April 29th 2017

Top Stories / Counties

Governor Gachagua's death throws Nyeri race wide open; Mutahi Kagwe favoured

Mathira being the vote-rich constituency will determine the winner. If Gachagua’s family back a different candidate, such as businessman and industrialist Githinji Kinyanjui popularly known as Cocorico, that would tip the balance.

By Nyambura Muthoninmuthoni@kenyafreepress.comFriday, 24 Feb 2017 10:16 EAT

The late Nderitu Gachagua.

Nyeri County was thrown into mourning this morning after deputy governor Samuel Wamathai broke the news of his boss's passing at a London hospital. Governor Nderitu Gachagua, 64, who for years suffered from pancreatic cancer, had been attending to medical treatment in London for nearly three months. He becomes the first governor since the advent of devolution to die in office.

A maverick politician, Mr Gachagua defied the TNA wave in Central Kenya in the 2013 election to win his seat on a GNU party ticket. However, he and the cabinet secretary for devolution Mwangi Kiunjuri, who were the GNU's main leaders, dissolved the party last and joined the Jubilee Party. President Uhuru Kenyatta subsequently made Mr Gachagua the coordinator of Jubilee Party in Nyeri County.

Mr Gachagua had loomed large in Nyeri politics even during his sickness, but many local leaders had questioned his absence, and in 2015 (when he was also admitted in a London hospital for months) some members of the Nyeri county assembly (MCAs) attempted to impeach him for long absence from office. They finally succeeded in impeaching in September 2016 for corruption charges, only for the decision to be reversed by the national Senate.

An experienced politician, Gachagua served as MP for Mathira between 2002-2007. He was also a top organizer, and during his sickness he had relied on his loyal deputy Wamathai and his brother Rigathi Gachagua, who is running to become MP for Mathira, to take care of his political interests.

Last September, MCAs succeeded in impeaching him for alleged abuse of office and poor performance, but the national Senate didn't approve the impeachment. The MCAs had a working alliance with local MPs Kabando wa Kabando (Mukurweini), Mary Wambui (Othaya), Kanini Kega (Kieni), Peter Weru (Mathira) and Esther Murugi (Nyeri Town), all of whom supported the governor’s removal. The push was led by county assembly Majority leader Duncan Gituanja.

Mr Gachagua’s demise today has thrown the Nyeri governorship campaign wide open, with many scenarios coming into play that analysts had not thought of even during his illness. For starters, the death has created a new dynamic, giving the deputy Wamathai an opportunity to act for the remainder of the term, plunging him in the front as a legitimate contestant for the seat.

Mr Wamathai had been a loyal number two to Gachagua and no one had even remotely thought that he could ever be a candidate. In January, when rumours peaked that Gachagua would not defend his seat, he defended the governor. “Gachagua is not out of the race — he will defend his seat. People are spreading propaganda but none of that will deter him from recapturing his seat on August 8,” he said.

Now, as acting governor he will be in charge of the affairs of the county, without the boss he was loyal to. He will also, in accordance with the constitution, appoint an a deputy governor who will be approved by the county assembly. This creates a condition the governor's team could never have planned for. The popularly held view among the locals was that if the governor became too sick, he would pick on a candidate to support.

Should Wamathai maintain his low-key role in politics and not declare for the seat, the main beneficiary could be Senator Mutahi Kagwe. The stakes have been high in Nyeri politics given the campaigns for Gachagua's succession started almost immediately after the 2013 general election. There were differences between the governor on one side and MCAs on the other, backed by the MPs, but Mr Mutahi remained on Gachagua’s side. When the governor's impeachment went to the senate, Mr Kagwe was instrumental in rallying his colleagues to save Gachagua.

Two weeks ago, perhaps after the governor shared information about his health status with Mr Kagwe, the senator opened a campaign for the seat, speaking at many of the local radio stations and commissioning his agents. An independent-minded politician, Mr Kagwe has wide support throughout Nyeri, and like Gachagua he defied the TNA wave in 2013 and won as a NARC candidate. Recently, he has moved very close to President Kenyatta.

Another factor favouring Mr Kagwe is that he can form a working relationship with National Oil chairman Daniel Wamahiu, who was initially in the race for governor but switched in good time to declare for the senate position. Many also expect that he would get the endorsement of Gachagua’s brother Rigathi.

Gachagua’s main opponent in 2013, Wahome Gakuru who ran on the TNA, is also in the running this time and is one of the front-runners. Mr Gakuru is a businessman and a former director of the vision 2030. He lost to the incumbent Gachagua in 2013 and currently heads Dhamana Africa Limited. He would be strong challenger to Mr Kagwe. Since the election, the corruption and infighting in Nyeri politics had led many to look for leadership in his direction.

Mathira being the vote-rich constituency will determine the winner. If Gachagua’s family back a different candidate, such as businessman and industrialist Githinji Kinyanjui popularly known as Cocorico, that would tip the balance. Cocorico was also a close confidante of Gachagua. But he’s not a good mobiliser and would face trouble getting votes from Kieni and Mukurueini.

Other candidates in the race include Mr Gachagua’s successor as Mathira MP, Ephraim Maina, popularly known as Kirinyaga. He was the 2013 TNA candidate for the senatorial election. Ephraim Maina is the founder and owner of Kirinyaga construction, a company offering services in planning, designing constructing and maintaining civil engineering and building projects. Many see him as a non-starter for the race.

Machira Gichohi, who was the Kenya Dairy board managing director for 12 years before he resigned has also made some inroads, together with Athi Water Services chairman Wachira Keen but they are long shots for the seat. Businessman Munene Kairu from Kieni has interests in the hospitality industry and his family is well regarded, but he comes from the most sparsely populated constituency. Thuo Mathenge, the brains behind Brade Gate Poultry Industries, ran for the seat on the Ford Asili ticket in 2013 as is interested in the position this time around.

According to youth leader and political commentator Gibson Wambugu, Cocorico was seen as bringing in new blood and Gachagua had considered endorsing him, with Gichohi of Kieni as his running mate, in case the governor wasn’t able to stand for re-election due to his poor health. But there have been many rumours about Gachagua’s deals.

His program focused heavily on agricultural transformation with an aim of increasing the wealth of farmers and to generate employment for young and growing citizens' incomes. But some of his initiatives were controversial, such as the coffee sector reforms that ended up earning farmers less money. 

It is expected that all the issues that bedevil Nyeri will come to light in this mourning period. By the time Gachagua is buried, Nyerians shall have known clearly which way the county's politics will be moving.

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