Kenya’s political titans gear up for electoral fight

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Normally, the vice-president would enjoy all the benefits of incumbency. But Ruto has fallen out with the president, who is throwing his weight behind Odinga for what will be one of Africa’s most important elections this year, a process that has been marred in the past by violence and allegations of fraud.

The reversal of positions has thrown the August contest wide open, says Murithi Mutiga, programme director for Africa at the International Crisis Group. “Kenya is one of the few countries [in Africa] where you go into an election without knowing who is going to win.”

As campaigning steps up for a contest that will also include elections for parliament and 47 local assemblies, assumptions about who might win the presidency have been turned upside down.

Both Kenyatta and Odinga are members of Kenya’s political royalty, the sons of two of the nation’s founding fathers. Ruto despite a decade as vice-president is now very much the outsider.

He is taking to his new role with gusto. One of Kenya’s richest businessmen — not unusual for top politicians — he has nevertheless presented himself as the candidate for a “hustler nation”. At rallies in which he has given out wheelbarrows, handcarts and other incentives to unemployed youth, he has burnished a rags-to-riches story and contrasted his supposedly humble political pedigree with that of Odinga and Kenyatta.

Meanwhile Odinga, an East German-educated social democrat who was a political prisoner for six years in the 1980s, suddenly finds himself the establishment candidate. “He has been there so long, if he doesn’t make it now, he has no more chances,” said Daniel Musyimi, who charges 40 cents for a shoe shine at a roadside spot in Naivasha.

Some political analysts say Odinga’s victory is assured because he has the power of the state behind him. But Mutiga of the International Crisis Group said the result was unpredictable because neither Odinga, a Luo, nor Ruto, a Kalenjin, came from the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group. “The absence of an elite consensus makes the election quite dangerous,” he added, referring to the violence that has scarred successive tightly fought contests.

The worst came after the 2007 election when 1,300 people were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Ruto was indicted for alleged orchestration of post-election violence along with Kenyatta by the International Criminal Court. Charges were later dropped.

“I came within an inch of my life,” said Mark Omondi of the terror that gripped Naivasha in the days after the 2007 election. “I won’t vote this time because my vote will come and kill me.”

Peter Kenneth, a former politician and businessman, said he thought violence would be limited and that leading contenders — concerned about the international reaction — would refrain from stoking trouble.

A bigger threat to electoral integrity, he said, was the increasing influence of money in a system where victory, at local and national level, was seen as a path to patronage. Surveys show that many Kenyans see political office as the quickest way to get rich.

Kenneth cited a lack of trust between the public and their leaders. “The electorate says, we have to milk the candidates now. Once they get elected we won’t see them again.”

In his two terms, Kenyatta has completed several big-ticket infrastructure projects, including a $4bn railway, racking up worrying amounts of debt in the process. But Kagwiria says there has been little obvious improvement in the lives of millions of ordinary Kenyans.

The government says it has improved access to health, electricity and housing. This month, though, in acknowledgment of persistent hardship — and the need to butter up the electorate — it increased the minimum wage by 12 per cent.

Still, people’s difficulties have been exacerbated by months of Covid-19 lockdown and by rising food and fuel prices, only likely to get worse with the war in Ukraine. The government has failed to control rampant corruption, with the odd show-trial failing to quell the public’s impression that graft is endemic at all levels.

Despite its reputation as a freewheeling business environment, including one of Africa’s most innovative tech hubs, Kenya has struggled to sustain transformative growth. Its per capita income is still less than $2,000 and the number of Kenyans in absolute poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 a day, doubled between 1990 and 2018, a period during which Ghana managed to halve its poverty numbers, according to World Bank data.

Though Kagwiria is an economics graduate from a prestigious Kenyan university she has not been able to find well-paid work. Instead she runs a phone-box-sized kiosk in the provincial town of Naivasha where she sells bottled water, batteries and single cigarettes, and tops up customers’ phone credit.

“I studied economics but there is no work so I decided to do business,” she said. Some others in the neighbourhood were much worse off, she added, hustling for a living by doing odd jobs or sweeping the streets.

Many remain sceptical that real change will ever come. “These big big people are very corrupt. They keep money in sacks in their houses,” said Wasike Robai, a vegetable vendor in Nairobi, of the political class. “How can a rich person come to help a poor person up? If I’m poor, I will remain poor.”

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