Unease in Mt Kenya as Uhuru Kenyatta's term ends

Nairobi Expressway

President Uhuru Kenyatta during the commissioning of the Nairobi Expressway on July 31, 2022.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Down the escarpment towards Murang’a to the coffee plantations in Nyeri, the rice fields of Kirinyaga and further afield to the rocky drylands of Laikipia, Mt Kenya is restless and the King’s crown is on the line.

He ascended to power in 2013 bearing the title of ‘muthamaki; loosely translated as king or saviour, but now President Uhuru Kenyatta has become an object of scorn and derision among the very people who once put him on a lofty pedestal.

“Sometimes I feel like Uhuru was stupefied into doing the deal with Raila,” says Mrs Suzana Muthoni, 80, from her roadside vegetable stall at Kiharu in Murang’a, in reference to President Kenyatta’s decision to dump his deputy of two terms and instead back the presidential bid of bitter foe-turned-ally, veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga.

But for Mr Joshua Wambugu, 70, President Kenyatta was betrayed by people he trusted would help him govern, which forced him to reach out to Mr Odinga.

“The Michukis of today are not helping the president,” argues Mr Wambugu, who is secretary of Rui Ruiru coffee factory in Mathira, Nyeri, referring to the no-nonsense Internal Security minister John Michuki who was a bulwark of President Kibaki’s government and publicly endorsed Mr Kenyatta as the leader of the Gikuyu in the Muranga meeting of 2011.

Mau Mau

Ms Muthoni, who says she fought in the Mau Mau freedom war, however, says it doesn’t matter who is elected President if only the cost of living would come down.

“Who will vote for them (leaders) if we are killed by hunger,” she laments, citing the high cost of living that has emerged from various surveys as the most pressing concern for Kenyans, prompting President Kenyatta recently to intervene to lower the price of maize flour.

It’s a concern shared by Ms Beatrice Wairimu, 40, who is optimistic that Dr Ruto’s bottom-up economic model that advocates for more funding to small businesses will improve fortunes.

“Let us try Ruto. His hustler vision has potential,” says the mother of four who insists the region should show gratitude for Dr Ruto’s support of President Kenyatta by voting for him.

Uhuru said kumi yangu na kumi ya Ruto (Ten years for me, ten years for Ruto) so what changed? Unless he gives a convincing reason why he dumped Ruto I am repaying the debt by voting for Ruto,” adds Mr John Ngethe from Laikipia.

But his neighbour, Ms Loise Wangui, disagrees. “Azimio is our only hope to fight corruption,” she says, a view that resonates too with Mr Wambugu in Nyeri.

“Martha is a distinguished lady of Kenyan politics. She can fight corruption, together with Raila they make a good team,” Mr Wambugu argues of the Azimio running mate, former Justice minister Martha Karua.

“Over the past 60 years, we have had leaders who have only been lining their pockets. We want a leader who thinks about the ordinary person; ensures food security, a proper education system and health care for all,” he adds.

It wasn’t always like this. The region often defended its own — President Kibaki was a beneficiary in four elections and his successor, President Uhuru Kenyatta, banked on the vote-rich stronghold to ascend to power in 2013 and to defend his State House tenancy twice in 2017.

But the August 9 presidential vote has sprung an unfamiliar circumstance — for the first time since the return to multiparty elections in 1992, there is no major-party presidential candidate from the region.

Instead, voters are split between two candidates who have at different times been objects of fear and loathing from the region.

In less than two weeks, President Kenyatta will know whether he has played the ultimate trump card.

The outcome of the vote will determine whether he will triumph in retirement or endure the humiliation his political mentor President Daniel Moi underwent in 2002 when crowds hurled mud balls at him during handover of power to President Kibaki after voters rejected his preferred successor, Mr Kenyatta.

The dilemma he finds himself in is a remarkable turn in fortunes in a decade he had an iron grip on the region’s political direction.

On March 28, 2011, Mr Kenyatta gave a passionate address in Muranga that rallied the community and ultimately set off events that would lead to his election as President in 2013.

Beside Mr Kenyatta as he was installed the leader of the Gikuyu was Mr Ruto, whom he praised repeatedly for whipping his Rift Valley behind him to stress the need to unite Mt Kenya.

Mr Kenyatta recounted the region’s politics that had seen President Kibaki re-elected with a minority of MPs at the disputed 2007election, as he led in the ‘Muranga Declaration’, a threat that whoever betrayed the community’s interests in the campaign to succeed President Kibaki in 2013 would be deemed a traitor and consigned to political obscurity.

At the charged meeting, convened 10 days before Mr Kenyatta’s initial appearance at the International Criminal Court (ICC), he revisited the 2007 post-election violence, saying he had no grudge with a region, as his only problem was with an individual, ODM leader Odinga.

An elder who crowned Mr Kenyatta also tapped into the symbolism of the venue, explaining it hosted a meeting that facilitated Mr Jomo Kenyatta, upon his release from prison in 1961, to rise to MP for Kigumo — he would later become Prime Minister and country’s founding President- after the then representative Kariuki Njiiri relinquished the parliamentary seat.

Fast forward to days to next week’s polls and quite poignantly the Muranga declaration Mr Kenyatta orchestrated is coming back to haunt him with a rebellion in Mt Kenya fuelled by his renegade deputy, Dr Ruto, and resistance to his backing of Mr Odinga as his preferred successor.

Like the violent tectonic shifts, the region is in the middle of a vicious tussle for the occupancy of State House between Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga, as well as another power struggle for community leadership revolving around their respective running mates, Mr Rigathi Gachagua and Ms Karua.

Gema meetings

Such is the lack of consensus that Gema meetings of the past that chart the region’s political direction, the last being Limuru II conference that handed the mantle to Mr Kenyatta as the Kibaki succession heat up, never materialised this time.

Preparations for Limuru III became a cropper as the initial proponents —Ms Karua, Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria and former Laikipia East MP Mwangi Kiunjuri  who had organised themselves under Mt Kenya Unity Forum — went separate ways.

Moneyed tycoons under Mt Kenya Foundation endorsed Mr Odinga, a man they had fundraised in past elections to halt his ascendancy to power, as did the president’s allies like MPs Kanini Kega (Kieni), Ms Sabina Chege (Muranga woman rep), Maina Kamanda (nominated), Ngunjiri Wambugu (Nyeri Town) as well as governors Ndiritu Muriithi (Laikipia) and Francis Kimemia (Nyandarua).

First term MPs like Gachagua, Ndindi Nyoro (Kiharu), Alice Nganga (Kandara), their two-term colleagues like Kuria and Kimani Ichungwa (Kikuyu) as well as Governor Anne Waiguru have been Dr Ruto’s strong backers in the region.

The unease is palpable in the wider Mt Kenya’s nine counties — Laikipia, Embu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Muranga, Tharaka-Nithi, Meru, Kiambu and Nyandarua — that collectively have 4.8 million votes.

To residents, the vote is as much a referendum on President Kenyatta’s tenure — grievances around the high cost of living and his administration’s unpopular policies blamed for collapse of businesses are a pointer — as it is about president reneging on a political debt, his promise to back Dr Ruto.

Quite expectedly, President Kenyatta’s truce with Mr Odinga in 2018 and his subsequent endorsement of the ODM leader for high office has become a campaign issue, with the Head of State portraying it as insurance against electoral unrest that has hurt the community’s interests in businesses.

To the president’s supporters, the rapprochement also helped him govern during the second term in the face of the revolt by the DP’s camp but critics say it demonstrates the president’s double speak, questioning why he would dump Dr Ruto for Mr Odinga whom he vilified for years.

But Roots Party’s Prof George Wajakoyah is exciting some quarters too, perhaps vindicating recent opinion polls that placed his popularity nationally at four percent.

“Wajackoya is making sense. He has an agenda that is helpful to the common mwananchi,” suggests Mr James Mundia, 34, who had camped at an administrator’s office in Mathira, Nyeri, in search of bursary for his children.

“Raila and Ruto have been around for too long and have nothing new to offer,” he says dismissively, although adding the rider if asked to choose between the two he would rather Mr Odinga as “the old man loves praises and would therefore deliver”.

Opinion polls have consistently showed Dr Ruto’s presidential candidature is popular in the region while his United Democratic Alliance (UDA) is a hot ticket.

Nyeri Senate candidate Kabando wa Kabando believes Mr Odinga’s prospects have been boosted significantly by Ms Karua but reckons internal bickering is undermining their campaigns.

“Raila would have scored 40-50 per cent of the region’s vote were it not for hijacking of Azimio campaigns by clueless Jubilee Party honchos who seem extremely uncomfortable with Madam Karua. It's aggravated by domination of political players by blue-eyed civil servants hell-bent to impose their proxies and protégés on the 9th,” says Mr Kabando, a former Mukurweini MP who is vying for senator on Ms Karua’s Narc-Kenya party ticket.

“It's all about greed for campaign money and fears of reformist forces around Raila-Martha. They desire a Deputy President Martha Karua minus her loyal allies. Notwithstanding, and despite the fact that I remain sidelined in presidential campaigns, I remain steadfastly optimistic that Raila Odinga will triumph, enriched by Martha's integrity traits,” adds Mr Kabando.

Gaining traction

“However, we must first refresh and refocus a largely cacophonous presidential campaign, especially in this Mt Kenya region,” he says.

But Murang’a governor candidate Irungu Kang’ata dismissed as a fallacy suggestion that Azimio is gaining traction in the region.

“It hasn't. The opposite has happened. Latest Tifa poll shows Raila support has sunk to a low 18 per cent in Muranga County and DP support is on upward trajectory. Gachagua debate further eroded the Martha effect,” says Dr Kang’ata.

“Uhuru regime caused untold suffering in the region. Our economy sunk to new low. Businesses became overregulated. His decision to fight Ruto was seen by the community as exposing it to ridicule as treacherous and dishonest,” argues the UDA candidate.

“Uhuru cannot change anything and for a good reason. He is retiring. Politics by its very nature is forward looking. However much he will promise, he is going nowhere, no Mt Kenya voter can agree to this. We all know how power dynamics change once a president vacates office. A senator will be more powerful than a retired president,” Dr Kang’ata reckons.

With rivals branding the Odinga-Karua ticket a project of the outgoing president, in a strategy to tap into the resent that the incumbent attracts, Azimio backers have sought to project a counter narrative.

“This election is about integrity versus villains as it is about forces of Kanuism versus agents of reforms. It is not about Uhuru but about breaking the shackles of corruption and impunity, which only Raila/Martha ticket has a chance to do,” counters Mr Kabando.

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