President Uhuru Kenyatta has started 2021 with a new headache — rallying support for the BBI-driven constitutional referendum planned for June after a leaked letter by a senior member of his own party warned him of a possible embarrassing defeat.
Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata, the hand-picked Jubilee Party’s Senate Majority Whip said in the leaked letter that the referendum, commonly referred as Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), was unpopular in the president’s political stronghold of Mt Kenya region, with only two out of 10 people supporting it.
Mr Kang’ata has been one of the president’s foot-soldiers in a region where his administration has faced some unlikely resentment.
His dim view of the referendum’s prospects is believed to be informed by Mt Kenya region politics and reflects the growing anxiety among elected leaders there about their future political careers in the event that they end up on the wrong side of the referendum.
He has ambitions to run for the governorship of Murang’a County in the 2022 elections.
President Kenyatta and the other proponents of the 2021 referendum may still see a path to victory in the referendum outside Mt Kenya.
The region overwhelmingly voted for the ‘’Yes’’ side that ended up being defeated in the 2005 constitutional referendum.
But trying to win another referendum without considerable support from a region with the largest number of registered voters in the country is a precariously steep route that they will certainly be keen to avoid in June.
Mt Kenya, alongside the Rift Valley region and Nairobi contributed more than 70 percent of the 7,483,895 votes garnered by President Kenyatta in the October 2017 repeat presidential election boycotted by the main opposition candidate Raila Odinga.
However, the region has in the past three years emerged as a major battle ground for rival politicians positioning themselves to succeed President Kenya when his second term comes to an end in 2022.
Deputy President William Ruto, who has fallen out with the president due to his early campaigns for the presidency, appears to be attracting a large following among locals opposed to the president’s co-operation agreement with Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader Raila Odinga, known as the Handshake.
Mr Odinga has performed dismally in Mt Kenya in each of his past four attempts to become president but is banking on his surprise co-operation with Mr Kenyatta, who hails from the region, to improve his appeal to local voters this time around.
But the former prime minister’s forays have been relatively restrained, with the terms of the Handshake deal discouraging the two of them from engaging in early campaigns for the 2022 elections until after the referendum.
In contrast, Dr Ruto has pulled out all the stops to sell his anticipated candidature in the next presidential election.
Through his populist “Hustler Nation” movement that seeks to exploit the wide social and economic inequalities in Mt Kenya, he has portrayed both the BBI referendum and the 2022 election as a class battle between him and the dynasties — a reference to President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga whose fathers were post-independent Kenya’s first president and vice-president respectively.
Local politicians loyal to the Deputy President have also accused Mr Kenyatta’s administration of neglecting the region in implementation of economic programmes and favouring others.
Most of these claims are unfounded though.
The last economic stimulus packages announced by President Kenyatta in January and May last year, for example, targeted mainly small-scale farmers in the region with subsidies and were seen as an attempt by the President to pacify his restive political base.
Senator Kang’ata’s warning of hostility to the referendum on the ground suggests that the President has yet to put his finger on the region’s political pulse.
Already, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has kicked off signature verification, to pave the way the June referendum. The electoral body has also asked for budget to finance the referendum, a request that has been criticised by Mr Odinga who says this is an avenue to siphon public funds.