Kenya 2022: Raila and Ruto chew the khat, but can they win over Meru County?

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Friday, 29 April 2022 13:06, updated on Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:28

John Kalunge Nguthari, a farmer, climbs a khat tree at his plantation in Maua near Meru
John Kalunge Nguthari, a farmer, climbs a khat tree at his plantation in Maua near Meru eastern Kenya August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

For 20 years now, Meru County has aligned itself with the ruling regime, reaping benefits in government appointments and allocation of national resources. However, in the nine years of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency, residents of Meru have grown sceptical. They now find themselves at a crossroads: continue to align with Kenyatta or making a drastic shift -- as the rest of Mt. Kenya region has done. Which way will they jump?

It’s Tuesday morning, the weather is a mix of sunshine and cool air, fresh from the slopes of Mt. Kenya. Traffic is building up and impatient motorists are expressing their frustration. Welcome to the ‘hooting town’ of Meru, the headquarters of the biggest county (geographically) in the Mt. Kenya region.

On a good day, it will take you slightly over four hours from Nairobi to Meru, a county that is significant in the regional economy, but more importantly, in the politics of the country. It is home to more than 1.5 million people, as per the 2019 population census, nearly a third (460,000) of whom are young adults aged between 18 and 35.

The miraa mirage

Over the last decade, the fortunes of farmers in Meru have dwindled, especially for those who thrived on miraa (khat) farming. Miraa farming has been the mainstay of Nyambene Hills and the driving force of the growth of Maua town. When you visit the area, you come to terms with the image of a town stuck in the past. Parked on the roadside are trucks that previously ferried the perishable commodity to Nairobi for export to Europe and Mogadishu in Somalia. Both destinations have since banned the crop that is now classified as a class C drug in the UK.

The only way to save that industry is to divorce politics from miraa farming.

“Meru [county] is [about] miraa and miraa is [about] Meru,” says Boniface Muturi, a resident. “Without miraa there is nowhere for people to go.”

William Mbari, a miraa farmer and trader, says: “Since coronavirus came, markets [have been] destroyed. [The] Somali market was shut [down] causing miraa trade to decline abruptly, people have really suffered.”

The political class has repeatedly used miraa misfortune as a political votewinner  – so much so that residents now believe it has become mere rhetoric. “During political campaigns, miraa becomes agenda number one, but when they get to those positions it is like they forget that promise of trying to fight for the betterment of miraa farming,” says Paul Bagine, a member of the County Assembly of Meru, the law-making organ of the county.

Bagine, who is also the chairperson of the Meru Assembly Agriculture Committee, also says: “The only way to save that industry is to divorce politics from miraa farming.”

On 20 February, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto (who is vying for the presidency) told a campaign tour in Meru: “We have already started talks with [the] Somali government so that we can reopen the market for our miraa.”

Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is also gunning for the country’s top seat, have on several occasions publicly chewed miraa as a sign of their endorsement of the crop.

During his campaign tours, Raila also assures voters that he will address the miraa issue. “We will seek a market for miraa once we take over power,” he told a campaign audience in Igembe on 10 March, one of the miraa-growing zones.

Rival kingpins

During the Igembe meeting, Raila reconciled Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi and his recent-years rival, Peter Munya, who serves in Kenyatta’s cabinet as the minister of agriculture. Munya was the first governor of the county between 2013 and 2017. Kiraitu defeated him after the two fell out in the run-up to the 2017 elections.

It had been expected that Munya would return to the county to seek a second and final term as governor, a move that would have put Kiraitu’s bid for a second term in jeopardy. However, when Munya failed to resign on 9 February – the legal deadline for public officials to leave office if seeking elective seats – Kiraitu celebrated. “It makes my work a bit easier, we had planned a very elaborate campaign, […] but since my brother has made my life easier, then he is a gift to me from God.”

On the same day, Munya dismissed Kiraitu over what he described as an obsession with his affairs. “I’d plead with him to focus on securing his re-election and leave me alone,” Munya said.

A month later the two appeared in a campaign meeting with Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga. It was construed to mean that Munya had decided to back Kiraitu’s re-election bid. But they are not alone.

Governor’s race

Kiraitu faces a serious challenge to his governorship career from Kawira Mwangaza, an independent candidate who is currently the Meru County Woman Representative in the National Assembly. Gregory Murithi, a journalist based in Meru, says Mwangaza is a real threat to Kiraitu. “She has been on the ground for the last four years, he [Kiraitu] has been tainted due to his performance and dalliance with the Azimio group.”

Until early March, Kiraitu and Mwangaza were the only major contenders for the governor’s seat. Mithika Linturi, the current senator and a former ally of Kiraitu, joined the race after Kiraitu was non-committal on supporting Ruto. Linturi will be seeking the seat via Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA).

According to an opinion poll by TIFA Research mid-February, UDA was the most popular party in Mt. Kenya region at 46%. Jubilee and ODM, which are the major parties within the Azimio movement, had a combined popularity of 15%.

Ruto vs Raila factor

Meru has nine constituencies. Seven MPs from the county are backing Ruto’s presidential bid, while the other two are supporting different candidates. Maoka Maore (Igembe North), who is defending his seat on a Jubilee Party ticket, is championing Raila’s election. Rahim Dawood, a former ally of Kiraitu, is vying as an independent candidate after having declined to be persuaded to join the two major national movements.

On 9 August, during the general election, Meru’s estimated 780,000 voters will have to choose between various political leaders, formations, ideologies and personality differences.

Majority of the residents (1.4 million) reside in the rural areas, tied to basic economic activities. At least 44% of county residents live in houses where the floor is earthen or made of sand. Of those that reside in urban areas (138,000), 53% are employed, most of whom work as teachers in the public service.

As you leave Meru, you can’t help but marvel at the thick forests that line your path back to Nairobi. The winding roads that define the hills to the mountain are reminiscent of the political manoeuvres that the county that once supported President Kenyatta has had to make over the past five years.

The tourism destinations in the Meru National Park and the Lewa Downs ranch remain a mirage for many residents of Meru, thousands of whom have to travel the long path to Nairobi and its environs for greener pastures, leaving the greenery that has now been rendered of little economic significance.

In the forests of Meru, wildlife, such as elephants, baboons, giraffe, gazelle, buffalos, rhino, cheetah, zebras and different birds’ species can be spotted. They too are of little economic relevance to locals, given that much of the tourism revenue is taken away by private entities and the government.

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