Mount Kenya, mythical region and decisive in the Kenyan elections

Mount Kenya, mythical region and decisive in the Kenyan elections

The helicopter lands in the middle of rice fields, then the procession reaches a vacant lot where cattle were wandering a few minutes earlier: candidate William Ruto is holding yet another election meeting in a remote countryside of Mount Kenya.

This vast region, which extends at the foot of an extinct volcano in the center of the country, is the most populated, the most influential and the most representative of the complex political mechanics of this East African state.

A must-see for Vice-president Ruto, who is a challenger in the presidential election on August 9 against Raila Odinga, former opposition leader now carried by power.

Among the few hundred supporters gathered that day in Kirinyaga County, Nancy Njeri, a modest 78-year-old rice farmer, will vote Ruto for his economic promises.

“Ruto will bring about changes in education, youth employment, he will make sure that we have fertilizers to produce our rice, and many other things,” she says.

Ruto, who had been promised by President Uhuru Kenyatta to succeed him in 2022, was gradually marginalized from 2018 by an alliance between Kenyatta and Odinga.

Bitterly, the ambitious and sulphurous 55-year-old vice-president then prepared his candidacy across the country, and especially in this region, under the banner of his new party, the UDA.

Anne Waiguru, governor of Kirinyaga and supporter of William Ruto, in Kagio in the Mount Kenya region, on July 27, 2022 (AFP – Tony KARUMBA)

“The leader of the party has been accepted by the people of Mount Kenya, he has done a lot of field work,” Anne Waiguru, governor of Kirinyaga and figure of the UDA, tells AFP.

Winning “the mountain” was, on paper, nothing obvious for William Ruto.

– Sacred land kikuyu –

Mount Kenya is the sacred land of the Kikuyu, the most numerous ethnic group in the country, whose belief is that God resides in this snow-capped volcano, surrounded by valleys crumbling under mango, banana and other coffee trees.

This fertile region is also a mecca of the national political heritage: it was here that the resistance of the Mau Mau against the British colonial empire was born before independence in 1963. A strong political conscience persists there.

“Since that time, there has been a feeling of legitimacy among the Kikuyu” on political affairs, deciphers analyst Herman Manyora.

Raila Odinga on the campaign trail in Narok, July 30, 2022 (AFP - LUIS TATO)
Raila Odinga on the campaign trail in Narok, July 30, 2022 (AFP – LUIS TATO)

Three of the four presidents of independent Kenya – Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki, and Uhuru Kenyatta, Jomo’s son – come from this community which also has large fortunes and important lobbies.

“All these factors make the Kikuyu decisive in an election, and this election is no exception,” adds Manyora.

In a country marked by tribal voting, Mount Kenya had largely voted Kenyatta in the last two presidential elections. But today, its approximately six million voters – out of 22 million – have the choice between two main candidates outside the community: a Kalenjin, William Ruto, and a Luo, Raila Odinga.

Kalenjin and Kikuyu killed each other in the nearby Rift Valley fifteen years ago, in 2007-2008, during post-election violence that killed more than 1,100 people and left a deep wound.

Odinga, on the other hand, was for a long time Kenyatta’s opponent, who then dressed him up as a bad and violent man.

True, the president, and the state machine, now support the 77-year-old veteran. But the Kikuyu, very attached to the concept of “kihoto” (justice, in the Kikuyu language), have now taken into account this child of the country who, according to them, has not kept his commitments.

“There was this feeling of injustice, whether towards them or the promises that (they) had been made, and this flip-flop to switch from supporting Ruto to supporting Raila,” observes academic Macharia Munene.

“We Kikuyu, we are not told who to vote for. Uhuru is a traitor,” George Mwaura, a 38-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, said at the Kirinyaga meeting.

– The “Martha effect” –

Governor Anne Waiguru predicted a very large victory for the UDA over “the mountain”. But Azimio la Umoja, Raila Odinga’s coalition, is hammering that it will win a majority.

“In the worst case scenario, I think Mount Kenya will vote Azimio at 60%,” David Murathe, vice-president of Azimio’s executive committee, told AFP.

Supporters of William Ruto during an election rally in Machakos on July 30, 2022 (AFP - Yasuyoshi CHIBA)
Supporters of William Ruto during an election rally in Machakos on July 30, 2022 (AFP – Yasuyoshi CHIBA)

This community figure argues that the appointment as Odinga’s running mate of Martha Karua, a former Kikuyu minister and magistrate known for her uprightness and pugnacity in the face of corruption, has “changed the game” for Azimio.

Analyst Macharia Munene acknowledges the existence of a “Martha effect” on voting intentions in the region.

“At one time (Mount Kenya) seemed entirely pro-Ruto, six or seven months ago,” he assesses.

“This overwhelming support has declined, it has eroded. Is this erosion enough to turn the tide? That’s another question”.

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