Kenya 2022: Who will be crowned leader of voter-rich Nakuru county?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Kenya 2022: Who will win the great race?

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Wednesday, 3 August 2022 15:29, updated on Monday, 8 August 2022 14:19

A UDA branded chair is seen at during William Ruto's political campaign in Nakuru County. (photo: twitter)

Kenya’s top presidential candidates William Ruto and Raila Odinga have been competing for attention in the voter-rich Rift Valley region.

Their focus has been intense in the counties of Uasin Gishu and particularly Nakuru. Both Ruto, the current deputy president, and Raila, a former prime minister, are banking on the diverse cultures of Nakuru county to secure their numbers come election day. But have Nakuru voters been swayed by either candidate?

Nakuru is the third largest county in Kenya by population, behind only Nairobi and Kiambu. It has a population of more than 2.16 million, according to the 2019 census, of which 1.05 million are registered voters. The expansive county is also the gateway into the Rift Valley region, home to 14 counties and 5.34 million voters.

The potential impact of votes from Nakuru has both Ruto and Raila focused on gaining as many supporters as possible in this last stretch before the 9 August polls.

“Let us agree to form a government that understands the language of ordinary citizens,” Ruto told a campaign gathering in Nakuru in early July.

“We are at a crossroads, it is up to us as Kenyans to decide whether we want to go to the right or the left,” Raila told his own supporters in Nakuru on 28 July.

Nakuru is mostly clustered in the 10-county Mt. Kenya area. The region’s 5.7 million voters favored President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, Ruto, in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections, but Nakuru did not: That year President Kenyatta received 7% of the vote against Raila’s 14.6%. Voter turnout that year was 80%, a figure that both Ruto and Raila are keen to increase.

Just like other Mt. Kenya counties, Nakuru has turned into a Ruto stronghold. A recent poll by Infotrak Research in early July had Ruto pulling in 48% of likely voters, against Raila’s 30%.

“Don’t be threatened by a community that occupies Rift Valley telling you that if you vote in a certain direction you will be punished,” Raila told a gathering at Kisulisuli grounds during his final campaign pitch in Nakuru.

Poll violence

Historically, Nakuru residents have largely voted with their Mt. Kenya kinspersons. Tribal clashes have been a regular occurrence during elections, especially during the reign of the late President Daniel arap Moi.

The peak of the violence came after the 2007 election. Dozens were killed and many displaced from their homes in Naivasha, Molo, and parts of Kuresoi, all within Nakuru County. The Naivasha killings became part of the basis of a case against Uhuru Kenyatta at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Even though the case never proceeded to a full hearing, Nakuru became an important basis for the Uhuru-Ruto political union in 2013.

Once Uhuru leaves, Baba (Raila) and Mama (vice presidentil nominee Martha Karua) will hold [the reigns of power] and you will all be safe.

The majority of Nakuru residents are from Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community, followed by Ruto’s Kalenjin community. This makes Nakuru a hotspot for security concerns. In June 2022, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission released a report of 23 counties likely to experience electoral tensions. Nakuru was among those found to be high-risk.

“The whole idea is for us to find out what we need to do to mitigate the challenges that we face,” said Samuel Kobia, who chairs the commission.

“I want to tell you, there is a government. Uhuru is leading it. Before he leaves, he will protect you,” Raila said in Nakuru. “Once Uhuru leaves, Baba (Raila) and Mama (vice presidential nominee Martha Karua) will hold [the reigns of power] and you will all be safe.”

Political weight

After years of seeking city status, Nakuru became only the fourth incorporated Kenyan city in December 2021, joining Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. Just 10 years ago, Uhuru and Ruto signed a political pact and vowed to unite the communities of Rift Valley and Mt. Kenya.

“We started our journey to unite Kenya here in Nakuru, we voted in 2013 and formed a government, we did the same in 2017. Was the riddle man (Odinga) with us in both elections?” Ruto asked during a campaign meeting in early July in Gilgil, one of the constituencies in Nakuru.

The deputy president has continuously expressed his indignation with President Kenyatta for supporting Raila in his place and said so in Kenyatta’s former strongholds.

Ruto’s criticism of the Kenyatta-Odinga cooperation has put the president on defense. “If the first handshake (between Uhuru and Ruto) was not a mistake, how was the second one (between Uhuru and Raila) a mistake? Haven’t we had peace? Haven’t we lived together? Please don’t be cheated with cheap politics,” Kenyatta told a gathering in Nakuru on 27 July.

Port politics 

In 2016, the Kenyatta-Ruto administration began a process of putting up a dry port in Naivasha, one of the most significant parts of Nakuru County. The port was to be served by the Mombasa-Naivasha Standard gauge railway built during the Kenyatta era. In 2019, Kenyatta flagged off the first cargo train from Nairobi to the Naivasha Internal Container depot. It was meant to facilitate the movement and clearance of international cargo destined for Kenya’s neighbours, Uganda and South Sudan.

But for months now, both Ruto and Raila’s campaigns have criticised the government’s extension of select port operations from the Mombasa Port to Nairobi and Naivasha internal container depots.

(Ruto) is like a warthog, he is very forgetful and he is now saying he will return port operations to Mombasa yet he is the one that moved them.

“The heinous acts that were performed on Mombasa shifted port operations to Nairobi and Naivasha, and made Mombasa to be a deserted port,” Ruto told a campaign meeting in Mombasa on 24 May. “Once we are done with the election, we will return all operations here.”

 Ruto, Raila added, “is like a warthog — he is very forgetful and he is now saying he will return port operations to Mombasa yet he is the one that moved them.”

Ruto now claims that the Nairobi-Naivasha railway project was hijacked by personal interests, pointing the finger at President Kenyatta.

“The plan was not to benefit a few people but to build an industrial city in Naivasha,” Ruto said in Gilgil in early July. “We wanted to invest in leather, textile and other industries.”

On 26 July, Kenyatta launched a KSh91bn ($764m) special economic zone (SEZ) in Naivasha to be built by Turkish Industry Holdings. The zone is to comprise six factories, which the president says will produce goods for both local and export markets.

Nakuru Governor Lee Kinyanjui defended the president’s agenda for Nakuru. “It is our responsibility to ensure that whatever the president has brought here (to Naivasha) remains here.”

Lost glory

Nakuru’s industrial profile has been dwindling over the past three decades. This area was once home to some of Kenya’s most important industries in the years after independence up until the 1980s.

Eveready Limited, a dry cell manufacturing company, closed shop in 2014 amid stiff competition from cheaper imports. A few local bakeries that had a national network, such as Elliots Bakeries, also shut its doors in 1992, as did Flamingo bottlers, which shifted its base to Nairobi.

For years, Nakuru’s railway station had employed thousands of local residents. But it closed operations following the collapse of Kenya Railways. It was not until 27 July 2022 that President Kenyatta reopened the revamped railway station, as the country gears towards total restoration of its railway transport system.

“We are working with the two major geothermal energy companies, GDC and KenGen to come up with industrial parks within where they are producing energy,” Gov. Kinyanjui said in 2019.

With Kenyatta launching the SEZ project, the hope is that the new industries will offer employment opportunities to local youth and restore Nakuru’s past industrial glory.

“We are hopeful that we will find a proper job one day in the future,” says Newton Owino, a university graduate who has been operating a motorcycle taxi service.

The Nakuru economy

Nakuru is a county known for tourism, second after Kenya’s coast region. Its map is dotted with Lake Naivasha, Lake Elementaita, Lake Nakuru and hotel chains frequented by holidaymakers and conference tourism. It contributes 4.9% to the national GDP, according to 2021 figures from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. This puts it fourth behind Nairobi (27.5%), Kiambu (5.9%), and Mombasa (5.2%).

Despite all the potential opportunities in tourism, most people in Nakuru rely on agriculture for their livelihood.

Local politics

For the past 10 years, Nakuru County has been led by two close allies of Kenyatta: Former Governor Kinuthia Mbugua, and current Governor Lee Kinyanjui.

  • Mbugua was governor from 2013 to 2017. He now works for Kenyatta as the Statehouse Comptroller, managing the president’s diary. He lost the Jubilee party primaries in 2017 to Kinyanjui.
  • Kinyanjui is defending his seat on a Jubilee Party ticket against Senator Susan Kihika of Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance party (UDA) and three other contenders.

Kihika was the first speaker of the Nakuru County Assembly, from 2013 to 2017. Upon her election to the senate in 2017 under Kenyatta’s Jubilee party, she was rewarded with the role of Chief Whip, a coveted senate leadership position. She quickly rebranded herself and sided with Ruto when he and Kenyatta fell out.

Kihika didn’t last in the role and was removed in May 2020. She has now become one of Kenyatta’s fiercest critics and one of Ruto’s most influential backers in Nakuru.

“I have seen throughout my life how good leadership can improve the lives of the people,” says Kihika. “I am the change we need in Nakuru County.”

Kihika hopes to dethrone Kinyanjui, having accused him of failing to address key concerns of Nakuru residents regarding healthcare, security and the cost of doing business. But Kinyanjui says he needs another term to finalise his agenda for Nakuru.

Nakuru voters now have an opportunity to choose whether to continue to be used as stage props in national politics, or make theirs a city of change whose residents can fulfill their ambitions with the support of the government.

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