Top Stories / 2017 Elections
Monday, 24 Oct 2016 16:41 EATskenana@kenyafreepress.com
Nairobi politics is expected to undergo a sea-change following the entry of former presidential candidate Peter Kenneth into the governorship race. The former Gatanga MP declared his intention to run for the position indirectly yesterday by addressing Nairobi's problems and his readiness to help tackle them at a church function in Eastleigh.
Though Mr Kenneth said he was still weighing options on whether to run for the governorship of Nairobi, Muranga or Nakuru counties, his message was seen as aimed for the Nairobi audience. His declaration that he would support the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta reverberated across the political divide, but it was within Jubilee that the defection carried greater significance.
Mr Kenneth's defection to the president's side placed him at the front-row of the power succession in Central Kenya. Ten years ago, Uhuru, then head of the official opposition, made a similar move and supported the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki. However, unlike Mr Uhuru who vied for a constituency seat in Central Kenya, Mr Kenneth's entry into the cosmopolitan Nairobi has caused jitters among non-Kikuyu Jubilee supporters in the capital who perceived it as part of a plan to block Nairobi senator Mike Sonko's ascension to the seat.
The Jubilee leadership in Nairobi has been grappling with how to stop the controversial Mr Sonko's ascension to the governor's seat. Notwithstanding his mercurial character, Mr Sonko is immensely popular with Nairobi voters and is widely seen as unbeatable in free and fair elections. At the height of commotion in Jubilee over the upcoming governorship nomination some two months ago, the president paid homage to Sonko and helped cement the perception of the senator's unbeatable profile by a tacit endorsement of his 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.
The flamboyant senator enjoys broad support from across the ethnic divides in Nairobi. Being close to the voting grassroots, he uses approaches many highbred politicians would find unacceptable. Some of his initiatives include extending financial support to bereaved families, especially from Western Kenya, Coast and Eastern, who face trouble transporting the bodies of loved ones for burial in their ancestral homes.
Three years ago, the senator launched the ‘Sonko Rescue Team’ of ambulances, which he later donated to the county government, with the sole purpose of transporting the sick from selected slums to hospital. The initiative was derided by many a politician who averred that one man couldn't bankroll a service in which public investment is nearly absent. But the users of the service felt differently. Mr Sonko also donates large sums of money for various youth initiatives, some of which he has established himself.
His main drawbacks surround his integrity. The source of his money remains a mystery, and he has faced countless legal suits including criminal charges. These, however, send no alarm bells in a country where deputy president spends more than Sh10 million in harambees nearly every weekend, and generates loud murmurs about the source of his campaign funds. Moreover, with national politicians reputed to be generally corrupt, one who shares his wealth with the poor can seem to set his own standard. Mr Sonko's performance as a legislator is also below par. In 2015, he was listed in a report as the worst performing senator. He lagged behind on his duties as the senator and focused more on populist activities. Such rankings, incidentally, carry less weight with the voters.
Knowing the high chances he stands of winning, Mr Sonko has signified his resolve to run as an independent if he doesn't win or is 'rigged' out of the Jubilee ticket, an event that would erode Jubilee votes substantially and put paid the coalition's effort to wrestle the governorship from CORD. This awareness of Sonko's double-edged sword may explain why the president was forced to address the issue two months ago.
This being said, the Jubilee power centres in Nairobi, which revolves around the parliamentary group led by Starehe MP Maina Kamanda, has actively campaigned to stop Sonko by all means. Using a strategy one analyst described as "passive equidistance", the group has kept the senator close enough to assure him of accommodation in Jubilee while amplifying concerns that he is unfit to be governor.
The strategy works by emphasizing Mr Sonko's numerous weaknesses as a candidate. Two weekends ago, for example, the senator engaged in his typical antics by declaring at a funeral service in Machakos that he was the acting president when the president and his deputy were out of the country. The remarks were a godsend for his detractors who used them to prove that the senator was of unsound mind. Many a media watcher were perplexed at the uproar, which included the director of public prosecutions opening investigations for treason against the senator.
As powerful a backlash that was, Sonko remained strong given the frailties of his chief opponent being pushed by the Maina Kamanda group - Dagoretti South MP Dennis Waweru. With Mr Kennath's entry, the group could have got Sonko's antidote. The Kenya Free Press couldn't reach Mr Kenneth to know whether he would defect to Jubilee Party, but a source close to him indicated he would run as a member of the Kenya National Congress which he leads.
If Mr Kenneth runs on his own party as expected, the race would be a three-way contest between Mr Kenneth, Mr Sonko and the CORD candidate, the latter who could be incumbent Evans Kidero or possibly Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi, who could throw his hat into the race as a candidate of the opposition alliance.
Unlike in 2013 when Mr Kenneth carried an aura of nationalism, his defection to the Jubilee camp has dented some of his national support. Veteran journalist Kwamchetsi Makhoha, who like Mr Kenneth is an alumnus of the Starehe Boys Centre whose old boy network was a key cog in the politician's national following, wrote this morning on Facebook, "If Peter Kenneth dares to run for Nairobi governor, I will be voting tribe."
Another analyst, Omogambi Nyachae wrote, "It must be so fatiguing and nauseating living a lie for over 20 years, isn't it? Pretending that you are different...above reproach, no tribal backlog and that you've an impeccable character. Finally the true Peter Kenneth came out yesterday. The Peter Kenneth who is ordinary, who subscribes to the same ethnic cocoons he has so vehemently opposed and projected himself to be against."
Similar angst abounds on Facebook groups of Rift Valley voters, who see the defection primarily as a threat to the presidential ambitions of William Ruto. Mr Kenneth's decades-long reputation as a nationalist may be leaving room for a polarising figure in Nairobi and beyond.