June 28th 2017

Top Stories / 2017 Elections

Uhuru, Sonko alliance holds key to Jubilee unity in Nairobi

What to do with Sonko is the dilemma of Jubilee power elite and the business community, who are united behind the candidature of Dagoretti South MP Dennis Waweru. It is feared in Jubilee circles that Sonko would almost definitely defect from the coalition and run as an independent.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comThursday, 29 Sep 2016 13:21 EAT

President Uhuru Kenyatta with Starehe MP Maina Kamanda (left) and Nairobi senator Mike Sonko (right).

The race for Nairobi’s gubernatorial seat under the newly launched Jubilee Party is shaping up as the toughest nomination battle in Kenya's 2017 elections, with political giants who draw strength from diametrically opposed constituencies, battling not only for the party members' vote but also President Uhuru Kenyatta's and the national business community's endorsement.

So far five aspirants have declared their interest in the seat, but Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko is by far the most popular, well resourced and politically attuned for the looming battle. None other than President Uhuru recognises Sonko's strengths, which is why he recently moved to mend fences with the mercurial senator.

Last month, at the height of the jockeying for Jubilee's ticket among the aspirants, the president gave what many saw as  tacit endorsement of Sonko's candidature. "Let Sonko and Kidero square it out in the race. It's you people who will elect the governor and once elected, let them respect each other and work," the president said, with Sonko beside him.

What to do with Sonko is the dilemma of the Jubilee power elite and Nairobi business leaders, who are united behind the candidature of Dagoretti South MP Dennis Waweru. It is feared in Jubilee circles that Sonko would almost definitely defect from the coalition and run as an independent candidate if Jubilee denied him the nomination.

The other aspirants for the seat include former Starehe MP Margaret Wanjiru, nominated MP Johnson Sakaja and Water and Irrigation Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa. All three have already started campaigning to replace the incumbent Evans Kidero of the CORD coalition.

Jubilee's strategy for Nairobi is focused on capturing the governor's seat which the coalition sees as the biggest political prize in Kenya after the presidency. So concentrated are the coalition's efforts on the governorship that only two of its members have so far declared interest for the senator's position: educationist and former Umoja civic leader Mwalimu Mutinda Kavemba and women activist and ambassador Yvonne Khamati.

Kavemba, who was the first to declare for the seat after ditching the Wiper party, has popularized his candidature for months and is the undisputed front-runner. His marketing pitch to Jubilee is the continuum in the youth, grassroots and ethnic loyalties at the bedrock of Sonko's powerbase.

The five Nairobi governorship aspirants have committed to abide by President Uhuru’s advice that losers in the nomination should support the winner in order to improve the coalition's chances in the eventual battle against CORD candidate. Even Sonko has repeatedly stated his commitment to the pact.

Notwithstanding these avowals, strong undercurrents mitigate against Sonko's candidature, key being opposition by the business community who detest his controversial reputation, and the determined effort by the Central Kenya political bloc to ensure Waweru succeeds Kidero at City Hall.

An investment banker, Waweru is the typical elite politician, more at home cutting deals in boardrooms and five star luncheons than at mass rallies. His campaign has hit a brick wall against Sonko, a streetwise mover of the masses. But Waweru is neither down nor out: Jubilee MPs led by Starehe MP Maina Kamanda are determinedly promoting his candidature, hoping the party masses will come to their senses and recognise Sonko's liabilities.

On his side, Sonko has aggressively countermanded the Nairobi MPs' opposition by aggresive outreach to the same Central Kenya bloc through direct contact with voters and by aligning with Bishop Wanjiru, a charismatic leader on her own right whose grassroots connection, however, suffered considerably after she lost the senator's seat to Sonko in 2013 as a candidate of CORD and then defected to Jubilee.

Sonko and Wanjiru have portrayed a united front for weeks, and though Wanjiru usually asserts her independence, it is believed in Jubilee circles that she is positioning herself as Sonko's running mate. She wouldn't get such a position under Waweru, who has indicated intention to either a Kisii or Luyia politician to his ticket.

Compared to Sonko and Waweru, Wamalwa's campaign has gained no traction, seen  as a proxy of deputy president William Ruto. The announcement of Wamalwa's candidature, just two months after he declared his interest in the Trans Nzoia governorship, met with resistance from the Central Kenya power bloc which revolves around Waweru.

Wamalwa elicits little interest even among the Luyia community to whom he should have appealed. His candidature is regarded with suspicion within the community. According to Chris Kudindi, an activist who is leading a non-aligned campaign by Luyia youths to increase the community's representation in Nairobi politics, Wamalwa isn't well prepared for the city's politics.

"Nairobi is not for the fainthearted. Whether you in CORD or Jubilee, to succeed in Nairobi requires you to be tough. Look at those politicians who have made it here, such as Reuben Ndolo, Fred Gumo, Ferdinand Waititu, Mike Sonko and George Aladwa - these are tough politicians.

"Even Kidero who is reputed as a technocrat has shown a side of him that sets him apart from other technocratic politicians. I just don't see Wamalwa putting on gumboots to go into the slums looking for votes. He's too soft and seems to believe that he can be put in elected office by some powers," he told the Kenya Free Press.

Mr Kudindi suggests that Wamalwa's candidature was a symbolic statement by Jubilee to reach the Luyia community. It was also linked, he said to recent rumours that CORD was luring Musalia Mudavadi to fly the coalition's ticket for Nairobi governorship.

Sakaja is a newcomer in politics who is seen mostly as trying to extend his relevance as a Jubilee powerbroker as his parliamentary nomination comes to an end. He has not campaigned effectively beyond holding youth workshops and buying advertisement space on billboards during the last voter registration exercise.

Unless a boardroom deal is reached between President Uhuru and Sonko, the coalition's nomination for the Nairobi governorship will be the most watched event in Kenya aside from the presidential vote. The coalition's ability to win will be determined by the candidate it chooses and the way Sonko is treated.

A Jubilee insider who spoke to the Kenya Free Press on anonymity said the president's personal relations with Sonko holds the key to whether the coalition will do a fair nomination exercise.

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