Shifting alliances: On Kenya’s political scene, history regularly repeats itself

Saturday August 24 2019

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) salutes opposition leader Raila Odinga during Jamhuri celebrations at Nyayo Stadium on December 12, 2018. Looking on is Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko and former vice president Kalonzo Musyoka. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG


Kenya’s ruling Jubilee Party scored significant victories in the past General Election, winning the presidential race as well as getting a comfortable parliamentary majority.

The 140 Members of the National Assembly, excluding Woman County Reps, elected on the tickets of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s party in 2017 was an improvement on the performance in the previous election, which it contested as a coalition of mainly The National Alliance (TNA) and the United Republican Party (URP).

In 2013, TNA and URP won 72 and 62 constituency seats respectively, giving the core of then Jubilee Alliance a combined 134.

With 140 constituency seats, Jubilee also widened the gap between itself and the largest opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which has 62.

But the ruling party’s relative electoral success the last time out has not been enough to spare it the curse of unstable alliances and personality falling-outs that has seen new major political formations emerge to contest each of the country’s past four elections.

Last week, Nominated MP Maina Kamanda, a member of the ruling party, said that Jubilee “won’t be there in 2022,” citing the factional fights that have been raging over the past 17 months.


Mr Kamanda, who formerly represented Nairobi’s Starehe Constituency, is associated with the faction opposed to Deputy President William Ruto’s perceived early campaigns to succeed President Kenyatta.

The Kamanda group is made up of mostly sitting and former MPs from central Kenya region, where the president hails from.

The other faction, which also includes elected leaders in central Kenya, has been aggressively rallying support for a Ruto presidency in 2022 in the region, saying it owes the deputy president a political debt arising from his backing for Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 elections.

Pre-election coalitions

Frankline Mukwanja, executive director of the NGO Centre for Multiparty Democracy-Kenya, attributes the tendency for pre-election coalitions to break up to the fact that parties mobilise support around ethnicity rather than issues.

“Everywhere around the world, parties have some form of voting blocs they control. But beyond that they mobilise around issues. For example, the biggest issue in the US and Europe currently appears to be immigration. During Barack Obama’s time in the US it was healthcare. The problem with Kenya is that voters follow their ethnic kingpins around and are influenced with financial handouts to vote for candidates. The civic competence here is very low,” said Mr Mukwanja.

Gladys Shollei, the Uasin Gishu Woman Representative, appearing on a local TV station K24’s current affairs show Punchline last Sunday, underlined the big role ethnic kingpins play in making or breaking political parties or coalitions.

“When people from Rift Valley woke up in 2017, they did not wake up to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta. They woke up to vote for William Ruto,” said Ms Shollei, who represents a county where the Deputy President enjoys massive support.

If, as it is widely expected, Jubilee ends up becoming irrelevant in the next elections, it will join a growing list of political parties or coalitions abandoned by their presumptive candidates in the recent past.

Like President Kenyatta, who hopped onto a new vehicle for his re-election, his predecessor Mwai Kibaki was elected on a National Rainbow Coalition ticket in 2002, but he assembled a new outfit called the Party of National Unity to defend his seat five years later.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, the runner-up in each of the past three presidential elections, was sponsored by ODM in 2007, Cord Coalition in 2013 and the National Super Alliance in 2017.

These past coalitions appear to have been largely inspired by the quest by the leading presidential candidates to shore up their vote numbers and give themselves a reasonable chance of winning the election.

The notable exception was in the run-up to 2013 when Kenyatta and Ruto were seen as having entered a forced political marriage to take power and fend off crimes against humanity charges against them at the International Criminal Court.

The charges related to the duo’s alleged role in the 2007/2008 post-election violence collapsed during their first term in office after witnesses pulled out.

Their unfolding falling-out, fuelled by a sense of grievance among Dr Ruto’s supporters over President Kenyatta’s coziness with Mr Odinga, looks set to create other unlikely alliances ahead of 2022.

Dr Ruto fashions himself as the presumptive candidate for Jubilee Party having been President Kenyatta’s running mate in the past two elections and has barely concealed his loathing for the incumbent’s handshake deal with Mr Odinga last year, following the disputed presidential election outcome in 2017.

During his early campaigns, mainly through fundraising for churches, he has made forays into Mr Odinga’s support bases in western Kenya and the Coast, winning over a number of MPs elected on the tickets of the latter’s ODM party.

Mr Odinga has dismissed media reports saying he will run a fifth time, but his political allies have in the past drummed up support for the ODM party leader at public meetings, even appealing to Kenyatta to endorse him.


His name is also being mentioned in public debates on the Kenyatta succession in central Kenya, where the President’s impending retirement has elicited anxiety about a regional leadership vacuum and prompted local politicians to consider new alliances.

Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru, who has been linked with a possible running mate choice by one of the top presidential candidates in 2022, last week said her central Kenya region was open to an Odinga candidacy as long as he offers it “a piece of his government.”

Ms Waiguru, who as a powerful Cabinet minister for the better part of President Kenyatta’s first term, never saw eye to eye with Mr Odinga politically and at some point sued him for linking her with a corruption scandal, added that the region would meanwhile wait on President Kenyatta’s advice on which political formation to be part of.

If the President’s remarks last November about the prospects of a shock endorsement of a successor are anything to go by, Kenyans have not seen the last of shifting alliances yet.