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.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Kenya 2022: Voters fear election violence from resurgent Mungiki sect

With elections in Kenya just two months away, voters are worried about the resurgence of the violent Mungiki gang that unleashed ethnic violence across the country after the 2007 poll.

Kenya 2022: What to expect in this year’s most competitive elections

Political analysts have billed this year’s election as one of the most competitive in Kenya’s history, pitting deputy president William Ruto against the godfather of opposition politics Raila Odinga. There is already fear that the cut-throat competition for the top seat might fail to produce an outright winner hence forcing a run-off.

Kenya: Who’s who in Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja alliance?

Presidential contender and former prime minister Raila Odinga is counting on his skills in building a coalition to take on deputy president William Ruto in the August 2022 polls. One Kenya Alliance leaders Kalonzo Musyoka and Gideon Moi have joined Raila's Azimio la Umoja coalition, setting the stage for a face-off with deputy president William Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza Alliance.

Kenya 2022: Who’s who in William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance?

In early April, Deputy President William Ruto, a presidential contender, admitted eight new people to his Kenya Kwanza Alliance, bringing the total number of political parties to 12. However, unlike Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja - a registered coalition party - Kenya Kwanza is an alliance of parties. We outline those closest to Ruto in the alliance.

Kenya: Why Raila & Ruto remain quiet on land justice issues

For the first time in decades, Kenya’s leading presidential candidates are skirting around the explosive issue of land justice – instead of exploiting it as a way to mobilise voters to their campaigns.   Both candidates – for different reasons – have chosen to accept the status quo on legal regime on land rights

Kenya 2022: Who is Rigathi Gachagua, Ruto’s running mate?

Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto has picked an ardent critic of President Uhuru Kenyatta to deputise him for the next five years should he win the August presidential election.

Kenya 2022: Raila promises the moon with Azimio manifesto

Presidential candidate Raila Odinga's Azimio coalition manifesto promises voters a range of freebies that many political analysts believe will be impossible to fully deliver if he wins the 9 August elections. Will Kenya's 22 million registered voters take the bait?

Can Kenya’s ‘Iron Lady’ Martha Karua push Raila over the top?

Presidential candidate Raila Odinga made Kenyan history this month when he chose as his running mate the first woman to ever join a major party ticket. But will she be able to push the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance leader to the top?

Kenya 2022: Your guide to the four presidential candidates

On 9 August, more than 22 million Kenyan voters will head to polling stations to choose who will be their leader for the next five years. Four men have presented themselves to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta. Who are they, and what are they offering?

Kenya 2022: Is Kenyatta losing his grip to Ruto in home turf of Kiambu County?

Kenya’s general election has been billed as a contest between political dynasties versus self-made politicians. Kiambu County, which is part of the larger Mt. Kenya region, has traditionally been a vote bank for President Uhuru Kenyatta. But with Deputy President William Ruto gaining in strength, will this election mark the end of Kenyatta influence on Kiambu politics?

Kenya 2022: Electoral battlegrounds to watch during polling day

Kenya's two leading presidential candidates are banking on voter turnout in their respective regional strongholds to win the coveted prize. Final opinion polls show former Prime Minister Raila Odinga pulling ahead of Deputy President William Ruto, but a run-off — the first in the nation's history — looms as a possibility. Which regions will determine the big race?

Kenya 2022 elections: Taxes, costlier loans top concerns for businesses ahead of polls

What does Kenya's business community want from the new government that is set to be elected on 9 August?

Kenya 2022: Whose mobilising strategy will win voters?

As Kenya's election day nears, the top presidential contenders William Ruto and Raila Odinga have shifted focus on getting out the vote to ensure a first round win. Who will have the perfect strategy to deliver the knock-out blow on 9 August?

Kenya: Why arrest of Venezuelans fuels fear of post-poll turmoil

What appeared as a normal arrest of  a foreigner at Kenya’s main airport has now turned into a major row between the electoral commission and the police, threatening to throw one of the country’s most competitive elections into disarray. Will the elections be deemed credible after all is done and dusted?

Kenya 2022: Could George Wajackoyah force a runoff between Ruto and Odinga?

Kenya's fringe presidential candidate George Wajackoyah is causing shockwaves in the political battlefield with some analysts fearing that his rising popularity might force a run-off for the first time in the country’s history. Is the Wajackoyah effect real or just a passing cloud?

Kenya 2022: Debt, corruption, and living costs top concerns as Kenyans go to polls

A mix of fear and hope hangs over Kenya as more than 22 million registered voters get the chance to elect the country’s next president on Tuesday.

As Kenya voted, the East Africa region watched in awe, desperation

The East African region has been watching Kenya's recent elections unfold. In Uganda, the election evoked recollections of last year's election, which were characterised by violence meted out on opposition politicians. In South Sudan, one of the countries where Kenyans in the diaspora voted, its citizens wondered when their country will hold its first election. Meanwhile, many Tanzanians praised the maturity of Kenya’s democracy.

Kenya elections 2022: Results awaited as candidates ask why so many people did not vote

As Kenyans wait for final results of the tight presidential race pitting deputy president William Ruto against former prime minister Raila Odinga, questions still linger why Kenyans defied the clarion call to turn out in large numbers and vote. Why did millions of Kenyans stay away?

Kenya 2022: International observers praise voting, warn on disinformation

As Kenyans wait for the final presidential results, international observers – in their preliminary reports – say the voting exercise was largely peaceful, even though there has been spread of disinformation that confused some voters.

Kenya 2022: Elections marred by low-voter turnout, technology failure, bribery

After the polls in one of Kenya’s most competitive elections ended on Tuesday evening, the focus now shifts to counting the presidential votes. Who between William Ruto and Raila Odinga will win the coveted prize?

Kenya 2022: Why Kenyans must wait before results are announced

22.1 million Kenyan voters are expected to head to their voting stations to choose who their leaders for the next five years will be. However, Kenyans will have to wait nearly a week to find out who will be the winner of this highly anticipated election due to the strict legal regime of the tallying process. We break down the process and voting technicalities.

Kenya 2022: Ruto declared winner of presidential election, Raila to contest in court

After nearly a week of tallying ballots, Kenya's Independent Electoral Bureau Commission (IEBC) has officially declared Deputy President William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza Alliance as the fifth president of the country.

Kenya 2022: Raila and Ruto are poaching star journalists as the independent media declines

With less than six months before one of the tightest presidential elections in Kenya’s history, the two main contenders have recruited journalists for leading roles in their campaign.

Kenya: Why does the electoral commission struggle with elections each time?

Despite being allocated billions of shillings every five years, the electoral body continues to fail the test of delivering a free, fair and verifiable presidential election leaving many voters worried about the country’s political future. Is delivering an uncontested presidential election in Kenya an impossible task? And what really happened this time round?