September 22nd 2017

Top Stories / 2017 Elections

Facing hostile reception, senators pull out of governor’s races in droves

“Despite the voters’ limited understanding of parliamentary procedures, they can see that the senators have been running a smear campaign against governors for their selfish interests,” said the analyst, who expected the rebuff against senators to affect both sides of the political divide.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comSaturday, 03 Dec 2016 17:38 EAT

Senators Hassan Omar and Bonnie Khalwale at a past event.

At the height of the Senate’s robust effort to investigate corruption in county governments last year, more than half of the 47 elected senators either declared or were strongly indicating their intention to run for the governor’s position in their respective counties. The flood of declarations by senators was widely touted by the mainstream media, whose voice was often aligned with the senators', as a potential answer to the ‘thieving governors’.

But how fortunes change. As 2016 draws to a close, less than ten senators are actively pursuing their erstwhile dreams, and even fewer have a realistic chance of winning governorship seats. From Mombasa to Meru, Kakamenga to Turkana, senators are smarting from an unexpected surge in the electoral attractiveness of governors they had assumed to be walkovers in 2017.

Three senators who had initially launched campaigns to depose their governors have pulled out of the races. In Muranga, Senator Kembi Gitura was for months touted as the foremost opponent to Governor Mwangi wa Iria. He has now dropped out of the race and recently made a formal announcement to voters that he would be supporting Kigumo MP Jamleck Kamau to unseat Wa Iria.

In Trans Nzoia, Senator Henry ole Ndiema has recanted his previous decision to run for the governor’s seat, for which he had campaigned actively, and has instead launched a low-key effort to defend his current seat against former agriculture minister Kipruto arap Kirwa, civil society activist Ken Wafula and a host of other aspirants. As recently as September, Mr Ndiema was campaigning for the governor’s seat before beating the retreat.

The Senate Majority Leader Kithure Kindiki pulled out of the Tharaka Nithi governorship race earlier than his compatriots. The senator did not even formally state his intentions although his supporters in the County Assembly marketed his candidature openly. Mr Kindiki is now the force behind Chuka Igambang’ombe Njuki Muthomi to unseat Governor Samuel Ragwa.

For a number of senators still pursuing their dreams, the last quarter of 2016 brought a political cataclysm with the terrain turning out to be harsher than they may have planned for. Nairobi’s Mike Sonko has seen his fortunes dwindle due to self-inflicted woes and the entry of former presidential candidate Peter Kenneth into Jubilee. The former Gatanga MP carries the hopes of Jubilee power elite to win the Nairobi seat they lost to CORD in 2013.

In Kisii, Senator Chris Obure is wading through rough storms in his battle against incumbent James Ongwae. Whereas Mr Obure initially planned to dislodge Mr Ongwae from his perch as ODM supremo in Kisii, the senator fell by the wayside in the party and eventually defected to Jubilee, only for the governing party to meet a backlash in Kisiiland.

The latest sign of slip by the Obure campaign was the unexpected endorsement of Mr Ongwae by a top Jubilee politician, Sam Ongeri, last week. A fierce critic of CORD leader Raila Odinga, Mr Ongeri’s support for Ongwae came unexpectedly. However, analysts told the Kenya Free Press that it was a logical consequence of the former minister’s recognition of Jubilee’s limited acceptance in Kisiiland.

Kisumu senator Anyang Nyongo has also faced a hostile reception in his campaign to unseat Governor Jack Ranguma. Last week, Prof. Nyongo was roughed up by youths after a harambee in Muhoroni Constituency. Media reports of the incident indicated that the youths were demanding handouts from the senator, but that Prof. Nyongo was caught flatfooted signified the difficulties he expects to face in the race.

In few places has the fortunes of a well-recognised senator crumbled as dramatically as in Meru, where Kiraitu Murungi, long considered the foremost leader in Mt Kenya East, is now locked in a tough battle against an aggressive Governor Peter Munya. While Mr Murungi was hoping to use his prime perch as the chairman of the Jubilee Party as a leverage in his local fights, Mr Munya has reframed the race as a contest for Meru community’s leadership, using the campaign to assert his control of Meru and Mt Kenya East politics.

The governor’s takeover of the Party of National Unity (PNU) has created a new dynamic in Mt Kenya politics, offering aspiring politicians who may be locked out of the Jubilee Party a second home. Mr Munya last week made a whistle-stop tour of the county, sending shockwaves within Jubilee circles.

Mombasa’s Hassan Omar isn’t feeling any better. In his campaign against Governor Hassan Joho, Mr Omar has been left to tread a thin line on whether to face Joho alone or rope in Mr Odinga, whom he alleges to be the force behind the governor. Joho, meanwhile, has focused on the national battles between Jubilee and CORD and endeared himself to the coalition’s nationwide base.

Kakamega Senator Bonnie Khalwale has also stumbled in his fights against Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, whose every project he has opposed. “The senator’s defection to Ford-Kenya saw the party revive Luyia leaders’ heretofore disastrous campaigns for the community’s unity that has counterproductively undermined the Moses Wetangula-led party in Western Kenya,” said a political analyst from the region.

In Turkana, Senator John Munyes is undertaking an aggressive campaign to unseat Josephat Nanok, who responded to the onslaught by marshaling opposition supporters in the region. In September, Mr Munyes defected to Jubilee Party, leading his allies such as Turkana East MP Nicholas Ng’ikor (who was elected on Ford-Kenya) and Loima MP Protus Akuja (ODM) to the governing party.

The few counties where senators still have a chance include Embu, West Pokot and Siaya where Lenny Kivuti, John Lonyangapuo and James Orengo have waged credible fights against Martin Wambora, Simon Kachapin and Cornel Rasanga in that order.

An analyst contacted by the Kenya Free Press attributed the changed fortunes of the senators to voters’ disillusionment after realizing that the senators’ resolve to champion accountability in county governments as a cover for their selfish political interests. “Despite the voters’ limited understanding of parliamentary procedures, they can see that the senators have been running a smear campaign against governors for their selfish interests,” said the analyst, who expected the rebuff against senators to affect both sides of the political divide.

The governors have resisted grilling by senators. Last year, Governor Oparanya declined to appear before the senate Public Accounts and Investment Committee when it was chaired by his Kakamega nemesis Khalwale. He said the committee would engage him in a witch-hunting campaign on Khalwale’s behalf. But others who went faced tough questions from senators who had vowed to beat them.

Governors of Turkana, Trans Nzoi and Machakos have faced hostile grilling at senate committees. When Governor Nanok appeared before PAC, his senator Munyes ensured he was in the room to rebuke Nanok. Mr Munyes, who is not a member of the committee, was allowed to attend the meetings with Nanok as “a friend of the committee” and as expected raised awkward questions. According to experts, this threw parliamentary procedures through the window.

Senator Ndiema had tough questions for Governor Khaemba. Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua has also faced a concerted campaign by allies of Senator Muthama to drag him through the mud. While Mr Muthama is not interested in the governor’s seat, he would naturally prefer to have someone in the office who would toe his line on Machakos politics.

Given the tide of opposition senators have faced, those like Mutula Kilonzo Jr of Makueni and Dan Mwazo of Taita Taveta who were widely expected to announce their candidatures have been forced back to the drawing board.

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