We are the kingmakers; Mt Kenya tell Uhuru by voting for Ruto

President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nyeri

President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses wananchi in Othaya town, Nyeri County moments after commissioning Mwai Kibaki Hospital on August 6, 2022. 

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The Mountain has smashed the hackneyed myths against it. The most popular one is that the people can only vote for one of their own

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s political career started with rejection and rebellion and ended in rebellion and rejection.

Uhuru was thrust into the limelight as a presidential project that failed spectacularly and is exiting with a presidential project of his own that was lukewarmly received by his Mt Kenya backyard.

Both occasions resulted in decimation of a ruling party; first Kanu and now Jubilee.

The one thing that is not in doubt after the August 9 elections is that the Kenyatta hegemony in Mt Kenya has come to a humiliating end, at least for now. Uhuru, the retiring bearer of the founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s political totem, has been rejected by his own people. This is the unmistakable message from the voter turnout, and the voting pattern. 

Uhuru arrived on the scene as a young man of 36, in 1997, when President Daniel arap Moi plucked him from obscurity and appointed him chairman of the Thika branch of the then ruling party, Kanu. Within the space of five years (1997 to 2001), Moi had made him chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board and the National Disaster Emergency Response Committee. He nominated him to Parliament, and appointed him Minister for Local Government. In 2002, Moi proposed that he should succeed him as President of Kenya. 

The mountain first embraced the thought, then just as quickly abandoned it. The announcement in Kapsakwony, Western Kenya, was initially greeted with the celebratory greeting of, “He is one of us. He is from home”. The patronymic of Kamwana (the scion) emerged, to signify his Kenyatta parentage. But then a rebellion changed things swiftly. 

Mr Raila Odinga, who had just been elected secretary-general of Kanu, led a rebellious team from the party in protest against the Uhuru-for-President Project. To neutralise the emergent Kikuyu excitement around Uhuru, Raila endorsed Mwai Kibaki for president. 

In the subsequent election, Uhuru suffered his second rejection by his Kikuyu people. They voted overwhelmingly for Kibaki, who went on to become president for two terms. The first rejection of Uhuru had been in 1997, when he lost the race for Gatundu South constituency to the little-known Moses Mwihia.

In June 2004, the Gema grand patron, Njenga Karume, who had stood with him so far, abandoned him to take up a Cabinet position in the Kibaki government. And in November 2005, a lonely Uhuru would join Raila and other Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leaders to reject President Kibaki’s draft constitution that was almost exclusively voted for by the Mt Kenya region in a referendum. 

Uhuru quickly understood that it was time to return home. He did so in 2006, when he abandoned Kanu and announced that he would support Kibaki’s quest for a second term. His rehabilitation had begun. The post-election violence of 2007/08 accelerated his recognition as the next big name in Mt Kenya politics. 

Kibaki would appoint him deputy prime minister in the coalition government, which placed him ahead of other politicians from the Mountain, among them Martha Karua and George Saitoti. A succession of Gema patriarch meetings in Limuru saw him declared the Mt Kenya spokesperson. The then powerful Internal Security minister John Michuki declared, “If you want to do business with us, talk to Uhuru, the son of Kenyatta. If you are not with Uhuru, we will finish you politically.”

This endorsement was significant. It would transform Uhuru from Kamwana into Mutongoria, and crush the prospects of Karua, Saitoti and a dozen other pretenders to the throne. Prof Saitoti would die in a plane crash in 2012, while Karua would contest and lose the presidency twice against Uhuru in 2013 and 2017. Now united in Azimio, Karua and Uhuru are up against a familiar frenemy in Ruto. 

If the 2007/8 post-election violence helped Uhuru leapfrog the queue to the throne, his indictment by the International Criminal Court at The Hague certified his credentials as the king of the mountain. Together with Ruto who was also indicted, the pair would mount a juggernaut of a campaign that overwhelmed local and international pressure to win the presidency in 2013 and again in 2017. The threat of incarceration in a foreign land and the motivation for self-preservation gave Uhuru a perfect grievance to rally the Mountain behind him, and the people responded almost to a man. Uhuru Kenyatta, who only nine years earlier had been a Moi project, now emerged as a People’s Project. And boy, did the people stand up for their project! Between 2013 and 2017, Uhuru was president and the Mountain was in power.

You only needed to listen to radio, watch television or scour social media to see how the people zealously protected him. An attack on Uhuru became a slur against the people of the Mountain. Uhuru’s presidency excited deep loyalty, and ethnic nationalism in the Mountain more than any other leader in recent history. 

This was more evident in the two elections of 2017, when even the sick and dying were wheeled to vote for him. While the motivation to secure the presidency in 2013 was to save Uhuru’s neck from the ICC, in 2017 the stimulus was to protect the community from being subsumed by an imminent Mr Odinga’s ‘anti-business’ and ‘anti-Kikuyu’ government. 

Five years later, Uhuru has found himself in rejection, once again. The Mountain people who made him are dismantling him. In March 2018, he made peace with Raila, in what has come be known commonly as the handshake. The handshake ended tensions between the two adversaries, but it has alienated him from his core allies; Ruto and the Mountain. Perhaps buoyed by double election victory, Uhuru sought to make peace with his bitter rival, but forgot that the community mandate to lead them was not absolute. 

For many years, the Mountain has been the bulwark of political support and energy for the Kenyattas. When they have spoken, the Mountain has listened. In 1965 the Mountain people disbelieved Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who agitated against Jomo’s government for their land rights. They instead believed Jomo, who told them that Jaramogi’s focus was on a political power grab, grabbing power from the Kikuyu. Jaramogi was bad for their community. In 2013 and 2017 Uhuru amplified the same message.

Thanks to the handshake, Jomo’s son has been telling the people of the Mountain that Jaramogi’s son is good for the community. They have not trusted him. Some simply refused to come out to vote. Others came out to vote against his designs. Not even in his own home station of Mutomo in Gatundu South, nor in Martha Karua’s home station, did Raila beat the UDA presidential candidate William Ruto. The people have voted overwhelmingly for Ruto and his UDA candidates. Also rejected was his effort to hoist upon the community Karua as the next voice of the Mountain. 

The voter turnout in the Mountain has been the lowest since the return of multiparty democracy in 1991, standing at just about 52 per cent of the eligible registered voters. In the past, the region has registered up to 90 per cent voter turnout. In an extraordinary case, there was an upwards of 100 per cent turnout in Tharaka-Nithi is 2007.

Hence, the turnout and the number of votes cast for Raila and Karua speak rather loudly about the people’s rejection of the Kenyatta supremacy, with Uhuru as the last of the trustees of this dominion in Mt Kenya. The people have reclaimed their supremacy and are telling Uhuru, “we are the king makers, not eternal subjects”. 

The Mountain is, in the process, smashing hackneyed myths against it. It is recreating itself in the sight of the rest of the Kenyan nation. First, is the myth that the people of the Mountain can only vote for one of their own. If they wanted the presidency so badly, nothing could have stopped them from positioning a person to rally behind, the same way they made Uhuru their man. By massively voting for the UDA and Deputy President Ruto, they have debunked this myth.

The other myth is that the people of the Mountain are not grateful to those who have supported them. It originates from the fallout in the 1960s, between Jaramogi and Jomo, that led to the latter’s detention without trial over ideological differences. Then came the fallout between Kibaki and Raila after the euphoria of 2002 and now lamentations of betrayal between Uhuru and Ruto. 

As the Mt Kenya people go on to reconstruct their image, President Uhuru will be reckoning with the reality that he has also powered the only other national party to its deathbed. Like a deadbeat dad, Uhuru ignored Jubilee until early this year when he positioned it as a special vehicle to manage his succession under the Azimio Alliance. The party was cannibalised by internal strife that saw Ruto walk away with many officials and members. Ruto would aggressively market UDA as a vehicle for Mt Kenya’s path to power, while the president preached the handshake. 

It is a herald of bad times for the Kenyatta hegemony. The dominion must go back to the drawing boards where Moi, Kibaki and Michuki found Uhuru to crown him a leader. This may take decades, but it will surely happen. Dynasties never die. They only lie dormant.

In finding another totem bearer, the Kenyattas will have to reckon with the legacy of Uhuru. I was in Gatundu on election day and the morning after. There are those who think that the Kenyattas have been good for them. They helped them to engage in commerce and employed them in their vast businesses. They look at the Uhuru exit with nostalgia. Yet there are many others who are indifferent. They cannot cite anything useful that they believe they gained from the Kenyattas. Some accuse Uhuru of bringing down their businesses. They are happy he is going away.

Uhuru has previously soared after failure. Twice he has risen from rejection, it remains to seen how he will flourish in retirement after the latest snub by his own.