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Kenya: Just Who Has the Crowds? Odinga and Ruto Flex Political Muscle

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Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga have started aggressive campaigns targeting political battlegrounds that are key to their victory in the 2022 elections.

The Ruto team has identified the Coast, Ukambani, Gusiiland, Western, Kuria region in Migori, and the Maa counties of Narok, Kajiado and Samburu, as zones that can be yanked away from ODM, if the aggressive campaigner — known to do as many as seven rallies in a single day — bombards them with his campaign messaging.

The Sunday Nation analysed the 45 delegations the Deputy President has hosted at his Karen and Sugoi residences since the Covid-19 pandemic started, and what has emerged is that the DP zeroed in on the Maa counties, hosting seven delegations in five months, often of community leaders that have the respect of the smaller groupings he wants them to target to sell his image.

He has also hosted five delegations from the Gusii region, often accompanied by MPs allied to him; while for the Coast, he pitched tent there for two days, hosting delegation after delegation late last month.

And there is a reason for the choice of these zones: they have in the past largely been behind Mr Odinga, but a spirited campaign by the ruling Jubilee Party prior to the 2017 General Election not only increased the party’s numbers in the regions, but also showed that they were potential battle zones given the right motivation and campaign messaging.

Fighting back

But Mr Odinga is fighting back. At the Coast, he has just completed a tour, a week after the DP left, during which he reassured the region of his support while promising a swift resolution to the revenue allocation impasse.

In 2017, Jubilee managed 258,000 votes, up from 158,000 in 2013 from Coast, which was firmly behind Mr Odinga in the 2007 and 2013 elections. The UhuRuto team also gained two governors, snatching Kwale’s Salim Mvurya from ODM and using Lamu’s Fahim Twaha to beat ANC’s Issa Timamy.

A few days before he went to the Coast, Mr Odinga hosted what he called a ” a high-powered delegation” from Kajiado County, a swing vote area, which together with Narok, Samburu, and parts of Laikipia make up an enviable vote bloc of the Maa region that any leading presidential candidate will be seeking to get a pie of.

In Maasailand, President Kenyatta won Narok and Samburu counties, and retained Kajiado, in 2017, but the margins were small — giving impetus to both leaders to push to get a piece of the regions that were divided down the middle between the two sides, although with one strong foot in Mr Odinga’s camp. In the five months from April, Mr Ruto has hosted seven delegations from the two counties of Narok and Kajiado.

“What gives the Deputy President the edge is the neglect of those regions by Raila even after standing with him for all those years,” said Belgut MP Nelson Koech.

But ODM Director of Elections Junet Mohamed rubbished the DP’s visits to the ODM zones as inconsequential.

“He will get zero. He has lost hope in the Jubilee strongholds and now he wants to try and win over the ODM strongholds. But in this, Ruto has lost the development carrot he used to dangle to these zones. He is now more opposition than government,” said Mr Mohamed, also the National Assembly Minority Whip.

Political bastion

For Central Kenya, the restive political bastion of his boss President Uhuru Kenyatta, Mr Ruto has adopted a different approach: church leaders. In all, the DP has hosted 11 delegations of church leaders from Central Kenya.

Keen to tap on what is a huge voting bloc of the religious groups in Kenya, Mr Ruto believes that through the Church he can kill two birds with one stone: cultivate the image of a God-fearing leader and tap into Kenya’s strictly religious vote, as well as build his portfolio speaking directly to the people through the legions of clerics and religious leaders allied to him. Mr Odinga has also attacked Mr Ruto’s newfound relationship with the Church, terming the alliance “unholy” .

The ongoing debate on a revenue-sharing formula that could see marginalised counties in the Maa, North Eastern and the Coast losing and the populated ones in Central, Rift Valley and Western gaining has given the DP a chance to steer the debate in his favour.

With his win-win formula mantra, the DP has marshalled the marginalised counties — most of them previously seen as Odinga zones — and pushed the idea that devolution should never be about winners or losers, a position that seems to clash with Mr Odinga’s, who together with the President is in favour of the one man, one shilling formula.

“Raila has opted to go around scolding senators from big counties for standing with the small counties,” Mr Koech said on the DP’s stand in the revenue debate.

ODM secretary-general Edwin Sifuna believes the DP’s visits to these zones are just that, visits, which will not translate into votes.

“Nothing will change, regardless of how many trips Ruto makes into those regions. They know who he is,” said Mr Sifuna.

In Nyanza, Mr Ruto is backed by the huge leap of votes in Nyamira and Kisii, and the neighbouring Migori County where Jubilee won the Kuria East and Kuria West parliamentary seats — both from the Kuria region agitating for their own county — that gave Jubilee their biggest win yet in Mr Odinga’s own backyard.

Mr Ruto on Thursday braved protests against him to address a rally in which he maintained his message against Mr Odinga, whom he said was not in touch with the ‘hustler’ nation that he so proudly identifies with.

Firm grip

After the 2017 elections, Mr Ruto has maintained a firm grip on Kuria politics, with MPs Marwa Maisori (Kuria East) and his Kuria West counterpart Mathias Robi being his closest allies and point men in the region.

At some point, owing to his long-standing relationship with Migori Governor Okoth Obado, Mr Ruto had made inroads in the ODM-controlled Migori, much to the chagrin of Mr Odinga and his troops.

Mr Ruto, Mr Mohamed said, is wasting his time in Migori.

“There is no political significance to his visits. Nothing. The people in ODM strongholds are enjoying the cash he is distributing all over, but in the end, they know where their votes will go,” said Mr Mohamed, the MP for Suna East, in Migori County.

In Western, Jubilee snatched 12 MP seats in the polls from a region widely controlled by Mr Odinga, and with Amani National Congress (ANC) leader Musalia Mudavadi and his Ford-Kenya counterpart Moses Wetang’ula fully behind him.

Win four seats

While President Kenyatta had garnered a paltry 66,000 votes from the four Western counties in 2013, in 2017, this figure went up eightfold, raking in an impressive 242,000 votes — a figure Mr Ruto, going by his frequent visits and delegations, is looking to match or surpass.

In an area that did not have any Jubilee MP in the 2013-2017 Parliament, Jubilee managed to win four of the 12 MP seats in Kakamega — Ikolomani, Malava, Navakholo and Mumias East — with Mr Ruto having since won over former senator Boni Khalwale.

Due to his closeness to Mr Ruto, Mumias East MP Benjamin Washiali was fired from his Minority Whip post, which was snapped up by Navakholo’s Emmanuel Wangwe, his neighbour in the expansive, populous county.

Kakamega is run by Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, a second-term governor who deputises Mr Odinga in the Orange party.

“These are nothing new. We saw similar onslaughts in the run up to previous elections but the ground remained solidly behind Baba (Raila),” Mr Sifuna said of the DP’s forays into Western Kenya.

The other battleground for Mr Ruto and Mr Odinga is the youth vote. Kenya is projected to have 29.4 million voters by 2022, a whopping 10 million more than those registered as voters in the 2017 election — a significant number of them being the young people.

For this, Mr Ruto has hosted five delegations of youth from Nairobi counties — the other traditional battleground in Kenya, with the vote divided almost down the middle between President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga in the 2013 and 2017 polls.

Mr Odinga was not amused with the youth visits to Karen. “You are there giving them wheelbarrows, motorbikes, water tanks to help their business. But isn’t that money factored in the government budget? You dish out Sh100 million in one month, yet your salary is not even above Sh2 million. Where do you get the money?” Mr Odinga asked in Mombasa.

While in Kisii, Mr Ruto pushed back, saying Mr Odinga ” was born in riches and so has no idea why we need a cart, a wheelbarrow or a motorbike.”

“On dealing with hustlers, Raila should leave that to me. He does not understand the plight of hustlers. He is the son of a vice president and he was born being driven around,” the DP said, insisting on his message of being the “hustler nation” leader.

With a little under 700 days to the August 8, 2022 General Election, the fight for the battle zones for the DP and Mr Odinga continues, each sizing the other up to see just how much they can gain from these zones that will be the decider if the politicians’ current strongholds stay intact.

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