As the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) ‘reggae’ continues to reverberate across the political landscape, one thing that is crystal clear is that the 2022 drumbeats are being sounded alongside the reggae tunes.
At the centre of the 2022 political duel is ODM leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto. That BBI — whose initial aim was to unite the country — has been turned into a veiled rehearsal for this grand political battle is increasingly becoming evident.
With a looming referendum, the stage is clearly set for a Raila-Ruto duel, with President Uhuru Kenyatta — whose political truce with Raila led to the BBI — playing in the background. Apparently, Mr Odinga, whose political fortunes appeared to dwindle after the contentious 2017 elections, has successfully taken advantage of BBI to reinvigorate his political relevance as he prepares to make a final stab at the presidency.
On the other hand, Ruto —Raila’s former ally-turned-foe — is not resting on his laurels. He is alive to the fact that President Kenyatta’s promise that he will support him in 2022 is now water under the bridge.
At the heart of this ferocious political duel is the quest by the two arch-rivals to control the vote-rich Gema nation. There is no doubt that the two politicians have solid backing in their respective ethnic backyards. Mr Odinga enjoys a near fanatical following in Nyanza and Dr Ruto’s Rift Valley bloc is unwavering in its support of him. They know too well that for one to win the presidency, the Gema nation, with close to two million votes, is crucial. The Gema nation is up for grabs as it does not have a de facto political kingpin and presidential contender.
While Raila is using the BBI to endear himself to the region that has hitherto been hostile to him, Ruto has brought on board vocal MPs who help to endear him to the people at the grassroots. Ruto has also been able to leverage on his position as the deputy president to visit the region frequently, ostensibly to launch development projects. Through this, the DP has clearly managed to shore up his popularity in the region with his messages resonating with the common man, hence pulling the rug from under Raila’s feet.
The question many political pundits are grappling with is whether Raila will penetrate the region. Apparently, as it is, the stakes in Central region are against Raila despite his relentless efforts. For a long time, the region has been made to believe Raila is an enemy of the Kikuyu.Ironically, no one has promoted this narrative more than the president himself. In the run-up to 2013 and 2017 elections, Raila was demonised and labeled the greatest enemy of the Gema people. He was called muguruki (mad man) and a senile old man who should leave Uhuru to run the country.
Uhuru and his allies made these references to Raila so emotionally that the people believed them. While at this, Uhuru praised Ruto and told his people not to forget him in 2022.
Fast forward to 2018. Because of the so-called handshake, the president has now been telling Mount Kenya residents to forget the past and work with Raila in ‘building the country’. This reality has clearly become hard to sell in the region. To many of the residents, Raila is still the enemy they had in the previous years.
Vocal MPs from the region allied to Ruto have capitalised on this to popularise him. The remarks by Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua during Ruto’s visit in Murang’a last Friday captures the prevailing perception of Raila in the region. Mr Gachugua stated: “We support Uhuru Kenyatta but we cannot sell Raila in Central Kenya. We have tried, but it cannot work.”
The same sentiments are shared by MPs Moses Kuria (Gatundu South), Ndindi Nyoro (Kiharu) and Kimani Ichung’wa (Kikuyu). Moreover, Central’s unease with Raila can partly be traced to historical differences between the Luo and the Kikuyu that arose from the political war that pitted Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and opposition doyen Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
What complicates matters for Raila in Mount Kenya is the fact that he is hoping that his closeness with the president will convince residents of the region to vote for him.
This is a tricky situation because as it is, Mount Kenya residents have clearly moved away from the president as their political kingpin. To them, the president, who is serving his final term, has no ‘political future’ and therefore cannot give them political direction. The near-fanatical following he enjoyed in the recent years has waned.
Raila and his allies hope that the calls to amend the constitution through BBI and create a prime minister’s post — that some want handed to Uhuru — will sway Mount Kenya region to his side. But this clearly has not been received with a lot of enthusiasm.
Scores in Mount Kenya feel disillusioned by the president as they claim he has not done a lot in terms of development despite the massive support they have accorded him.
Fortunately, the writing is on the wall for Raila. A few tell-tale signs will suffice to illustrate that all is not rosy for him in Mount Kenya. A local Kikuyu musician had a rough time recently in a club in Githurai when he tried to sing a song in which the president was being praised.
People, it is said, demanded that he sings in praise of Ruto and when he did this, the revellers were thrown into a frenzy. During his interaction with the people in Nyeri last Friday, the president was reportedly told by the residents to greet Ruto on his return to Nairobi. This is after Uhuru had talked to them and dissuaded them from listening to those who have divergent views against BBI.
The biggest mistake Raila is making in wooing Mount Kenya is to depend on functionaries in Uhuru’s government who do not want Ruto near the president for their own ulterior motives. These power-brokers and political wheeler-dealers do not hold sway on the ground and anyone depending on them is committing political suicide.
The bottom line is, Raila has an uphill task in convincing the region to vote for him and the worst mistake he is making is to depend on the president and BBI to sell himself in the region. This will not work. He needs to go back to the drawing board and craft better ways of wooing the region. Frequent visits there and directly engaging the people is the best starting point for him.