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Vol 62 No 23

Published 18th November 2021


Cash takes on the kingpins

Raila Odinga's presidential bid relies on the grandees, while his rival William Ruto focuses on the money

With less than ten months before the presidential elections next year, the two leading contenders are almost certain to be veteran oppositionist Raila Odinga, now 'handshake' partner to President Uhuru Kenyatta, who will face Kenyatta's deputy William Ruto.

Unless a credible and well-financed third candidate bursts on the scene in the next few weeks or calamity strikes one of the two leaders, it will be an Odinga-Ruto race (AC Vol 59 No 6, Raila beats rivals to a new deal).

Each is building the complex alliances necessary to win in Kenya's electoral system and showing the differences in their tactics as they do so.

For decades, Odinga has built his credo as the outsider, the people's tribune taking on the establishment. This time, he's shed that pretence. Backing from the establishment, from President Kenyatta onwards, is driving Odinga's campaign.

His rival, Ruto, who launched his career as a uber-loyalist to President Daniel arap Moi and spearheaded the youth wing of the old ruling party, Kenya African Union (KANU), is styling himself as the rebel outsider, idealising the hard-working 'hustler'.

Odinga will rely on tribal blocs and endorsements from regional kingpins, chiefly via a formal merger with President Kenyatta's Jubilee party due to be formalised at a special conference this month. 

Jubilee's plans to finalise a coalition with Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) will finalise Kenyatta's slow and messy divorce of Ruto. It was the 'handshake' deal of 2018 in which Kenyatta and Odinga recognised their mutual advantage in collaboration. They were presidential rivals in the 2012 and 2017 elections. 

As soon as it emerged that Kenyatta would not endorse his deputy to succeed him in 2022, Ruto's exit from Jubilee looked certain (AC Vol 62 No 5, Jubilee tent gets smaller). 

Raila's campaign, although yet to be formally launched, is a governor-heavy entourage, including from Central province of Kikuyu and Meru voters: Nyandarua's Francis Kimemia, Meru's Kiraitu Murungi, Kiambu's James Nyoro, and governors Lee Kinyanjui and Ndiritu Muriithi from Nakuru and Laikipia. 

His supporters believe that this will secure the Kikuyu vote which has thwarted Odinga's three previous presidential bids (AC Vol 62 No 21, Raila beats Ruto as the oligarchs' favourite).

Nasa problem
What happens with Odinga's erstwhile allies in the National Super Alliance (Nasa) could be more problematic. All of them have their presidential ambitions and reasons to distrust Odinga:  Ford Kenya's Moses Wetangula, Amani National Congress's Musalia Mudavadi, and the Wiper party's Kalonzo Musyoka joined by Kenya African National Union chairman Gideon Moi.

Recently, Odinga has secured a string of endorsements from Musyoka's turf in Kamba land. Alfred Mutua (who had launched his own presidential bid in September), Charity Ngilu and Kivutha Kibwana from Machakos, Kitui and Makueni respectively, who have all called for regional kingpin Musyoka of the One Kenya Alliance to join Odinga. 

Having formed OKA in protest at being marginalised by the 'handshake' politics of Odinga and Kenyatta, the four leaders in the minor league – Mudavadi, Musyoka, Gideon Moi and Wetangula – are keeping their powder dry. 

With the exception of Moi, who harbours enmity against fellow Kalenjin Ruto, the leaders have substantial negotiating power in the coming months. Failure by Odinga to secure their support would erode his share of the vote, particularly in the western and lower eastern regions. 

Odinga knows that he must draw millions of votes in Central Kenya region. That's why Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua, along with a host of county governors from around Mount Kenya, have been proposed as running mates.

Ruto is trying his 'hustler nation' message, emphasising his humble roots, combined with cash handouts at mass rallies, reminiscent of Donald Trump's populist tactics in the United States. 

Dismissing the idea of alliances, Ruto wants to promote his United Democratic Alliance as a populist challenge to the established ethnic bloc politics. Ruto reckons that Jubilee will be hollowed out if he can persuade enough senior politicians to defect to the UDA.

Ruto calculates that Odinga's support from central province governors is an elite project lacking traction at the grassroots. Less interested in winning over county governors, Ruto has been campaigning with party MPs, focusing on young voters. 

UDA's by-election success in Central Kenya's Kiambaa constituency and Mugaga ward in Kiambu boosted his confidence in these tactics. After courting Central Kenya alongside President Kenyatta during the 2012 and 2017 elections, Ruto claims to be confident that Kenyatta's declaration of 'kumi yangu, kumi ya Ruto' loosely translated as 'my ten years followed by Ruto's ten', will be delivered. 

Then there is the money. Ruto is handing out wads of banknotes on his tour, envelopes of cash to small business owners, street grocers, motorbike taxis and others, for 'the youth and mama mboga to boost their businesses'. 

This isn't a new tactic for Kenyan politicians. But the sums that Ruto is giving out are stunning: in a couple of hours on a trip to Homa Bay last week, deep in Odinga's Luo heartland, he handed out 2 million Kenya shillings ($20,000). 

That ability to generate cash ensures big campaign rallies; it also encouraged local county assembly politicians to hold rallies with the Ruto. The sources of these mountains of cash remain opaque.

A more formal handout is being offered by Odinga. He promises to create a social security system known as 'Azimio la umoja', a monthly stipend of Ksh6,000 ($60) for poor Kenyans if he becomes President. It is part of what he described as Kenya's 'third stage of development', to establish a welfare state.

So far, neither candidate has established a clear lead on his rival. But Ruto is seen as the better organised and more determined of the two although Odinga may prove the wiliest, and the less disliked.

Ruto has been rattled by Meru Governor Murungi opting to back Odinga. Accusing those politicians fronting for the ODM leader of duping residents, Ruto said Jubilee could not govern for two terms on the strength of eight million votes and then get 'auctioned off' to the ODM leader.

Both candidates are likely to select running mates from Central Kenya; of the two, Odinga who faces the tougher choice as he builds his coalition. Under pressure from Mount Kenya to select a Kikuyu running mate he also knows that doing so would risk pushing Musyoka, Mudavadi or Wetan'gula into Ruto's arms.

It is unclear whether a formal merger between Jubilee and ODM can hold at the grassroots. None of the bigger political parties are ideological. They are either ethnic or personal political vehicles.  

Lower down the food chain, many politicians in both parties would be imperilled if ODM–Jubilee select joint candidates across the board. There are already murmurs of discontent from candidates vying for the Nairobi governorship, who want open primaries to be held. If the management of the cumbersome ODM–Jubilee merger falls apart at the first set of hustings, that would give Ruto a powerful lead in the numbers game.

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