Kenya: Battle for Mt. Kenya votes led to Ruto and Raila’s choice of running mates

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Tuesday, 31 May 2022 10:56, updated on Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:15

Kenya's top presidential candidates, William Ruto and Raila Odinga pose for a photo at the Uhuru Park grounds in Nairobi, February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Kenya's top presidential candidates, William Ruto and Raila Odinga pose for a photo at the Uhuru Park grounds in Nairobi, February 24, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

After keeping Kenyans guessing for days, the two leading presidential contenders William Ruto and Raila Odinga named top politicians from Mt. Kenya as their running mates, proving how crucial the region is in determining the country’s next president. Who between the two will win over the region’s five-million-plus voters?

When they unveiled their running mates ahead of the 16 May deadline, Ruto and Raila singled out personal attributes and achievement in public service as the main factors that influenced their choice of deputy.

“He is a  fantastic grassroots mobiliser. A living example of a true hustler who rose from the hardship of the aftermath of our freedom struggle to the pinnacle of professional business and political success,” Ruto said in reference to Rigathi Gachagua.

With regards to his choice of former Justice Minister Martha Karua, Raila said: “This woman is a fighter and not a quitter. This woman has a safe pair of hands. This woman we offer as deputy president is also known to have credible credentials for the fight for our second liberation.”

However, what Raila and Ruto did not make public is the fact that their choice of running mate was influenced by the integral part that Mt. Kenya votes will play in this year’s election. Both Gachagua and Karua belong to the Kikuyu tribe, the largest in Kenya, and were born and bred in Mt. Kenya – a major factor for those seeking the heart and soul of the vote-rich region.

Mt. Kenya, which is predominantly inhabited by the Kikuyu and their close cousins, the Meru and the Embu, controls nearly a third of the country’s votes. The area boasts of 10 counties with Meru having 78,858 registered voters, Tharaka-Nithi (234,618), Embu (337,627), Nyeri (492,046) and Kirinyaga (378,580). Others are Murang’a (628,416), Kiambu (1,293,309), Laikipia (265,842), Nyandarua (362,357) and Nakuru (1,050,367).

The sum total of votes from this agricultural region is a whopping 5,122,020.

In fact, votes from only two counties in the region (Muranga and Kiambu) are enough to wipe out the vote basket of the entire lower eastern part, which comprises the counties of Machakos, Kitui and Makueni that command about 1.6 million votes.

Pressure from Wiper party 

As such, it would have been suicidal for any candidate to choose a running mate outside Mt Kenya.

The region is so important that even constant pressure – sometimes bordering on threats and blackmail –  from the Wiper party for Raila to choose its leader Kalonzo Musyoka, who hails from the lower eastern region, as his running mate fell on deaf ears.

The push for Musyoka to be the running mate not only came from the Wiper party, but also from the rival Kenya Kwanza alliance that is led by Ruto.

At one point, the deputy president waded into the wrangles of the Azimio la Umoja coalition party, arguing that Musyoka was the most qualified candidate to deputise Raila, an opinion that was seen as a ploy to lock out the former prime minister from the Mt Kenya region, which is currently leaning towards the Kenya Kwanza alliance.

A running mate for the Azimio coalition party had to come from Mt. Kenya. We did not want them [Kenya Kwanza] to have a field day in the general election

Jubilee party vice chairman David Murathe retorted saying: “A running mate for the Azimio coalition party had to come from Mt. Kenya. We did not want them [Kenya Kwanza] to have a field day in the general election.” Jubilee is one of the parties that forms the Azimio alliance.

James Mathenge, a street hawker in Nairobi’s central business district, says he is elated that the two presidential contenders have chosen running mates from the Mt. Kenya region.

“It shows that our interests will be taken care of whichever coalition takes power and that is comforting,” says Mathenge, who hails from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s backyard of Kiambu county.

Kenyatta’s waning popularity

Despite being a darling of Mt. Kenya since 2013 when he was elected president, Kenyatta’s popularity in the region has waned, thanks to the prolonged economic downturn that has negatively affected agriculture and small businesses that many residents depend on for their livelihoods.

The poor economic situation was worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, which saw many small businesses like bars, saloons, barber shops and restaurants collapse, leading to hundreds of job losses.

Gregory Ndirangu, who lost his job as a bar attendant after the Covid-19 lockdown, blames the Kenyatta administration for his predicament.

“Since 2020 I have been looking for a job without any success. I now survive from hand to mouth and there are many other residents in the same situation,” says Ndirangu who hails from Muranga county.

The poor performance of the agricultural sector has also not helped Kenyatta’s case.

In the case of dairy farming, the once upon a time lucrative business for many residents is now under the control of middle men who exploit farmers by paying them the bare minimum for their raw milk and later make a kill after processing it.

  • The county government of Muranga, for example, established a milk processing plant to protect farmers from exploitation by middlemen. According to Paul Macharia, the county executive committee member in charge of cooperatives before the establishment of the factory, dairy farmers used to be paid as low as Sh15 ($0.13) per litre of milk by brokers.
  • “With the establishment of Murang’a county cooperative creameries, milk prices shot up to Sh35 ($0.30) and now a litre is going for more than Sh40 ($0.34). Exploitation of dairy farmers by brokers is a major problem which we are trying to tackle,” says Macharia.

Despite coffee being one of the main foreign exchange earners and a major crop in Mt. Kenya, farmers are complaining that they have yet to see the benefits of planting the cash crop and accuse the government of neglecting them.

  • Kirinyaga county which has 44,969 acres of land under coffee grown by 67,578 farmers, making it one of top coffee producers in the county, has always complained about poor prices.
  • According to Governor Anne Waiguru, farmers have for a long time suffered in the hands of middlemen who buy the cash crop without a guaranteed price. “The best option for farmers is to have a direct market for their coffee which would save them from exploitation by middlemen. They would be able to negotiate for a guaranteed price for their crop,” she says.
  • In 2020, the national government established a Cherry Advance Revolving Fund to give farmers access to advanced pay for delivered cherries to avoid delays in payment.

Anti-handshake propaganda

It is this sense of frustration and deep anger that Ruto and his allies are using to exploit the economic problems in the region through their bottom-up economic model.

For example, Ruto’s allies have singled out Kenyatta family-owned Brookside Dairy Limited as the main cause of the problems facing farmers.

“Dairy farmers are suffering because of the monopolistic tendencies of one company, which currently controls raw milk prices after buying out competitors,” says Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichung’wa, a staunch ally of the deputy president.

Even the recent fuel shortage that hit the country was blamed on the president, with Ruto’s ‘keyboard warriors’ on Twitter alleging that the crisis “was artificially created to benefit President Kenyatta’s interest in fuel business”, never mind that the problem was partly caused by disruptions in the global supply chain due to the  Russia-Ukraine war.

Political analyst John Charo believes Karua has a mammoth task: to overturn the anti-Kenyatta and Raila sentiments in the region.

“The anti-handshake propaganda has been ingrained in the minds of Mt. Kenya voters to the extent that they see Ruto as the only one who can improve their economic situation,” says Charo.

The ‘hustler’ movement

Peter Kagwanja, the CEO of the Africa Policy Institute, says Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance party (UDA) and the ‘hustler movement’ are an offshoot of a strategy that produced a political juggernaut comprising at least two elected leaders in each of the 10 Mt. Kenya counties, all of whom served as full-time campaigners of the ‘hustler nation’.

“Ruto is consciously riding the crest of the same tidal wave that swept him and Uhuru Kenyatta to power in 2013 and 2017, which is the unity between Mt. Kenya and the Kalenjin Rift Valley,” says Prof Kagwanja.

Gachagua [Ruto’s running mate] is a bare knuckle fighter when it comes to politics and he appeals to the downtrodden.

Pundits say this is what Raila intends to destabilise by naming Karua as his running mate, despite the arm twisting and verbal threats by Musyoka and his allies.

According to Adams Oloo, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Raila has scored on two main fronts: grabbing Mt. Kenya votes and attracting female voters in general.

“In as much as the women vote is not consolidated as the ethnic vote, women who were not diehard supporters of Kenya Kwanza alliance or those who were undecided moved to Martha’s side. He [Raila] also won over  civil society groups,” says Oloo.

Gachagua’s corruption baggage

Kenyatta University lecturer Edward Kisiang’ani believes that the excitement behind the naming of Karua as a running mate will soon fizzle out.

“Gachagua [Ruto’s running mate] is a bare knuckle fighter when it comes to politics and he appeals to the downtrodden. His mobilisation skills are second to none,” says Kisiang’ani.

He notes that past voting patterns reveal that more men than women vote for female candidates, adding that the trend is not about to change this year (Karua vied for the presidency in 2013 and received less than 50,000 votes in an election that was won by Kenyatta).

However, despite the many strengths Gachagua exhibits, including a fat bank account that comes in handy during campaigns, he also comes with heavy baggage, having been charged in court for alleged involvement in  corruption and money laundering.

“Though Gachagua currently has an edge over Karua in Mt. Kenya, the corruption baggage might just turn out to be the millstone around his neck come election day,” says Charo.

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