In picking Rigathi Gachagua, an MP from the vote-rich Mt. Kenya region, Ruto is taking a gamble on Gachagua’s grassroots mobilisation skills against a clouded profile of a man facing graft charges in Kenya’s anti-corruption court. Can the Ruto-Rigathi ticket stand the storm of accusations against a pro-reform ticket presented by his main rival Raila Odinga?
A few minutes before 1 pm on Sunday 15 March, Ruto approached the nation to name his running mate for the forthcoming presidential election. He had kept the country waiting for over 24 hours after word had gone out that he would name his deputy as early as 10am on Saturday.
It would later turn out that an intense back and forth is what had delayed the announcement and possibly led to a switch. Kithure Kindiki, the senator of Tharaka Nithi County and a professor of law, had earlier dominated speculations as the preferred choice for the majority of MP candidates from Mt. Kenya. However, Ruto stuck to his preference, announcing Gachagua as the best bet for the race.
“He understands people’s issues, he is passionate about ordinary people,” Ruto said. “He is a living example of a true hustler who rose from the aftermath of our freedom struggle to the pinnacle of professional, business and political success.”
Gachagua the man
57-year-old Gachagua is a first time MP representing Mathira Constituency in Nyeri, one of the ten counties within the Mt. Kenya region. He is the eighth born in a family of nine and claims that his parents fought for independence.
“My father was a technician. He used to service guns for the Mau Mau while my mother provided them with food and ammunition,” Gachagua told the Daily Nation newspaper recently.
Uhuru Kenyatta knows me, if there’s somebody who knows him, it is me. Many things we have done together, I have never stated them
Born just two years after Kenya attained independence from the British, Gachagua pursued his early education in Central Kenya. He graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Literature in 1988.
Gachagua was employed in the civil service the same year he graduated from university and worked as a provincial administrator for 10 years during the tenure of former President Daniel Moi. At the time, it was commonplace for the state to execute extrajudicial killings against suspected criminals. No charge has however been preferred and confirmed in the courts against Gachagua.
Between 2001 and 2006, he was Kenyatta’s personal assistant when the latter served as a minister, presidential candidate and leader of the official opposition in parliament. “Uhuru Kenyatta knows me, if there’s somebody who knows him, it is me. Many things we have done together, I have never stated them,” Gachagua said.
President’s friend turned foe
When Kenyatta lost the 2002 presidential election and later became leader of the official opposition, Gachagua stayed with him. “[There are] many things we did that if they ever came out to this world they’d shut [it], but [they] will go with me] down the grave because I am an honest man.”
Gachagua accuses Kenyatta of abandoning his supporters during his second term, which has been mired with claims of political mismanagement and loss of policy direction.
“Let Uhuru Kenyatta drive this country. He kicked Ruto out of government in 2018. Food prices are at the highest. People cannot buy food, medicine; people are in trouble and crying,” Gachagua told Citizen TV on 28 February. “He [Kenyatta] is the president; Ruto […] has moved on. […] We are not interested. Let him put his house in order.”
Politics aside, Rigathi Gachagua is spot on as regards #CostOfLivingCrisis. The buck stops with President Uhuru Kenyatta – not his estranged deputy. Its getting worse #CostOfLivingKE pic.twitter.com/1GKzIRwZQT
— Stephen Mutoro (@smutoro) February 28, 2022
Ruto’s tough choice
In picking Gachagua, Ruto appears to be cementing his political messaging in the Mt. Kenya region. He emphasises the ‘mistakes’ that Kenyatta made in his second term, which critics (mostly allies of the deputy president) perceive as betrayals by the president.
Gachagua’s home county of Nyeri is part of Central Kenya, which comprises Murang’a, Kiambu, Nyandarua and Kirinyaga that have a total of 3.1 million registered voters. This is more than half of Mt. Kenya’s total vote of 5.8 million. Kenya has a voter population of 22 million.
In the choice of Ruto’s running mate, Gachagua was in the race against Kindiki who comes from Tharaka Nithi, the smallest county in Mt. Kenya (in terms of votes). Tharaka Nithi has 234,000 registered voters, according to the latest figures from the country’s electoral commission, the IEBC.
Gachagua has ‘pockets’, elections are about resources, [which] he has. He is combative, he is assertive [and] he can mobilise the grassroots
Pundits say that even though Kindiki presented a credible candidature, with his rich academic CV and diplomatic political culture, his main downfall was his inability to mobilise support at the grassroots level.
“He had everything except he didn’t have the ‘pockets’ and networks and grassroots support,” says Herman Manyora, a political analyst in Nairobi. “Gachagua has pockets, elections are about resources, [which] he has. He is combative, he is assertive [and] he can mobilise the grassroots.”
Businessman or money launderer?
In his CV, Gachagua enumerates his various postings while working with the government and now in parliament. He also states that he is a director at Ridor Group of Companies, which has been described as “a holding company with interests in real estate, furniture, and general merchandising”.
Gachagua’s wealth has baffled state agencies that have been investigating him over suspected money laundering. In October 2020, the country’s Asset Recovery Agency, which is tasked with securing assets acquired from suspected proceeds of crime, secured a court order to freeze more than KSh200m ($1.7m) held in four of Gachagua’s bank accounts.
In July 2021, Gachagua was arrested and charged with obtaining over KSh7.3bn ($62m) by fraud, money that was allegedly deposited in three of his accounts at a local bank between 2013 and 2020.
The charges against him varied from contracts and tenders he secured for his businesses, some through proxies and associates, to the management of the Mathira constituency development fund, which he serves as patron by virtue of being the area MP. He is out on a cash bail of KSh12m ($103,000).
The hearing has yet to begin. “I was arrested by 50 CID [Criminal Investigation Department] men, one year down the line, they have not brought the evidence to the court. The case cannot be heard until later in the year,” Gachagua said.
The graft charges and perception of high handedness when he served as a district officer in parts of Mt Kenya region cloud the profile of a man, who at his age, would appear to have rapidly advanced politically, having only served as MP for a term.
However, Javas Bigambo, a lawyer and consultant in Nairobi, doubts the impact of the allegations on the Ruto-Gachagua election ticket.
“The seriousness of allegations of graft seems to be a middle-class concern,” Bigambo says. “The people at the lower ranks of society do not understand or appreciate that Gachagua is associated with graft. They don’t know what he stole beyond the claims.”
All those years I stayed with him [Kenyatta], his government did not have a problem with me until I said I cannot leave Ruto
Gachagua has consistently blamed his falling out with President Kenyatta for the cases against him. So much so that he has become a champion for businesspersons who have been accosted over tax evasion and suspected counterfeit goods trading under the second term of Kenyatta.
“I gave him [Kenyatta] money for his campaign in 2013. He knows I am a businessman. He never asked [for] the source then,” Gachagua said in February. “All those years I stayed with him, his government did not have a problem with me until I said I cannot leave Ruto.”
Victim or villain?
The UDA party, which is led by Ruto, has framed itself as the victim of Kenyatta’s bile with his deputy. “William Ruto does not accommodate leaders charged with corruption,” Gachagua says. “Leaders around William Ruto are charged with corruption because they are with him.”
Ruto is banking on Gachagua’s strong personality and fearless demeanour against Kenyatta in approaching the race. “[He is] a fearless fighter for the right cause; an indefatigable champion for the betrayed, the persecuted, downtrodden and ignored,” Ruto said.
Manyora fears that Gachagua’s past and public perception could haunt him as he hits the campaign trail with Ruto. “Rigathi has a past, which if opponents were to exploit properly, it [would] come to haunt them and would affect them within Mt. Kenya region.”
We can get more output from the office of the deputy president if it is not vandalised and cannibalised
Ruto now promises to empower Gachagua’s office, should they win elections. “I have every intention on my first day in office to sign an executive order […] that will provide this Kenyan an expanded role,” Ruto said in what is seen as a prescription to what he has faced while serving as Kenyatta’s deputy. “We can get more output from the office of the deputy president if it is not vandalised and cannibalised.”
“The deputy president will chair cabinet committees, he will oversee the implementation of cabinet decisions and coordinate the intergovernmental relations between the national and county governments.”
The Ruto-Gachagua ticket is up against the Raila Odinga-Martha Karua ticket. Karua is famed for her reform agenda, championing the rule of law and fighting against corruption. It is likely that the Raila-Karua ticket will seek to deconstruct their opponents’ clamour by riding on the public perception of graft and high handedness. This is especially so in the areas outside the Mt. Kenya region.
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