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Why Luhya unity efforts may not succeed

Mukalo Kwayera @kwayeram

Western Kenya, a populous but politically divided region, is emerging as a major battleground for the 2022 General Election. It’s all about numbers.

The situation is currently compounded by an implosion within the ruling Jubilee Party over 2022   succession, characterised by fierce factional battles pitting President Uhuru Kenyatta’s loyalists and allies of his deputy William Ruto.   

Cotu boss Francis Atwoli, who considers himself as a regional political shepherd and something of Luhya leaders perfect, has previously been pitching for ODM leader Raila Odinga but recently changed tune and anointed ANC Party leader Musalia Mudavadi.

The storm in Jubilee notwithstanding, the race for the heart and soul of the Western region still pits Ruto and Mudavadi for a presidential contest that is still three years away.

The scramble for Western’s 2.3 million votes is spread across four counties of Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia and Vihiga besides neighbouring Trans Nzoia in Rift Valley.

Fierce combatants in both 2013 and 2017 elections   Uhuru and Raila have since made a truce through what has been baptised the handshake and are now the best of buddies, both political and personal. 

Vote-rich

Their rapprochement has ruffled feathers in their respective political formations, with Uhuru’s Jubilee Party now teetering on the edge of disintegration while Raila’s National Super Alliance having already splintered but in the name.

With Uhuru not eligible to vie and Raila having stated that he would not contest in 2022, Ruto, Mudavadi and peripherally, Baringo Senator Gideon Moi have begun the race in earnest.   

Deputy President William Ruto (right) with his Western region pointman Senate Speaker Kenneth Lusaka. Ruto is a frequent visitor to the region. Photo/FILE

Western Kenya tends to spread her vote without minding contestants’ ethnic or regional backgrounds.

Which is why Ruto, Mudavadi and Gideon have been traversing the vote-rich area, with the Deputy President being the most frequent visitor.

   The Luhya community comprises 18 sub-tribes and pockets of Nilotic descendants. Save for the Teso in Busia, Sabaots in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia and Nandi in Vihiga, Kakamega and Trans Nzoia as well as the Terik in Vihiga counties where the minorities collectively form only 12 per cent of the population, the rest of the residents in the region are Luhya. 

During the Kanu era, the minorities in the region always voted with the ruling party whereas the Luhya voted for a variety of parties and presidential candidates. In 2013 and 2017, the minorities pandered to Ruto’s appeal whereas the rest rallied behind Raila.   

It remains to be seen whether the region will vote as a bloc in 2022 and offer a swing percentage to the eventual winner.  University don and director of Twaweza Kenya Emmanuel Manyasa posits that though voting independently is a salient tenet of democracy, the next election will find the people of Western Kenya still divided.

“I do not expect anything to change between now and 2022. The people of Western Kenya have a series of historical issues which they have refused to confront. So long as these challenges are not addressed, the divisions will remain among the Luhya, especially the Bukusu-Maragoli divide,” he said, adding that the region lacks what he terms a ‘caller’ to needs of residents.

“The calls to address poverty and unemployment have been there over the years; what lacks is the ‘caller’ to rally the people around the socio-economic hurdles they face. Because of their numerical strength, the Bukusu and Maragoli have dominated the region’s politics and benefitted disproportionately from government appointments,” he says. 

He argues that the cotton industry in Busia collapsed during the Kanu era because the top leadership from the region were Bukusu and Maragoli and they did not care about the interests of Busia and Kakamega people.

Sugar woes

He observes that when Michael Wamalwa was Vice President, he surrounded himself with his own Bukusu kinsmen and ensured that only people from his ethnic group were appointed in government and that when Mudavadi was Deputy Prime Minister, he also helped his Maragoli people.

Noted Manyasa: “Because the current mess in the sugar industry hurts the people of Kakamega more than others, the top Maragoli and Bukusu politicians led by Mudavadi and Bungoma senator Moses Wetang’ula and even (Devolution Cabinet secretary Eugene) Wamalwa have not been vocal on that matter because it does not directly affect majority of the people in their home counties. Its this approach that has remained a major challenge in the region.”

But veteran politician Julia Ojiambo argues that it is not possible to have residents of the region speak in one voice owing to the fact that they are different people with different background and needs.

Ojiambo a one-time Assistant Minister and MP for Samia East (now Funyula) ruled out the possibility of the community ever voting as a bloc in the near future.

“We are dealing with a situation similar to that in which you have one homestead and 18 grown up children. Each of these children has his or her own needs and aspirations”, she observed.

However, she says the people of Western Kenya are the most democratic voters and must be respected for that.

Says she: “Other Kenyans should emulate their counterparts from Western Kenya. We cannot talk about fighting negative tribalism in the country yet when it comes to voting we herd our people blindly as if into a cattle dip”. 

Observer the professor: ‘The Constitution is just a document. It becomes important only when people in positions of authority and the citizenry embrace and actualise it to the expectations of each and every one” 

Former Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) vice-chairperson Tecla Namachanja says calling on Luhyas to vote as a bloc is a mirage that needs not even be tabled in any forum for deliberation.

“That is not possible. Time has come for Kenyans to rise above ethnic enclaves and vote for candidates because of their qualities and not because of their tribes,” she said. 

Best example

An expert on peace and reconciliation, Namachanja said Kenyans need to approach public affairs the way Luhyas do.  “I think the people of Western Kenya have set the best example and others need to take a cue from them and view them as visionaries,” she said. 

Mudavadi told People Daily that the issue of lack of unity among the Luhya community is a myth manufactured by political elements with vested interests bent on creating a wedge and non-existent frictions among residents.

“It is the right of every Kenyan to hold and defend their view. The so-called elusive Luhya unity is a narrative created by the community’s detractors who have locked their own ethnic groups into personal property and who have made it a business to bash Luhyas for the alleged division,” said Mudavadi.

If anything, have Luhyas not voted as a bloc in the past? They voted for Mwai Kibaki in 2002 and for Raila in 2007, 2013 and 2017. The only difference is that they have never voted in uniform for one of their own. That is not going to be the case in 2022 and there shall be more of that Luhya disunity talk,” he said.

Senate Speaker Kenneth Lusaka, who together with Cabinet secretary Wamalwa threw their weight behind Mudavadi’s presidential bid in 2013, is at the moment a key cog in the wheel of Jubilee’s strategies in Western Kenya.

He told People Daily that certain fundamental matters need to be addressed out of the public glare before the residents of Western Kenya can read from the same script.

No leader since the generation of Masinde Muliro, Martin Shikuku and Moses Mudavadi and later Kijana Wamalwa, have risen to champion the community’s economic interests, Lusaka says but adds that Bungoma is at the moment already sealed in favour of Ruto. 

“The Deputy President approaches the 2022 election as the front-runner in the county. Only a miracle can change that,” he said. 

Hosting delegations

Both Ruto and Mudavadi have adopted different strategies, with the former touring parts of the country and at times hosting delegations at his Nairobi and Sugoi homes.  Western Kenya is the most enticing hunting ground for the two. 

Official figures by Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission indicate that westerly counties were in the last poll enlisted thus: Kakamega (746,872) Bungoma (559,485), Busia (347,911), Vihiga (267,481) and Trans Nzoia (339,832) all which make a total of 2,362,022 registered electors.

These are the numbers Ruto and Mudavadi are spoiling for war over.  In 2013 ODM took the lion’s share of the support in the region by garnering over one million votes, Mudavadi who ran on the United Democratic Forum had slightly over 470,000  while  Jubilee Alliance Party mustered 68,000 votes.

Mudavadi enjoys considerable support in larger portions of Kakamega and Vihiga. Ruto has displaced Wetang’ula in his Bungoma and neighbouring Trans Nzoia says Lusaka.   

Compared to 2013 when the party secured only three MPs and a paltry 68,000 presidential votes,   Jubilee came out much stronger in 2017 with eight MPs. 

Westlands MP Tim Wanyonyi says unity of the local residents must be sought on grounds of economic and socio-economic development rather than rhetoric and egos.

“Why can we not even have a meeting to salvage AFC Leopards or Mumias and Nzoia sugar factories instead of assembling to discuss the political fortunes of one person?” he posed.

Says Manyasa: “The people of Western Kenya have no apologies to make for the decisions they make. I’d rather make a wrong political choice on my own instead of being denied the chance to think for myself as has happened to some communities.” 

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