Kenya: After Ruto beat Kenyatta in the first battle, what’s next?

By Son Gatitu

Posted on Wednesday, 4 August 2021 14:23
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto in Nairobi, Kenya, November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Monica Mwangi

The next 12 months could be the most defining in the political career of William Ruto, the deputy president of Kenya. After winning a key by-election in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s home county of Kiambu, he has successfully fired the first shot. But will he score enough shots to propel him to the presidency and succeed his long-time ally-turned-competitor?

On 15 July 2021, over 43,000 voters went to the polls in Kiambaa Constituency of Kiambu County to elect their new member of parliament. It had been seven weeks of campaigning that intensified during the final three weeks. The battle lines were drawn.

Though eight candidates had been cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), it would only be a race between two: John Njuguna Wanjiku of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) and Jubilee’s Kariri Njama. If this had been 2020, the two candidates would have been on the same side; but after a lot of haggling, they are now on different sides of the political boxing ring.

Making of the contest

Back in 2017, Njama had vied against Koinange as an independent candidate securing more than 15,000 votes – not a mean feat for a candidate without a party in Kiambu County. However, the final tally in the mini-poll showed Njama trailing Wanjiku by 510 votes: Njama polled 21,263 votes (49%) against Wanjiku’s 21,773 (50%).

Njama had lost to Koinange twice, in 2013 and 2017, so when the incumbent MP died in March 2021, it was thought that Njama would contest the seat – for a third time – but now under the UDA party that is associated with Ruto, who he seemed to have fraternised with.

Be that as it may, in the run-up to the July 2021 by-election, Njama shifted allegiance from UDA to Jubilee, securing the nomination of the latter party as its most preferred candidate. Nairobi-based political analyst

Herman Manyora says Njama was the candidate to beat. “Kariri [ Njama ] was a popular candidate, he had faced a giant in the name of Paul Koinange… He was able to wrestle and get noticed.”

Jubilee’s Kiambaa pain

Murang’a MP Sabina Chege regretted Kiambaa’s rejection of Njama, claiming differences in the Jubilee party had percolated into the constituency.

“President Uhuru Kenyatta was not on the ballot… It was about Kariri Njama and the people of Kiambaa. It is unfortunate that people brought in the issues of the party to Kiambaa and denied them a chance to be served by a very humble man,” she says.

Even though Sabina disputes the role of the president in the mini-poll, the race was all along a contest between Ruto and his boss, Kenyatta. For three years now, Ruto has been on a charm offensive against the president, in his own backyard. Repeated campaigns, political gatherings, fundraising events and church visits have entrenched Ruto’s political messaging and he has not spared any opportunity to wrestle his boss in the people’s ring.

In just eight months, the ruling Jubilee party has lost five seats within Mount Kenya: two at the parliamentary level and three at the local assembly level. Jubilee has also won and retained two local assembly by-elections, albeit with a thin margin. In a by-election held on the same day as the one of Kiambaa, Jubilee’s candidate won with 27 votes, retaining the Muguga ward representative seat in Kiambu County.

UDA’s entry onto the national stage

Even though UDA won two of the local assembly seats, Kiambaa’s parliamentary win has thrust the ‘new’ party to the national level. Ruto described the Kiambaa contest as a friendly match between the “current party (Jubilee) and the party of the future (UDA)”.

“It was a very difficult test for the people of Kiambaa – to choose between the present and the future – and so they said, ‘we have (pending) business with the present, so [let’s] give them (Jubilee) the Muguga ward seat; and then they said we have a plan for the future, so they gave the Kiambaa seat to UDA,” Ruto said.

The journey of a vegetable vendor, hustler, cart puller and a tout, to State House has just begun.

The deputy president spoke at a funeral in Murang’a, on the day Wanjiku was declared winner in Kiambaa. His remarks were seen as a tongue-in-cheek comment in reference to the turn of events, seeing as he describes UDA as the ‘party of the future’.

His lieutenants, however, were not as sparing with their words. To them, the Kiambaa win is the start of a political battle of the decade. “Wanjiku’s election as member of parliament symbolises the beginning of the journey to 2022,” said Kimani Ichungwa, an MP from Kiambu.

On his part, Kipchumba Murkomen, the senator for Elgeyo Marakwet (a county in Ruto’s Rift Valley backyard) said: “The journey of a vegetable vendor, hustler, cart puller and a tout to go to State House has just begun.”

Kiambaa’s impact on 2022 race

What’s not in doubt though is the significance of the Kiambaa moment. Manyora finds the Kiambaa outcome a double-edged sword for the UDA party and Ruto.

“What has happened to Kiambaa should be more of a warning to them (UDA) than Jubilee. Because, if Jubilee can put up such a show, it then shows when the time for reckoning comes in 2022, even if Ruto will still be on the mountain, Uhuru will not leave empty handed.”

Manyora sees the road ahead for Ruto as an uphill task, saying “for them to win the presidency, they must get at least 80% of the mountain vote.”

Jubilee’s lessons

The Jubilee party has joined Njama in declaring that they will contest the poll outcome in court. Such a petition may at best result in a vote recount. However, the party is not keen on wasting time.

  • A meeting called on Monday 19 July, four days after the Kiambaa defeat, resolved to re-energise the ruling party.
  • Party officials announced that they would be conducting party elections in the coming months.

The declaration is seen as a response to growing discomfort among the party’s loyalists. Kanini Kega, the MP for Kieni Constituency in Nyeri County, says all officials from the rank of secretary general and below must step down.

“We are going to eject them [from] their offices,” says Kega. “We cannot let our party die as we watch. We can’t let the vision of the president be destroyed by a few individuals who have either committed offences against the people through their utterances or failed in their duties.”

The current officials of the party have been in office on an interim basis since 2017. Party elections that had been expected in early 2020 were postponed indefinitely.

Ruto remains the deputy party leader of Jubilee, at least on paper. As the clamour for removal of some of the party officials becomes a talking point, all eyes will be on President Kenyatta with regards to whether he is ready for such changes in his party.

Jubilee Kiambaa fallout

One of those targeted is Raphael Tuju, who has been the interim secretary general since 2017. He is a confidant of the president and also sits in the cabinet ‘on need-basis’.

He has been behind the much-publicised talks of a coalition between the Jubilee party and Raila Odinga’s ODM. To remove Tuju from his position at such a time would be to risk scuttling Kenyatta’s 2022 agenda.

In spite of this, Ruto is building on his Mount Kenya gains as he gears up for February 2022, when shifts between political parties are expected to gain momentum. At the moment, an elected official who switches allegiance to another party risks being removed from such a party and effectively loses his/her seat. Although this is the law, it has not stopped Ruto and his allies – who were elected on a Jubilee party ticket – to openly associate with UDA.

They have retained their full membership with Jubilee, even though the majority claim to have reduced their monthly party subscription fees of KSh10,000 ($92) to a meager KSh500. In the coming six months, Kenyatta has an opportunity to re-organise his party and save face in Mount Kenya, if he intends to at least attract formidable candidates who will vie in the general election on a Jubilee ticket.

Uhuru-Ruto next battle

However, before then, the next battle is set for 20 August, when the appellate court is expected to render its judgment on appeals filed by Kenyatta, Odinga, the attorney general, the electoral body (IEBC) and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) task force.

The seven-judge bench concluded hearing the appeals at the start of July, even as petitioners against the BBI-backed constitutional amendments insisted that the constitutional review process was flawed ab initio.

Ruto has repeatedly castigated the BBI process and opposed calls for constitutional reforms saying the amendments are meant to serve leaders and not the citizenry. For Kenyatta however, the constitutional amendments would – among other things – allow the creation of more positions at the executive level. This would be a crucial bargaining chip ahead of 2022.

The Kenyatta succession matrix

Kenyatta has been ‘courting’ major opposition leaders who ran against him in 2017. Raila Odinga of ODM is now his ‘handshake’ partner with whom they started the BBI process. Along the way, Kenyatta also teamed up with Odinga’s allies: Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Democratic Movement), Musalia Mudavadi (Amani National Congress) and Moses Wetangula (Ford Kenya).

Musyoka, Mudavadi, Wetangula and Gideon Moi – chairman of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) – have been working towards a new coalition known as the ‘One Kenya Alliance’. On 20 July, they announced that they had received a report from their technical team advising them on coalition building. There were no details offered apart from the desire to front a joint political approach to 2022.

Should the Court of Appeal rule in favour of the proposed amendments and necessitate a constitutional referendum ahead of the general election, Ruto’s path to 2022 will have been thrown into a tailspin, requiring him to take a position on the expected plebiscite.

Too early to count the chickens?

Adan Keynan, the Jubilee parliamentary group joint secretary and MP for Eldas Constituency, warns UDA not to celebrate early. He says Jubilee has learnt its mistakes in Kiambaa and will be revamping itself as well as forming alliances.

“The groupings that we will bring together will surprise and shock the nation… President Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and One Kenya [Alliance] will come up with a formidable group that will take this country to the next government,” he says.

Whether this becomes a reality is a question of time. At the moment, the parties that form the opposition – National Super Alliance (NASA) – have been threatening to pull out of the coalition ahead of the 2022 election. Should they succeed, the move may complicate the path for Kenyatta’s new allies as they negotiate how to face Ruto.

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