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Kenya election: shifting alliances and economic woe to fore

Monday August 8, 2022
Caroline Kimeu in Nairobi

Raila Odinga is leading William Ruto in the polls but the latter hopes his ‘hustler’ image will win him votes among the poor

Election posters for Raila Odinga and William Ruto in Nairobi. Kenya goes to the polls on Tuesday. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Kenyans are heading to the ballot box on Tuesday after a campaign season marked by a shift in ethnic alliances and two big-ticket issues: the cost of living crisis and high unemployment.

The race pits presidential frontrunners Raila Odinga, the former prime minister, and deputy president William Ruto against each other in a hotly contested race. Polls place Odinga in the lead.

Odinga has run for the presidency four other times in races that were just as tight. This time, however, he’s going in backed by an unexpected ally: his longtime political rival, President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The two united after a public handshake in 2018, signifying an end to their long political hostility. The handshake between the two leaders, who come from Kenya’s legacy families, took the nation and the pair’s supporters by surprise. Odinga and Kenyatta are from the Luo and Kikuyu ethnic communities, which have long been on opposing political sides. In Kenya’s ethnic-driven political landscape, their alliance is seen as the card that could make Odinga fifth-time lucky, with Kenyatta’s backing expected to draw in a part of the Kikuyu vote. But observers are unsure whether the alliance can bridge a decades-long ethnic divide.

“A big number of Kikuyus revolted against the alliance,” says Gabriel Muthuma, a political analyst. “The only way we will be able to know whether it worked or not is by what it will produce at the ballot.”

The handshake left Ruto – Kenyatta’s former ally and successor hopeful – sidelined. The president and his deputy eventually fell out for reasons that are not clear, ending a once-favoured bromance revelled in by the public when the pair rode into power in 2013, earning them the name “UhuRuto”. But by the time of their fallout, Ruto had already garnered some favour in the Kikuyu-dominated Mount Kenya region. He broadened that influence by selecting a running mate from that region. Analysts say that his choice, Rigathi Gachagua, a businessman and outgoing member of parliament, holds significant sway in the region. Their campaign was dealt a blow, however, after he was recently ordered by the country’s high court to forfeit 202m shillings of his wealth (£1.3m) for being linked to corruption.

Odinga, on the other hand, nominated Martha Karua, former justice minister and longtime politician, as his running mate. She is the first woman to be nominated as running mate on a major political ticket, and if elected would be Kenya’s first deputy president. Karua is also from the Mount Kenya region, but is said to hold less sway there. Analysts say that Karua’s selection as running mate, however, gave his campaign a boost among other voter demographics, including women, civil society and urban, educated Kenyans.

Beyond the redrawing of ethnic alliances, a tough economy has invited unprecedented public attention to the presidential candidates’ economic agendas.

“The political class have had to step up after recognising that this time around, it won’t just be about ethnic Balkanisation,” says Kenyan economist Ken Gichinga.

Food prices have skyrocketed across the country, fuelled by global disruptions to the food supply chain caused by the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. Kenyans are also bearing the brunt of the country’s soaring 8.6tn shilling (£59bn) public debt through highly taxed goods. Many households are struggling, and one Gallup poll showed that seven out of 10 Kenyans reported having faced food insecurity in 2021.

“The economy is a very big pillar in these elections, and it may be a gamechanger,” says Muthuma.

Annan Okenye, who is running for a country assembly seat in Pipeline, Embakasi, one of Nairobi’s most populated neighbourhoods, says that the country’s economic situation has made life unbearable. The greengrocer and street hawker, who ran a shoestring campaign on donations and meagre savings, spent six years trying to put himself through university on a daily income of about 400 shillings (£3) a day. Just as he closed in on his dreams of becoming the first graduate in his extended family in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic hit, forcing him to quit school and look for work. With formal employment elusive, he found himself where he’d began: eking out a living at his market stall.

“Kenyans have been ravaged by economic conditions that make many of them believe that their best lives are behind them,” says Gichinga.

Ruto, a street hawker in his early years, clawed his way into the ranks of the political elite and significant fortune. He positioned himself during his campaigns as a “hustler” who could understand the struggles of the ordinary Kenyan. He pitted himself against “dynasty” candidate Raila Odinga, but as the references to “dynasties” and “hustlers” took off some lawmakers labelled it inflammatory, saying it was fanning class tensions and fuelling dangerous divides in a country with extremely high inequality.

Ruto’s “bottom-up” campaign messaging has gained ground with small business owners like market stall holders and motorcycle taxi drivers, says Okenye. The model pledges to empower those at the bottom of the economic pyramid by, among other things, providing a 50bn shilling (£346m) “Hustler Fund” to support small businesses.

“Market people feel like he’s a part and parcel of them. I get to hear what people say, as a politician, and he scores high on bottom-up,” says Okenye, who says he is not aligned with either candidate.

Odinga, on the other hand, has proposed a healthcare-for-all plan called BabaCare. He’s also pledged that each vulnerable household will get 6,000 shillings (£40) every month as a form of social protection.

Economists say that cash transfers can be effective, but Odinga has not been clear on how the billions of shillings needed to implement it would be raised. “Will it be through taxes, and if so, are Kenyans ready for higher taxes? Will it be through borrowing? If so, aren’t Kenyans already debt-fatigued?” asks Gichinga.

Going into the elections, voter expectations for change are low. A resident of the Kayole Junction neighbourhood in Nairobi, Noah Dulo, says: “Our debt is now at nearly nine trillion. So the worry is that whichever leader we elect, there are just not enough resources to run the country.”


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