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Kenya: Can William Ruto secure support from Mount Kenya in time for 2022?

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Tuesday, 27 July 2021 15:49, updated on Thursday, 29 July 2021 13:28

Deputy President William Ruto attends a church service in Karen, Nairobi, Kenya, August 13, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Ahead of general elections in Kenya slated for 9 August 2022, a curious change is taking place in the region of Mount Kenya. For the first time, a fairly new party - the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) - is gaining traction under the leadership of William Ruto. But will this be enough to ensure a fourth president comes out of the region? 

The Mount Kenya voting bloc comprises 10 out of 47 counties. In the next election that is set for 2022, the region is expected to play a critical role in the presidential vote.

Based on the 2017 figures from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Kenya had a voter population of 19.6 million. To win an election, a presidential candidate would need more than 9.8 million votes, if all voters were to take part in the poll. With the Mount Kenya region carrying the bulk of 5.3 million voters, a candidate who dominates this region is somewhat sure of a win.

But for the first time in 30 years, Mount Kenya is likely to face an election without a formidable candidate from the region.

With no Matiba, Kibaki or Kenyatta as a candidate for the next general election, Mount Kenya is torn.

Unlike what happened during the 2013 and 2017 polls – when counties backed parties that were led by a politician from the same region – there appears to be a shift in Mount Kenya.

For the first time, the UDA has gained traction with no regional leader at its helm. William Ruto, Kenya’s Deputy President – who fell out with President Uhuru Kenyatta in early 2018 during their second term – has managed to convince several elected leaders from Mount Kenya to join him.

Just recently, Gathoni Wambuchomba – a long-time defender of the president in central Kenya – shifted allegiance to back Ruto’s ‘Hustler nation’ movement. Wamuchomba is the woman representative from Kenyatta’s home county of Kiambu. She is the latest, in a growing list of elected leaders, to have expressed support for Ruto’s 2022 presidential bid saying “the ground has shifted”.

Kiruga Thuku, a local assembly representative from Nyeri County, recently performed a cover song (in native Kikuyu) in support of Ruto at a meeting of county assemblies of Mount Kenya.

“The promise was 10 years for Uhuru and 10 years for Ruto. He has built hospitals, churches…why are they jealous? We shall elect him.”

The legacy of Mount Kenya’s presidents

Since multi-party democracy in the early 1990s, the Mount Kenya region has never backed the presidential bid of an outsider candidate. In 1992, the region produced two key candidates: Kenneth Matiba (deceased) of Ford Asili and Mwai Kibaki of the Democratic Party (DP).

The two however lost to Daniel Moi’s independence party KANU which won 36% of the vote. Matiba and Kibaki got 26% and 19% respectively. Combined, they had garnered 45% of the total vote. This should have been enough to dethrone Moi, but intimidation and corruption ensured the status quo remained.

In the 1997 election, Matiba did not vie, while Kibaki finished second to Moi. Five years later, as Moi retired from politics, opposition parties coalesced behind Kibaki under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC).

His main challenger was Uhuru Kenyatta – who Moi had handpicked as his successor. But in 2002, the anti-Moi wave was so strong that Kenyatta suffered a humiliating defeat to Kibaki in the Mount Kenya region.

A leader cannot choose him/herself. You cannot leave your house and go into a forest for seven days, just to come out and claim you are our leader.

Fast-forward to the collapse of Kibaki’s coalition following the divisive 2005 constitutional referendum that dealt a blow to NARC. President Kibaki was forced to form a new party: the Party of National Unity (PNU).

He approached the 2007 presidential election as a weaker candidate, as he had less steam than his earlier coalition partner – Raila Odinga – who had branched out to form the Orange Democratic Movement.

Kibaki was controversially declared the winner, beating Odinga with just over 230,000 votes. Violence ensued: hundreds were killed, hundreds of thousands were displaced and the economy took a hit.

In the 2007 election, Uhuru Kenyatta had dropped his presidential ambition in support of Kibaki. A run against the latter would have flopped in their shared backyard of Mount Kenya and denied either of them the presidency.

But from the violence of the 2007 general election, Kenya emerged with a new constitution that was promulgated in August 2010. It redefined the presidential race to a clear majority of the vote, as if to cure a situation like that of Kibaki versus Odinga in 2007.

East versus west: Mount Kenya is torn

The Mount Kenya region can be segmented into two areas: east and west. The east is made up mainly of Embu, Meru, Mbeere, and Tharaka people, while west (central) is mainly Kikuyu. Since independence, the west has produced three out of the four presidents.

But today, with no Matiba, Kibaki or Kenyatta as a candidate for the next general election, Mount Kenya is torn. Elected leaders in the country have been shifting allegiance to Ruto.

For the first time in 30 years, Mount Kenya is likely to face an election without a formidable candidate from the region and be left to negotiate for a deputy president position.

Kenyatta’s wing of the Jubilee Party is in talks with Odinga’s ODM for a pre-election coalition, to jointly pick a presidential candidate for 2022.

Kiraitu Murungi, a long-time political ally of Kibaki and Kenyatta, recently explained how the eastern side of Mount Kenya had been used by the western side to hunt for votes. Three counties in the east have historically been used to help a ‘westerner’ ascend to the presidency: this has been the case for three past elections.

“I am tired with the politics of dogs and cats,” Murungi says. “If a dog is important when you are hunting, it should also be important when you are eating”.

However, Maoka Maore an MP from Meru County, disagrees with the notion that the region has been utilised by the western side and then left high and dry. “It could be the other way round…when playing victim, you end up benefitting more than what your due is,” says Maore.

In the race ahead of the 2022 polls, a divided Mount Kenya will not bode well for any presidential candidate; in particular for Ruto, who needs the region to back his candidacy if he is to win the top job.

One voice for Mount Kenya

But as the two sides of the mountain struggle with the next course of action, Speaker of the National Assembly Justin Muturi unilaterally took up the role of spokesperson for the communities of Mount Kenya, in May.

Leaders opposed to Ruto’s presidential bid and the eastern side of Mount Kenya charting its own path have criticised Muturi’s action. “A leader cannot choose him/herself. You cannot leave your house and go into a forest for seven days, just to come out and claim you are our leader,” said Anne Waiguru – governor of Kirinyaga County in the western side of Mount Kenya – at a June meeting.

This meeting in Nyeri, by leaders from the west of Mount Kenya, included elected governors and a cabinet minister. They believe that Mount Kenya still has the president as its spokesperson and that no one else should claim to speak for the people of the region until Kenyatta relinquishes his mandate. Which is why, for now, they remain opposed to Ruto’s entry into Mount Kenya.

Kenyatta’s waning popularity

President Kenyatta has lost much of the support that he once held in the region because of an increasingly weak economic situation. Residents of Mount Kenya are predominantly agricultural and entrepreneurial. Kenyatta’s policies (on the economy, public debt and action against businesses suspected of non-compliance with tax laws) have been a thorn in the side of business.

While Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation, the people of Mount Kenya are no longer convinced that Kenyatta has paid enough attention to keep their businesses and livelihoods thriving. Instead, his legacy is defined by his investment in multi-billion infrastructural projects. Such projects have proven expensive and pushed up the public debt, while strangling small businesses and making it difficult for them to access credit at commercial banks.

The banks now have a safe and secure client in government through lending. Ruto knows this and has been criticising the approach.

Unfair monopoly from Mount Kenya

Maoka Maore, the deputy whip of the Jubilee party, believes that for practical reasons, the Mount Kenya region cannot present a candidate for the presidency. “It would be unfair after presenting Kibaki and Uhuru in succession and again present another candidate whether they are from Mount Kenya east or west.”

Maore sees the coalition building between Kenyatta and Odinga as likely to result in a negotiation whereby Mount Kenya secures a senior position but not the presidency. “When leaders sit down and get into a coalition, there will be serious negotiation,” Maore says.

With Ruto having declared his bid, a running mate from Mount Kenya could boost his chances for electability by voters in the region. However, this may be costly, especially for the rest of the country that may not be ready for another shared presidency between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin people at the top.

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