Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s planned visit to Murang’a, which politicians allied to Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta oppose, is the culmination of the rivalry between the two leaders keen on the presidency come 2012.
Mr Odinga’s tour has made some politicians jittery because it is seen as an attempt to make inroads into Mr Kenyatta’s backyard.
Some councillors have opposed the tour, claiming it is aimed at undermining Mr Kenyatta.
But Kigumo MP Jamleck Kamau, in whose constituency the premier is supposed to open a new factory, as well as his Maragua counterpart Elias Mbau, have said they have no problem with the visit.
“I am very well prepared to receive the PM, and he is welcome to Kigumo any time because he is the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya, and we like him,” Mr Kamau said.
Mr Kenyatta has somewhat belatedly distanced himself from forces opposed to the February 28 visit, saying the PM was free to visit any part of the country.
There is talk that the acrimony surrounding Mr Odinga’s tour is a curtainraiser and a pointer that the next election may be a clash between forces allied to Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta.
According to politicians allied to Mr Kenyatta, the move is particularly discomforting, coming at a time when an opinion poll shows Mr Odinga’s popularity in central Kenya on the rise.
Mr Kenyatta’s friends like Kamukunji MP Simon Mbugua say the poll is inaccurate.
“The poll must have been conducted outside Central Province because the reality on the ground is very different from what it depicts,” he said.
A recent poll by Synovate indicated that in terms of popularity, Mr Odinga scored 17 per cent to Mr Kenyatta’s 15 per cent.
The figures indicate a dramatic boost to Mr Odinga’s fortunes in an area traditionally opposed to his bid for the presidency.
This has been attributed to what politicians close to him described as “quiet networking and strong rethinking” about the relationship between the Kikuyu and Mr Odinga’s Luo community.
The two communities harbour a political rivalry dating back to independence.
It is rooted in the frosty relationship between President Jomo Kenyatta and Kenya’s first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Decades later, their scions are entangled in a similar contest for political power.
Those said to be building bridges in Central Province for Mr Odinga include former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, Kiambaa MP Stanley Githunguri and some members of the Gema council of elders led by former Defence minister Njenga Karume.
Last Thursday, Mr Odinga hosted Mr Njonjo at a lunch where he marked his 90th birthday. Mr Githunguri and several other businessmen were there.
In what was described as an attempt to promote dialogue between the Kikuyu and the Luo, the Gema council members met Mr Odinga last year.
Bishop Lawi Imathiu, who accompanied Mr Karume to meet Mr Odinga, says the Prime Minister is one of the principals in the coalition government with President Kibaki.
“Whether some people like it or not, Mr Odinga is our leader,” he told the Sunday Nation in an interview.
“Not recognising him is like burying our heads in the sand,” he said, pointing out that members of Gema – Kikuyu, Embu and Meru -- cannot succeed alone. “They must work with other Kenyans. That is why we are promoting dialogue between communities.”
At the meeting, Mr Karume, who traced the history of cooperation between the two communities in the fight for independence, asked the Kikuyu to “change their attitude” and embrace leaders from other regions.
He reiterated President Kibaki’s comment made on a visit to Kisumu last year that history had shown that the country was stable when the two communities worked together.
It is also said that through his activities with the private sector, Mr Odinga had managed to dispell the impression that he was “anti-business”.
“Being largely business people, some Kikuyus had issues with Mr Odinga, but they have started looking at him differently following his frequent interaction with the private sector,” said Dennis Onyango, the PM’s spokesman.
“The private sector roundtable which he hosts has earned him the confidence of the business community which had reservations about him,” he said.
Mr Onyango noted that as Prime Minister Mr Odinga has had an opportunity to engage directly and “explain” himself to central Kenya residents.
“There is a general shift because the generation which witnessed the animosity between Jomo (Kenyatta) and Jaramogi has faded.”
Though not speaking directly in support of Mr Odinga, Mr Mbau asked leaders from central Kenya to teach the people to embrace other Kenyans.
“People from Central Province should be seen to vote with other Kenyans. We cannot afford to continue living in an enclave,” he said, adding that Mr Odinga’s trip “must be welcomed and embraced by all people who want to see Kenya remain a united state.”
“It is also the time when Central Province needs to tell the country that it has no hatred for any leader from any region.”
Although the 2012 presidential contest will also likely involve Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and Agriculture minister William Ruto, it is Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta who are tje political heavyweights.
Unlike the other contenders, the two are scions of big political families and enjoy the support of wealthy businessmen whose resources can come in handy.
The business elite around President Kibaki is seen to favour Mr Kenyatta, while Mr Odinga enjoys the support of a wide network of contacts stretching beyond Kenya’s borders.
The rivalry between Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta can be traced to the run-up to the 2002 General Election when Mr Odinga walked out of Kanu with a bunch of Cabinet ministers, including Prof George Saitoti. They were opposed to Mr Kenyatta’s presidential candidature, and the pullout effectively weakened his bid.
Mr Odinga would go ahead to endorse Mr Kibaki’s candidacy through the famous Kibaki Tosha declaration. Mr Odinga then campaigned for Mr Kibaki who was the Narc torchbearer, handing Kanu and Mr Kenyatta a humiliating defeat.
Since then, the two have been thrust into competing positions, except when they teamed up in 2005 to defeat the proposed new constitution in a referendum. But even then, their alliance was short-lived.
Mr Kenyatta bolted from the Orange Movement and led his Kanu troops to rally behind President Kibaki, Mr Odinga’s rival in the disputed 2007 General Election.
And after the enactment of the National Accord which led to power sharing between Party of National Unity and the Orange Democratic Movement, the two have been engaged in political intrigues which have seen them holding divergent positions on national issues.
The most notable are the Mau evictions, resettlement of IDPs, trial of post-election violence suspects and the debate on the proposed new constitution.
In an interesting turn of events, Mr Kenyatta has teamed up with Mr Ruto, the ODM deputy leader who has been at loggerheads with Mr Odinga, to oppose the premier’s approach on the Mau resettlement.
Against advice of powerful political voices, Mr Kenyatta was the guest of honour at a harambee meeting for the Mau victims at which speakers took turns criticising Mr Odinga.
And on constitution review, Mr Kenyatta led the PNU onslaught in the Naivasha talks where ODM made considerable concessions.