are voicing support for Gachagua, rather than for the Ruto government. Do they make a distinction between the president and his deputy? “No, No, No,” retorts Kega, saying that they will also work with Ruto in pursuit of the Mt Kenya interests. He points out, for instance, that as an EALA member he will be representing Kenyan interests as may be enunciated by a government headed by Ruto.
He explained that he will be interacting with Ruto and Gachagua at different levels, the former as President and on national issues at EALA and elsewhere, and the latter on Mt Kenya development issues. On supporting Gachagua politically, Kega points out that he is not a member of the UDA or Kenya Kwanza outfits and therefore has no role to play there.
The reality, however, is that Gachagua’s quest for Mt Kenya leadership in the vacuum left by Uhuru’s exit is intrinsically linked to securing his position in the present government, and also laying the foundation for a future presidential bid. According to Wambugu, it is only natural that the DP bolsters his position in Kenya Kwanza so that he can be in a strong position to negotiate his space beside Ruto at the 2027 elections. It is nothing strange, considering that Kenyan politics is all about using whatever means to secure relevance. The public protests Raila is talking about are all part of political negotiation, he says, adding that the veteran opposition chief has used such tactics in the past to secure space beside Uhuru, Kibaki and Moi.
Wambugu also points out how Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi and National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang’ula are negotiating their own spaces by resisting Ruto’s UDA encroachment on their western Kenya turf at the Bungoma Senate by-election. He says he is now supporting Gachagua because he is the DP, and would support anyone else in that position who would advance Mt Kenya interests. So is he ditching Raila? He gives an emphatic no, but with the twist that he wasn’t a Raila person, but an Uhuru person supporting the former’s presidential bid.
“We did out best, paid the price and that election is finished, nothing we can do about it”.
He thought that Raila was the best person to take forward Uhuru’s vision, but the reality is that it didn’t happen and Jubilee party has to reckon with the new realities. Uhuru, he says has moved on and is busy with his role as Congo DRC peace mediator, and Mt Kenya leaders must also seek to drive their agenda with those now in government. “The new reality is that Ruto is President and Rigathi is DP, and by default the seniormost Mt Kenya leader in government.
“The development projects we thought we could pursue under a Raila government have now to be pursued under President Ruto,” he states with finality. He says Gachagua can leverage his position to consolidate his position and secure support of people across Mt Kenya. So, is it all about supporting Gachagua rather than Ruto? Wambugu dismisses that as a simplistic question. For him it’s not about either of the two because the positions they hold could even have been taken by another pair, but the reality of political competition in Kenya, where ethnic or regional interests hold sway. Wambugu concedes that the DP does have to consolidate his position, being keenly aware that he was not the first choice of the Mt Kenya UDA brigade.
Indeed, it is evident that as those crossing over from Azimio signal support for Gachagua, a significant lot in UDA who were with Ruto from day one and owe their loyalty directly to him seem not as enthusiastic.
Figures such as Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichung’wa, Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro and Cabinet Secretaries Moses Kuria (Trade), Mithika Linturi (Agriculture) and Kithure Kindiki (Interior) might not say it openly, but they might feel that the DP is a Johnny-come-lately who got Ruto’s nod ahead of others who had been in his corner much longer.
Kindiki actually beat Gachagua in an internal poll for the running-mate slot but had to grudgingly accept Ruto’s prerogative. Nyoro is emerging as a future contender for leadership, and his social media pages are filled with salutations from fans hailing him as the next big thing for Mt Kenya and the presidency.
Those are the kind of figures who could be waiting in the wings if Ruto and Gachagua fall out. But as Ruto himself knew, he could openly defy the president, build a rival power base and plot his own bid for power while still ensconced in the DPs official mansion.
The President and Deputy are tied at the hip, for the next five years at least.