April 29th 2017

Top Stories / 2017 Elections

Is Kiraitu Murungi counting his last days in politics?

At many stops on the way, the Meru people didn't have time for the senator's name or his address. The president, eager to make his journey successful, appealed to Mr Murungi not to speak at events and the senator was left behind in some of the trading centres the president visited.

By Phillip MuleeMonday, 23 Jan 2017 12:54 EAT

Senator Murungi (r) welcomes President Kenyatta and his deputy Ruto to an event in Meru. On Mr Murungi's right in Governor Munya (partially hidden).

Meru Senator Kiraitu Murungi wielded immense powers following the 2002 election that brought President Mwai Kibaki to power. Mr Murungi, then the Justice Minister, was the most powerful cabinet member and with his Interior colleague Chris Murangaru they shaped national events from the cabinet to the constitution-making sphere at the Bomas of Kenya.

Despite his civil society background, Mr Murungi was a reactionary to the core, as has been well documented in former anti-corruption czar John Githongo’s seminal work on Kibaki-era corruption: It's Our Turn to Eat. Reactionary or not, Mr Murungi was a national politician, playing in the leagues of Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, to mention only those still playing definitive political roles.

During those periods of intense competition between Kibaki- and Raila-led factions in government, Mr Murungi’s choice battles always were projects deemed as inimical to Raila's political advancement. Not many people thought even then that Mr Murungi was his own man. A colourless politician prone to gaffes, he derived his powers not from his authority or political acumen but from the national elite then doing everything possible to stop Raila.

Fast forward fifteen years and Mr Murungi is fighting battles in the Meru village, where, with the benefit of hindsight, he always belonged. And it is becoming dramatically clear by the day that he's losing the village battle – to a politician 17 years his junior despite massive government operations in his favour.

On Saturday, Mr Murungi was embarrassed by his own constituents in a way many a politician would not stomach, when he accompanied President Uhuru Kenyatta to sensitise Meru County residents to register as voters. At many stops on the way, the Meru people didn't have time for the senator's name or his address. The president, eager to make his journey successful, appealed to Mr Murungi not to speak at events and the senator was left behind in some of the trading centres the president visited.

In Mr Murungi's heydays, it would be hard to imagine him facing the slightest hostility from Kenyans, leave alone his own people who have elected him election after election since 1992. But times come with change and Mr Murungi would better heed his people's calls for his dignified retirement from politics to save his face from the beckoning crash.

The senator's headache is personified in the Meru Governor Peter Munya, his former apprentice turned critic. Unlike Mr Murungi who depends on mighty forces for his local politics, the fast-talking Munya is endearing himself to the people as being his own man. As the chairman of the Council of Governors, Mr Munya has gained a level of national recognition Mr Murungi can only dream of: being elevated to a respected position by his peers rather than some puppeteers pulling the strings for his political successes.

Leading a party is something Mr Murungi has craved for all his political life, and Mr Munya is also the leader of the Party of National Unity (PNU). When Mr Murungi was the undisputed kingpin of the Meru community since 2003 and a favoured member of the Kibaki inner circle, he was instrumental in multiple efforts to form a viable political party. These included Narc-Kenya, from which he and others were muscled out by Martha Karua.

He was eventually involved in forming the PNU, which he babysitted for some months after the 2007 elections but expectedly abandoned the moment Kibaki himself lost interest in it. Between 2008-11, Mr Murungi led even more efforts to form a party for the anti-Raila side of the grand coalition, camping in Naivasha with another party hack, Noah Wekesa. The proposals included PNU Alliance, PDM, G7 Alliance and even the National Alliance, long before Uhuru’s TNA came on the scene.

By the time Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto united to form the Jubilee Alliance, Mr Murungi balked out, and together with Munya he formed the Alliance Party of Kenya as a tool for the Meru community to assert itself politically against Uhuru’s TNA.

Weeks to the election, however, the president made a u-turn and endorsed Mr Murungi  for the senate seat while campaigning hard against Munya. TNA withdrew its candidate against Mr Murungi, but the one against Mr Munya (former assistant minister for education Kilemi Mwiria) was provided with substantial resources to beat the mercurial governor who even then could not be completely trusted to toe the pro-Uhuru line.

As fate would have it, Mr Munya prevailed in the end, and his alliance with Mr Murungi crumbled due to suspicions about the "double-dealing" the former energy minister employed in the election. As the party leader of APK, Mr Murungi teamed up with Jubilee in the Senate and national politics, his positions diverging gradually from Mr Munya's on such hotly-debated issues as corruption, role of governors and the on-and-off efforts by various groups to reform the constitution and empower county governments.

In the most recent highlight of Mr Murungi’s chameleon-like behavior, the senator turned against the bipartisan pact on electoral reforms that he and Siaya senator James Orengo had negotiated. That a national leader of Mr Murungi's calibre could speak so forcefully against the law, just a month after he described its passing a landmark achievement of bipartisanship, spoke volumes about his political inconsistency that Mr Munya and his other opponents in Meru have been railing against.

Mr Munya decamped to PNU, which has become the party to watch in Meru and neighbouring Tharaka Nithi. On his part, Mr Murungi is banking on government support to promote the so-called KIKALI banner that brings him together with Florence Kajuju (Women Representative) and (Mithika) Linturi (Senator aspirant).

“When you see politicians turn to violence and ripping campaign billboards of opponents, you know they are on their way out,” Peter Mithika, a boda boda rider in Meru Town, told the Kenya Free Press. If the events witnessed on Saturday are anything to go by, then Mr Murungi could be counting his last days in politics.

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