I am standing on a hill, Western gunslinger style, looking down on Mutuati township, 300 kilometres north east of Nairobi. It’s a hard, one-street frontier town on the arid border between Isiolo and Meru counties. I’m not the only newcomer here—the tarmac road appears out of place too. It is covered in clay from the surrounding countryside where tarmac—and other comforts of development taken for granted elsewhere—is as alien as honesty in politics.
Like the lips of local men, a juice of green foliage covers the land; desert fauna is quick on the draw. When the first drops of rain fall, it explodes in growth and accomplishes in three weeks what it takes plants in wetter, more secure climes three months to do.
“This is the end of Meru,” a man tells me. “Two kilometres from here, there is nothing. It’s a no-man’s land. The Turkana, Borana and ourselves use it as an open grazing land.”
I understand what he means. For him, Meru is the world. This is also the furthest frontier of what in politics is called the Mt Kenya region. I have driven from Gikambura in Thogoto, a few minutes West of Karen in Nairobi, across the mighty county of Kiambu, into Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Embu, Tharaka Nithi and finally here in the northern reaches of Meru County. I am on an assignment that is neither journalism nor anthropology: I am not doing research, I am not collecting evidence. I am merely climbing into the political bath called Mt Kenya and living among the people who will decide who becomes your next President. Like a lizard on the wall, I will taste the air and tell you what it smells like.
Open and chatty
Though I am openly taking notes and photos of the general area, I don’t ask anyone’s name and I don’t take anyone’s picture. The people are friendly. The men around me are open and chatty, they walk with me around the town. “We love visitors,” they tell me. Which is true. They are also plainspoken, honest but quick to take offence, and giving offence in Mutuati, as in all of Meru, is an eventuality one is best advised to avoid at all costs.
Hanging across the street is a red election banner for the local MP, Mr Maoka Maore. On the banner are two photos, one of Mr Maore and the other of Azimio la Umoja presidential candidate Raila Odinga, a rarity from Mutuati to Gikambura in Kiambu at the time I visited in early May. Candidates avoided too strong an association with Mr Odinga because, at the time, the ground was United Democratic Alliance (UDA). Mr Maore was among a few hardy politicians perhaps with a firm enough grip on the electorate to be competitive irrespective of party affiliation. By contrast, looking at the posters of the UDA-allied candidates, one was hard pressed to figure out whether it was Mr Ruto or the other fellow running.
Mr Ruto politically took over the mountain. The question on everyone’s mind as the election bears down on us is how secure his grip is in the face of Mr Odinga’s calculated assault.
Moses Kuria, the MP for Gatundu South, is a controversial, sometimes violent, rogue of a man. After verbally assaulting a journalist, the media stopped covering him. But he is a good student of Mt Kenya politics with a delightfully descriptive turn of phrase, perhaps the only of the many people I spoke to that I care to quote.
“When he was running against Raila, Uhuru was like a farmer with a garden of 7.5 million votes. All he needed to do was go out and harvest. Raila was a hunter-gatherer. He had to collect a little here and a little there from the entire country. That is what William Ruto saw here.”
In opinion polls, which you may or may not trust, Mr Odinga is more popular in six of the nine electoral regions while Mr Ruto is popular in three—Central Rift, Mt Kenya and Northern. The slippery slope that Mr Ruto must ski is keeping a persistent Mr Odinga away—and getting selfish folks out to vote. Mr Odinga, by the way, is no longer a walkover in the region.
The political map of Kenya is a patchwork of ethnic voting blocks the integrity of which is maintained even in the urban areas. It does not matter where in the country a Kenyan tribesman lives, he travels with the political choices of his tribe. In raw, native terms, the Embu, Meru and Kikuyu home counties have 4,453,108 votes on the roll this election, but they are also fairly migratory and contribute a sizeable chunk of the votes in other counties such as Nakuru, which has a million votes, and Nairobi (2,415,310). Other tribes, including the large ones, have about two million votes, give or take, as Mr Kuria pointed out in our conversation. It is a disgusting feature of Kenyan realpolitik that we are electorally organised around tribes, no matter the issues.
Kiambu has distributed its 1.2 million votes unevenly among its 12 sub-counties: Kikuyu, Kabete, Limuru, Kiambaa, Kiambu (covering the township), Ruiru, Juja, Githunguri, Lari, Gatundu South, Gatundu North and Thika Town. Ruiru is the biggest vote basket in the county, with 172,088 votes. Kiambu is rock shaped, irregular; but if it were human, Kikuyu would form the crown of its head with the hair touching Kajiado, Lari its rump, Ruiru its stomach and Thika its legs.
Gikambura sits on the Southern Bypass and you can’t miss it if driving to Kikuyu from Karen, a manifestation of Kiambu’s socio-economic indecision: the giant can’t quite make up its mind whether it is a town or a sheep-skin hat wearing villager. So it swings both ways: folks are generally well-to-do and exposed but in their political attitudes and perceptions, there is little to distinguish them from their brothers in Nyandarua, in the depths of the Aberdares.
The infrastructure in Gikambura is first-class, no difference with what you see in the middle income estates of Nairobi. The shopping centres have petrol stations, supermarkets, salons and cafes which are every bit as good as what you would find on Outer Ring Road or any other part of the city. As you exit the over-pass, there is a huge empty field with views of the Southern ByPass, Thogoto and other scenic parts. On any day, you will find locals parked, getting some air and taking in the view and a break from hectic lives. I was also told it is called “the field of swaying cars”.
Everyone in Gikambura, it would seem, is either running on a Kenya Kwanza ticket or some party which somehow is associated with Mr Ruto. Of course, it is also a fairly cosmopolitan population and in some ways an extension of the city. Mr Odinga is expected to do better in Kiambu than other parts of Mt Kenya but hardly because of the local vote.
The people here, as in all parts of the region, are feeling the weight of the cost of living. I hang out with some young people who had been spending a lot of time in the home of the local Member of County Assembly, who is seeking re-election, in the hope that he could help them find a job or start a business.
The depths of Gatundu
I drove with my colleague, Mr Simon Ciuri, on Kenyatta Road, off Thika Superhighway and into Gatundu and Icaweri, the seat of the Kenyatta family. We visited Mama Ngina University, a relatively small facility that the family is developing for the community and in honour of the matriarch of the Kenyatta clan, Mama Ngina Kenyatta. The community does not seem to see the point of it, they would have preferred a hospital.
We slow down to admire a beautiful new church in the Kenyatta homestead, apparently built for the wedding of one of the President’s children. On the opposite side of the road is half-destroyed structure as the area is being cleared, amid some controversy, to expand security services for the estate and the area.
Gatundu town is a typical rural town, abuzz with campaign convoys and market goers. Lunch is a strange mixture, as food usually is in Kikuyuland. I ordered githeri—ordinarily a mix of maize, beans and, if you are lucky, vegetables—but the Gatundu edition had more rice than githeri. Tea was a weak, sacrilegious mix of water, milk and a floating teabag. In my view, a whole community has organised itself against food and its enjoyment.
“The voice of the Muthamaki rings in one’s ears for a long time,” a man tells us in the street. We had walked over to two men on the roadside and started talking politics. We had asked whether if President Kenyatta made a direct appeal to his constituency to support Mr Odinga they would listen to him.
The answer showed the cognitive dissonance among some of the voters. On the one hand the defiance of their leader is unfamiliar territory, on the other, there is the heady, exhilarating excitement of rebellion and the pull of Mr Ruto and his political message. They are unhappy about the President’s “deserting” them, that he did not keep his promise to Mr Ruto (though political promises are routinely broken in Mt Kenya without the peasantry taking up arms) and the high cost of living.
“We are the Kikuyu,” a second man says emphatically, “the way to our hearts, is through our pocket.” And the first man nods in emphatic agreement.
The refrain of “Nyama Kima” is also repeated to support the allegation that President Kenyatta has destroyed Kikuyu businesses, referring to small shops in Nairobi’s River Road district which stocked imported, largely untaxed goods. Traders could rent space in shipping containers, meaning that you did not need large volumes to import directly from manufacturers. It was convenient, and possibly lucrative, for regular people to buy goods in China and share a container and the freight costs.
The small people became collateral damage in a bigger conflict. Big businessmen, politicians and civil servants were also importing shiploads of goods, some which may have been counterfeits, and then with minimal taxation. When the crackdown came, there were protests that this was political revenge, but generally and in fairness, the importation of counterfeit and uncustomed goods was never going to be a sustainable business.
The biggest folly in politics is the expectation that things will remain the same. They don’t: things change. Political loyalties fade and affiliations break down. Perhaps the only remarkable thing is the speed of change and the depth of feelings and the widespread impact.
“This is the biggest wave of protest politics ever. It is sheer rebellion. People are looking for someone to bring down,” a Kenya Kwanza politician explains to me. He blames President Kenyatta, whom he accuses of creating a vacuum by withdrawing from the public. “He has always been a politician but all of a sudden, he hated politics, he saw it as dirty. He stopped moving around and started talking down and wagging his finger at the people. The people are hurting but if you can’t give them money or food, give them love.”
In his analysis, the President left the goal unguarded and Mr Ruto played, brilliantly. “Ruto gave them love. He conned those people. He discovered that they were abandoned and he gave them all his attention. He allowed them access to his Karen residence, he demystified leadership, he mentored and gave a platform to young politicians like Ndindi Nyoro; it’s all about love,” the politician argues.
But the uniformity of grievances against Mr Kenyatta, the strength of feelings against him and the relatively short period that it took him to fall out of favour all suggest that there is a common source of his political misfortunes.
The strong anti-pathy against Mr Kenyatta is mainly a central Kenya phenomenon. In other parts of the Mt Kenya region, local issues and Mr Ruto’s campaign are the key drivers of his popularity. Back in Mutuati, the people are good natured but politically independent minded. They love young, broke, headstrong leaders. When they call you gacamba you know you have touched their hearts.
The Meru are one tribe, occupying two counties—Meru and Tharaka Nithi—and speaking one language which, however, has six dialects corresponding to the main subtribes: Tharaka, Chuka, Mwimbi, Imenti, Tigania and Igembe.
The Tharaka, Chuka and Mwimbi occupy Tharaka Nithi county and Prof Kithure Kindiki is the dominant political force. Support for Kenya Kwanza in that county is consequently quite strong. The Imenti, Tigania and Igembe populate Meru County, the second richest vote basket in the Mt Kenya region after Kiambu. Over the last 10 years, Mr Ruto has been to every village and hamlet in this part of the county, including Mutuati, the back of beyond.
“He parked on the same spot you have parked,” the villagers told me.
But there is also plenty of admiration and affection for Mr Odinga, whom the people consider a ncamba, a tough guy. Here in Igembe, the neighbouring Tigania and Buuri ward in Imenti Central, Mr Ruto’s advantage is likely to be significantly diluted, mainly through the activities of local leaders.
Conspiracies in Kirinyaga
Kirinyaga is the land of spychiefs (having produced two) for a reason. The folks are intelligent, but also very subtle. Former State House controller Matere Keriri is the archetypal Kirinyaga man: clever, conspiratorial, driven. It is not by accident that, despite being a small county in comparative terms, Kirinyaga punches way above its weight in the Central Kenya league.
I stopped to look at a big, charred billboard of Governor Ann Waiguru which had been set on fire. I had not seen this phenomenon anywhere else. Here passions run deep. There are three outsize political personalities in this county, all women—Ms Waiguru, Azimio running mate Martha Karua and Mrs Wangui Ngirici . And somewhere below the surface is Interior Principal Secretary Dr Karanja Kibicho; clever, subtle, driven. It would not be surprising if the real conflict that is going to be resolved in this election is largely between the homegirl made good, Ms Waiguru, and “I’m rich but still one of you, Wangui”, Ms Ngirici, whom you might find in a market arranging piles of tomatoes, collecting the views of locals. I think Kirinyaga is the one county where the national races—in this case UDA—are beneficiaries of local dynamics and powerful personalities.
Embu is a land of two closely allied dialects and sub-tribes and a million stubborn women. The wetter, more productive areas are occupied by the collective simply known as the Embu while the drier, hotter lower parts are home to the Mbeere. I went to school in Mbeere and for me this is home. It is not unusual, 30 years later, to find me sitting at a shopping centre in Karurumo, Kanyuambora, Ishiara, Kiritiri or Siakago, soaking up the heat and letting the conversation wash over me.
Sometimes the language comes back and I can speak semi-fluently. One day during the party nominations I was relaxing outside a butchery in Ishiara, taking a rest and idly watching the goings-on as campaign motorcade after motorcade swept by, loudspeakers blaring.
“Is there another party in Embu, other than UDA?,” I asked the butchery owner. “No,” he said, matter of factly.
To understand the current politics of Embu is to understand the current politics of Mt Kenya, Mr Ruto’s take-over and Mr Odinga’s later-but-resurgent entry into the region.
In my culture, tribal law is more powerful than the Constitution. You can go to the High Court and win a land case and never set foot on it. Our traditions provide that a boy belongs to his father and his uncle. What this means is that if your father is deceased, your mother’s brothers shall take over the responsibility of raising you and guiding you through life.
I use this facility surgically and so I called my uncle, who has been in business and politics in the county for more than 40 years. He stepped out of church, an honour, to give me the benefit of decades of observation, experience and analysis, all delivered in flawless, perfectly enunciated English.
It’s not terribly new, but it is not from the echo chamber, it is from the ground: the current environment is the culmination of the electoral politics of the last three elections, particularly the last two. Jubilee won Mt Kenya by creating a bogeyman, a frightful being that scared an electorate motivated largely by fear, to come out and defeat Mr Odinga. Secondly, the Kenyatta succession did not start last year, it probably started before the swearing-in guests caught their flights home.
Mr Ruto did not intend to succeed Mr Kenyatta as President only, he also succeeded him as the Mt Kenya political kingpin. It may well be that people are looking to anoint a successor to a throne which is already occupied.
He went to church
Communities in this region, as in the Rift Valley, are deeply religious and the bishop or pastor provides guidance in all matters, including political choices. Mr Ruto understood the extent to which politics in the mountain is commercialised; he poured money into the church. Donations for church projects, cars for church leaders and cash gifts. He attended multiple church services every Sunday. He assiduously, almost obsessively, courted the clergy. The church converted the people.
In 2017, getting the Jubilee ticket was the election. By ensuring as many of his supporters as possible were on the ticket, Mr Ruto built an army in different elective positions, which he mobilised and put to work, touring the region nearly daily in what President Kenyatta famously described as kutangatanga.
Once the people were fully converted, the remaining leaders panicked and followed them. In Embu any leader you could think of—Governor Nyaga Wambora, Lenny Kivuti, Senator Njeru Ndwiga, Cecily Mbarire, Speaker Justin Muturi—is in Kenya Kwanza.
My interlocutor, a natural-born politician, concludes his analysis with an optimistic flourish. “Raila will rule. He only needs a few of our votes, and he has them. Those who are older than 40 will vote for him, those younger will not, but it is enough.”
He is in Azimio. His wife, a UDA die-hard, has a somewhat different perspective.