Battle shifts to the populous Luhya vote basket

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Since veteran politician Joseph Martin Shikuku’s “secret” visit to State House on May 20, 1992, a couple of months to the General Election, Luhya politicians have been chided for being easy targets of alleged political bribery.

Last week’s visit to State House by politicians from the community was, therefore, not an unexpected move and some are apprehensive the leaders may have gone to “eat ugali”. 

Ugali is a staple food for members of the Luhya community and the analogy of “eating ugali” refers to being bribed or getting politically compromised.

Of course the Luhya are not the only “ugali eaters” and, going by the latest events, President Uhuru Kenyatta has equally received delegations from other regions including from the Kamba and Maasai communities, who have reportedly switched allegiance from National Super Alliance’s (Nasa) presidential candidate Raila Odinga. 

Newly-elected Speaker of the Senate Kenneth Lusaka and Water Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa, who led the recent delegation to State House, have maintained their agenda was clean – to woo the western Kenya region to support a development conscious and friendly government of Mr Kenyatta.    

The delegation, mostly of poll losers in last month’s elections and former Cabinet ministers, included former Budalang’i MP and Labour Party leader Ababu Namwamba, gubernatorial poll losers Moses Akaranga (Vihiga), Alfred Khang’ati (Bungoma), presidential poll loser Cyrus Jirongo, former ministers Chris Okemo, Musikari Kombo, Noah Wekesa and Fred Gumo, former National Assembly Speaker Kenneth Marende and Mumias East MP Ben Washiali.

Noble as their mission to State House may have been, in a highly competitive political contest like the current one between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, “ugali eating” claims are not uncommon. These are unconfirmed allegations that are usually thrown at rival camps with the aim of soiling reputations of competitors.

In a strongly worded statement to the press, 31 lawmakers from the wider Luhya community, led by the chairman of Western Kenya Parliamentary Caucus Sakwa Bunyasi (Nambale), stated: “We, the legitimately elected leaders from the western region, want to state categorically that we are united and our communities are no less united under Nasa, and in support of our presidential candidate Raila Amolo Odinga. Any other pretenders, imposters, brokers or auctioneers out there aspiring to auction our communities’ vote to the highest bidder in Jubilee are nothing but conmen.”

This terse reaction echoes the hostility with which Shikuku’s visit to State House in 1992 was received by his kinsmen and women. Throughout his political career, Shikuku was a progressive anti-establishment legislator who fashioned himself as the people’s watchman. But his powerful credentials came under scrutiny following his visit to State House, alongside then Shinyalu MP Japheth Shamalla.

Following news doing rounds that they had gone to State House, Nairobi, to meet President Daniel arap Moi, Shikuku – one of the “leading lights” of the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (Ford) opposition outfit – was branded a Kanu mole.

To calm the situation he opted to open up: “I always meet Moi, so what is wrong with him inviting me to State House to eat ugali?” he asked.

Unfortunately for him, the admission only made the situation worse, particularly after Ford split into two – Ford Asili and Ford Kenya – allowing Moi to triumph over a divided opposition.

Ever since, and until his exit from power, Moi perfected the act of receiving delegations from across the country to chart his political bidding, including re-election.

According to former Cabinet minister Amukowa Anangwe, who served under Moi’s Kanu administration, President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have emerged as good implementers of this very technique of political mobilisation.     

“It worked perfectly under the Moi regime and this explains why, as good political students of Moi, Kenyatta and Ruto are employing this very style. For some reason, the Luhya have been a major target, albeit with varying results,” says the political scientist and one time political adviser of the Kanu regime.  

Despite being Kenya’s second largest community, the Luhya have over the decades failed to solidly unite behind one of their own as a political leader or presidential candidate. Previous leaders from the community, who were widely acceptable like Masinde Muliro, Moses Mudavadi and Kenya’s eighth Vice-President Michael Wamalwa Kijana, never rose to the highest office on the land.    

Today, as has been over the decades, the western Kenya region remains one of the most sought-after political brides. Both Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga are currently scrambling for an electoral share in the region, with Kenyatta’s bid backed by relatively new political players, including Lusaka, Eugene and Namwamba as opposed to Mr Odinga, whose pointmen are one-time Vice-President Musalia Mudavadi and Ford-Kenya party leader Moses Wetang’ula.

With eight MPs elected on a Jubilee ticket, there is no denying Mr Kenyatta has made substantial political gains in the opposition-leaning region.

However, the Nambale MP, Mr Bunyasi, attributes this to internal competition that split the votes among candidates from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Ford-Kenya and Amani National Congress (ANC), who are allied to Nasa. 

Except for Sirisia MP John Waluke, who romped home convincingly by over 50 per cent, an audit by the Nation indicates that indeed all the other newly-elected MPs on the Jubilee ticket won by less than 40 per cent.

Prof Anangwe, who has studied the voting patterns in western Kenya since the reintroduction of multi-party politics, is convinced the Luhya are “slowly but gradually” moving towards political homogeneity.

“They may have elected MPs from all political shades, but compared to the other election years, the botched August polls show that the Luhya this time round placed over 75 per cent of their votes in one basket. The figures are only second to the 2002 poll when they voted for Narc’s Mwai Kibaki,” observes Prof Anangwe.      

Even though, the region continues to experience diversified political loyalty as President Kenyatta digs in. By the time of going to press, word was strong on the ground that former Cabinet minister and Funyula MP Paul Otuoma and former Kakamega Senator Boni Khalwale were headed to Mr Kenyatta’s camp.

The two politicians unsuccessfully vied for gubernatorial seats in Busia and Kakamega respectively.

“I can neither confirm nor deny those assertions,” Dr Otuoma told this writer when asked if he was joining the Jubilee camp: “My voters are divided on this matter and I have to listen to their opinion before weighing my options.” Separately, our calls to Dr Khalwale went answered most of Friday and Saturday.