Mid-term by-elections are always tricky business for incumbents. But the two by-elections, one at the Coast, traditionally an opposition zone, and the other in the Rift Valley, where political temperatures often rise to boiling point, not only tested the Jubilee Coalition’s mettle in unexpected ways but more worryingly, also raised questions about the prospects of a violence-free election in 2017.
The by-elections were triggered by a double case of political poaching – or rather, the Executive’s poaching of the political set for personnel. Playing very close to the constitutional edge, President Uhuru Kenyatta raided the political class to fill two cabinet positions, made vacant by a corruption purge last year that forced out five cabinet secretaries.
The 2010 Kenyan constitution explicitly forbids sitting politicians from serving in the cabinet. It’s a departure from the old dispensation in which cabinet positions were valuable sinecures distributed by incumbents among ethnic clients to shore up their national credentials. After initially appointing a lean cabinet of professionals and technocrats when he came to power in 2013, Kenyatta has found it difficult to resist the old urges.
Two cabinet seats were still vacant after Kenyatta had reorganised his cabinet. Politically weak at the Coast and sensing a chance to shore up his standing there among a restive group of opposition Coalition of Reforms and Democracy MPs, Kenyatta appointed freshman MP for Malindi constituency, Dan Kazungu Muzee (Orange Democratic Movement/Cord coalition), 45, as his cabinet secretary (CS) for mining.
In Kericho County, home of the Kipsigis, the largest Kalenjin sub-group, Charles Keter, the former senator there and a close confidant of Deputy President William Samoei Ruto, was made a cabinet secretary for energy and petroleum.
Jubilee’s assumption appeared to be that the Kericho by-election involved a mere changing of the guard. Instead, local resentments flared up. Ruto was perceived to have handpicked Aaron Cheruiyot, the 30-year-old Jubilee candidate.
There was, in addition, popular anger to do with wider issues. Ruto, the putative leader of the Kalenjin, has been pushing for the dissolution of his own United Republican Party, whose ethnic base is the Kalenjin-dominated southern and northern Rift Valley. Since last year, he has been fronting a merger with Kenyatta’s party, The National Alliance, to form the Jubilee Alliance Party.
Kericho and the URP core are resentful of not having been properly consulted on the merger idea. As a result, Ruto has fallen out with some old allies, some of whom just happen to be Kipsigis. Among the more notable Ruto critics are neighbouring Bomet county governor, Isaac Ruto, once one of DP Ruto’s most vocal supporters and now his biggest detractor; and the former powerful Moi internal security permanent secretary (PS), Zakayo Cheruiyot, himself an MP.
Teaming up with former ruling party KANU’s Gideon Moi, they were to present the most serious challenge to Ruto’s leadership since he forcibly wrested the Kalenjin leadership mantle from former president Daniel arap Moi in 2007.
The Jubilee Coalition did not win Malindi and only dubiously held onto the Kericho senate seat, amid pointed allegations of vote-rigging and collusion with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which supervised both elections.
Indeed, the IEBC’s performance during the by-elections was a subject in itself. Both by-elections witnessed several cases of violence and blatant voter bribery, which the electoral body appeared utterly unable to deal with.
Already reeling from a series of corruption allegations related to its performance during the 2013 general elections and which feature IEBC chairman, Isaak Hassan, new CEO, Ezra Chiloba and several top officials, both serving and not, there are now even more worrying questions about whether the electoral body will not have to be disbanded before the August 2017 elections. Former prime minister, Raila Odinga’s CORD Alliance’s victory in Malindi may have been a rousing one but it came at a cost, namely the targeting of some of its key point men at the Coast. Its candidate Willy Mtengo walloped Jubilee’s Philip Charo, by 6,000-plus votes after he garnered 15,582 votes to Charo’s 9,243. Voter turnout was low; there are 55,853 registered voters in the constituency. But although this was a by-election, and therefore low turnouts are to be expected, especially at the Coast where voters are historically apathetic, the level of violence witnessed may have also played a part in people choosing to stay home.
Few by-elections in recent times have been as fiercely contested as Malindi. Kenyatta had signalled his determination to stamp his authority on the Coast as far back as December last year when he spent three weeks in the region. Much of his trip was devoted to attempting to win over a rump of coastal politicians in the opposition who appeared to be warming up to the government.
An ugly pubic spat with powerful Mombasa governor, Ali Hassan Joho, 43, may have done long-term damage to Kenyatta’s prospects of winning the masses over. Peeved that Kenyatta had not paid him a courtesy visit, Joho publicly rebuked the president at a meeting in Mombasa in early January. While the president was politic enough not to respond to the provocation, one of his key lieutenants, Nairobi Senator Mike ‘Sonko’ Mbuvi, appeared to have taken personal offence at the perceived humiliation of the president and thrown in some crude barbs on behalf of his boss.
Isolated as it was, the face-off in Mombasa punctuated a strongly-held perception among Coastal indigenes of official madharau – the kind of contempt with which “Coasterians” feel they have historically been treated by upcountry people.
In addition, the government’s counter-insurgency war of the past decade has not won it many friends. Families, especially in Mombasa and Malindi, have had young men arbitrarily arrested and sometimes disappeared on suspicions that they were al-Shabaab recruits, or belonged to the Mombasa Republican Council, a secessionist group articulating Coastal historical land grievances at the hands of Wabara, upcountry people.
“[President Kenyatta] cannot purport to address historical (land) injustices by a three-week visitation, where you dish out some title deeds to a few indigenous people and expect people to ululate and now follow you forthwith,” says a Joho confidante, referring to Kenyatta’s recent attempts to woo Coast voters.
Despite the president and his allies’ best efforts, Jubilee managed 34% of the vote in Malindi – the same as it received at the Coast in the 2013 general elections.
“Not only were hundreds of millions of Kenya shillings spent on a single constituency, but never has a constituency been campaigned for by so many competing MPs,” said a senior member of governor Hassan Joho’s government.
Jubilee laid siege to Malindi. A hundred Jubilee MPs and senators camped for weeks in Malindi, campaigning for Charo.
“The stakes were very high, but I knew Malindi was a tall order for the ruling coalition,” says Kabando wa Kabando, a central Kenya Jubilee MP and a vocal Kenyatta supporter.
“The Jubilee Coalition luminaries led by the deputy president Ruto descended on Malindi and crisscrossed the entire constituency in the hope of swaying the electorate,” remarks the Joho confidante.
For CORD, Malindi was a bittersweet victory. In the aftermath of the win, at least two of CORD’s point men at the Coast, Hassan Joho and Kilifi County governor, Amason Kingi, find themselves in trouble with the authorities.
In recent weeks, a port warehousing and clearance company owned by Joho’s family has been suspended from its operations at the port by the Kenya Revenue Authority on allegations that it was smuggling contraband sugar and rice. Joho and Amason Kingi have also had their official security and gun licences withdrawn.
The writing on the wall is clear: dissent will not be tolerated.
In addition, ODM leaders including Joho could be facing charges for campaign-related violence. Several of the party’s leading lights were implicated in attacks against Jubilee sympathisers. Like Jubilee, the opposition campaigned heavily in Malindi, sending 50 MPs to the constituency. Lacking their opponent’s financial firepower, they resorted to more strong-arm tactics to “protect their vote”. Even if they do face court charges, there remains an abiding perception among Coastal voters that the opposition’s luminaries are being unfairly targeted.
In Kericho, where the pro-Ruto candidate Aaron Cheruiyot polled 109,358 votes against KANU’s Paul Sang, who garnered 56,307, the bitterly-fought contest has opened deep fissures in the deputy president’s stronghold.
“The deputy president was startled and for some time was worried that the seat would slip away, and with it his grip on the Kalenjin nation,” reveals a Ruto insider.
It may have looked like a family squabble, but much was riding on it. Kenyatta wisely stayed away.
“It was going to be dicey for Uhuru to be seen to take sides in Kericho,” says a Jubilee insider. Kenyatta’s dilemma is that he is close to both Deputy President William Ruto and KANU’s Gideon Moi, the latter’s father having been his political mentor.
Behind the “Uhu-Ruto” bonhomie, there are murmurs that all is not as it should be. Much of this has to do with the president’s attempt to purge his administration of corruption. It was lost on no one that Ruto’s URP faction in government dominated the president’s List of Shame of 175 public officials that he tabled before parliament in March last year. Of the five ministers forced to resign, four were URP supporters.
Ruto’s political latitude has been hamstrung by his case at the ICC. A verdict on his “No Case to Answer” petition at The Hague will be made at the end of March 2016. Many think that this will determine the future of the relationship between the two Jubilee principals.
In his Rift Valley backyard, however, this sense of being shortchanged even while they are supposedly equal partners in the Jubilee Coalition is at the heart of Ruto’s current difficulties.
Again, it was money that allegedly swayed the vote in Jubilee’s favour, as the Ruto camp attempted to sway the stubborn electorate. The Electoral Commission’s silence on these allegations has raised eyebrows.
For the IEBC, their performance during the elections may be the least of their worries. A 2014 court case instituted by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office against a London printer, Smith and Ouzman, strongly implicated the Commission’s chairman and senior officials in taking kickbacks. While Smith and Ouzman were convicted and are serving jail terms, Nairobi’s authorities have mysteriously failed to retrieve sufficient evidence to charge the alleged bribe-takers.
More recently, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee in late March recommended criminal proceedings against IEBC chairman Hassan, CEO Ezra Chiloba and other senior officials for a procurement scandal related to materials for the 2013 elections.
Whether or not the IEBC leadership survives this latest onslaught, many believe that their vulnerability exposes them to the possibility of state manipulation. That could well prove decisive in the outcome of next year’s election.