Why Kalonzo, Musalia and Wetang’ula were bound to skip event

From left: Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana, Nasa co-leaders Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang'ula address a press conference concerning a grenade found at My Musyoka's home on January 31, 2018. Mr Musyoka wants a shot at the presidency in 2022 but lacks fully bankable votes. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Musalia and Wetang’ula know that the Luhya are not going to support either of them with the emotional intensity of Raila’s base.
  • My read is that the momentum is now with the Nasa's increasingly radicalised supporters.

What happened on the 30th of January, 2018? Did Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetang’ula, and Musalia Mudavadi bail out of the National Super Alliance swearing in ceremony after a fall-out with Raila Odinga?

The three missing-in-action (MIA) principals artfully described their own disappearance as ‘incomprehensible’, a curious word with which to describe an action that one has voluntarily taken.

This Houdini act won’t kill Nasa but it exposes what careful choreography has so far hidden.

There are serious cracks between the three MIAs and Mr Odinga, Nasa’s uncontested leader.

That there are such cracks is not a surprise but that it has taken this long for them to appear shows how disciplined Nasa has been.

What is the source of these rifts, though?

Two issues I suggest: One, the different personalities of the principals; and two, goal incompatibility between the future ambitions of the three MIAs and the current political interests of Mr Odinga.

Mr Odinga has been toughened by protest politics; long periods in fetid dungeons and stretches of life in exile.

He is a curious blend of cold pragmatism and almost naïve idealism, so that he is able to move from hard-nosed, almost cynical deal-making to unyielding brinkmanship.


His political mistakes arise because he sometimes trusts too much those he shouldn’t and trusts too little those he should, a trait he shares with his main adversary Mr Uhuru Kenyatta.

Mr Kalonzo Musyoka and Mr Musalia Mudavadi are alike in many ways.

They have been vice-presidents and they assert more ambition than they seem able to exert.

They are affable, seemingly non-threatening and give the impression of seeking the path of least resistance to the presidency.

Both know that they need the block-vote that Mr Odinga brings if either is to be a front-runner in 2022.


But given the tenuous hold that each has on his political base back home, each knows that he has no room for the high-stake gambles that Mr Odinga so joyously embraces.

Mr Odinga has something akin to a social contract with his base. Mr Mudavadi and Mr Musyoka live on a daily plebiscite.

Mr Moses Wetang’ula never gives the impression that he can forge the sort of alliances that a would-be president needs to be a viable candidate.

He seems able to persuade people but not to inspire them.

He is able to reach out to them but not to cultivate their loyalty.

The sort of politician that a reasonably large number of people might say they admire but very few will say they trust.


His now-on and now-off relationship with Mr Mudavadi often makes him look gratuitously abrasive.

The sort, as the old saying goes, that would blow off Musalia’s candle even if it did not make his own shine brighter.

These pen portraits suggest, then, that the only person with the stomach for hardball was always Mr Odinga.

The other three may have had the stomach for the talk but they certainly did not have feet for the walk, literally.

The massive outpouring on social media after the ‘swearing-in’ shows that many Nasa supporters see things this way too.

Yet behind the personality differences, there are also diverging interests and fears.

Mr Odinga has run for president four times now: 1997, 2007, 2013 and 2017.

Though he lost in all four, the scale and nature of the illegalities in 2007 and 2013 were massive.

Mr Odinga was entirely right to say these were rigged against him.

The last one in 2017 was nullified, principally for illegalities that mirrored those in 2007 and 2013.


Mr Odinga must feel that it probably is the case that his chance at the presidency is now gone and he must do all he can to correct an injustice that he fears will recur, again and again.

He does not want to have lost these elections in vain.

The impunity of his adversaries and the vagaries of age have spurred him to take risks he otherwise would not.

The other three principals are worried about being viable candidates in 2022, not legacy.

Though they crave Mr Odinga’s mass appeal, they fear that the risks that he wants them to take will destroy them in their home base and give wing to their opponents.


They will have noticed that Mr Odinga is the only non-elected politician whose career has thrived since the new constitution came into force.

Mr Kalonzo knows that his political career has survived, in part, on the satellite effect, of his nearness to Mr Odinga in 2013 and again in 2017.

After the misery of the 2013 electoral failure in western Kenya, Mr Mudavadi must owe some of his new political shine to cultural rehabilitation by Luhya elders who controversially anointed him spokesman for the community over the elected leaders who thought themselves better qualified.

There is another factor in play: Devolution.

The ample resources that have gone to counties have positioned governors as alternative centres of power to the Nasa principals in all but Mr Odinga’s backyard.


Mr Odinga has done what no other politician has done in the post-2010 era, that is to say, worked his political base so skilfully that his leadership and authority are not questioned.

Unfortunately, none of the three — Kalonzo, Wetang’ula and Mudavadi — has any real hold on their home base.

For all his longevity in Kamba politics, Kalonzo is running out of time.

He wants a shot at the presidency in 2022 but lacks fully bankable votes.

Last year, he endured a bruising internal revolt in his Wiper party that he seemed oddly unable to contain.


His unsteady hold on his Kamba base is threatened by new competitors: the soft-spoken, easy to underestimate Governor of Makueni, Prof Kivutha Kibwana and the snazzy, self-promoting governor of Machakos Alfred Mutua.

Kalonzo wants to seem like a strong national leader, but his feet of clay back home warn that his competitors will pounce and destroy him in a jiffy at any reckless mistakes he makes.

It is easy to see why Kalonzo might see a fence as a good place to sit.

Musalia and Wetang’ula know that the Luhya are not going to support either of them with the emotional intensity of Raila’s base.


By now the two must see that the chronic electoral divisions of Luhya sub-groups have perennially denied the community the political clout that its numbers say it should have.

Unfortunately, whenever talk of Luhya unity arises each of the politicians thinks they are the best qualified, feeding the very split they abjured in the first place.

In 2017, Musalia and Wetang’ula came together and seemed to have made the beginnings of that unity.

The vote still split and Jubilee walked away with a quarter of the region’s thirty-three parliamentary seats.

Leading a fickle constituency as the two clearly do does not encourage high-risk politics.

Meaning that even as Mr Wetang’ula and Mr Mudavadi pine for the Odinga vote, they will not take risks that might immolate their careers at home.


And as with Kalonzo, devolution has also bred new competitors for Musalia and Wetang’ula.

By 2022, the two won’t necessarily be the western region’s frontrunners.

But if these are the sorts of games in which the Nasa principals are nested, how can the party survive?

My read is that the momentum is now with the party’s increasingly radicalised supporters.


Though Kalonzo, Musalia and Wetang’ula have shown timidity unworthy of their earlier rhetoric, in the coming days they will experience enough rebuke from their constituents to drive them back to Mr Odinga’s hardline position.

Thinking back, it is more likely that the three stayed away more from fear of being outflanked by their opponents and competitors back home than as a response to pressure from their base.

This could prove costly. The crowd that massed at Uhuru Park had come to see their leaders.

They saw only two: Mr Odinga and Mr Ali Hassan Joho.

There is some old advice that bears repeating.

In politics never promise to do anything that you lack the nerve to do.

If you do and then fail to, your supporters will never again take you seriously.


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