For decades, north-eastern Kenya has been the poster child for political and economic neglect and human rights violations as well.
But the Constitution now gives residents opportunities for greater political participation, which has elevated the region’s significance.
In the next election, North Eastern Province will elect 21 MPs to Parliament if the additional seven constituencies are approved (there will be three more seats for women representatives from the region’s three counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa).
Further, the high threshold set by the Constitution for one to win the race to State House — at least 25 per cent of the votes in at least half of the country’s 47 counties — has seen presidential contenders flock to northern Kenya, a region mainly dominated by members of the Somali community.
Residents of the province believe they can provide much-sought-after swing votes. More significantly, they are emboldened by the results of the disputed 2009 census.
At 2.3 million people, a figure contested by the government, Somalis now classify themselves as Kenya’s sixth-largest community, ahead of the Kisii (2.2 million), Mijikenda (nearly two million) and Meru (1.8 million).
Principal contenders for the Somali vote include Prime Minister Raila Odinga (ODM), Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Democratic Party), Deputy Prime Ministers Uhuru Kenyatta (TNA) and Musalia Mudavadi (UDF), and Eldoret North MP William Ruto (URP).
Mandera Central MP Abdikadir Mohammed reckons that the next election will be “defining” for the people of northern Kenya.
“The region will ... provide the swing vote because the bigger voting blocs are already claimed by key candidates,” said the MP who has been touted as a possible running mate for Mr Mudavadi.
“North Eastern will be on the winning side. They would like to be in government,” he said.
In 2007 the region’s votes were cast almost evenly for President Kibaki and Mr Odinga.
In a conversation with the Sunday Nation, Dujis MP Aden Duale, who is supporting Mr Ruto, introduced another dynamic — the financial muscle of the Somali nation, arguing that they constitute the third-largest business community in the country.
“They own about 40 per cent of the energy sector and have a strong presence in the financial sector, and our top professionals are in key positions in constitutional commissions such as the electoral commission as well as the Judiciary, diplomatic service and defence,” he said.
Politicians from the region said they consider Marsabit, Moyale, Isiolo and a section of Tana River as part of the Somali nation. They also cite Bura and Kamukunji constituencies represented by Somalis Dr Abdi Nuh and Mr Yussuf Hassan, respectively, as their political territory.
Mr Odinga is fighting to retain his portion of a region whose politics revolve around clan interests, and which gave his party six MPs in the last election.
He hopes to rely on Deputy House Speaker Farah Maalim (Lagdera), Cabinet minister Mohammed Elmi (Wajir East) and Energy assistant minister Mohamed Maalim Mohamud of Mandera.
Mr Kenyatta, whom the region supported in the 2002 presidential contest on a Kanu ticket, will bank heavily on the support of Defence minister Yusuf Haji, a respected Ogaden elder whose influence goes beyond his Garissa turf.
Ogaden is the largest and most influential clan in the Kenyan Somali community and has dominated local politics since independence. Other clans are Degodia of Wajir West MP Adan Keynan, Garre, Murale and Ajuran.
Mr Haji, Mr Maalim, Mr Duale, assistant minister Aden Sugow, Mr Hassan, Dr Nuh, Mr Mohammed Sarat (Wajir South), and nominated MPs Mohammed Affey and Sophia Abdi are from the Ogaden clan.
Mr Affey is the most visible pointman for Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka.
However, there is a general feeling that presidential candidates should not overly rely on sitting MPs who are themselves fighting for political survival in a region known to kick out 70 per cent of its leaders during elections.
Former Ladgera MP Abdullahi Dahir says a Mudavadi-Uhuru ticket would be the most formidable. Mr Dahir suggested Mr Kenyatta run as Mr Mudavadi’s running mate, and Mr Ruto settle for Majority Leader.
He added that the main undoing for many presidential candidates in the region would be their reliance on increasingly unpopular lieutenants.
Weak and unpopular
“The Prime Minister has particularly stuck with weak and unpopular people. His pointmen are doing very badly on the ground,” said an ODM youth leader from Garissa who asked not to be named.
There are also complaints that Mr Odinga did not honour his MoU with Muslims, which promised them protection from harassment, improvement of roads and hospitals, and provision of water.
It does not help matters that the ministries of Roads, Medical Services and Water fall on his side of the coalition.
Mandera East MP Mohammed Hussein Ali, who has defected from ODM to Mr Ruto’s URP, says Mr Odinga’s attempt to appease Somalis through the ministry of Northern Kenya Development failed because it did not get resources to initiate projects.
“We feel short-changed. The ministry has no money and there is nothing to show for it.”
Mr Hussein considers Mr Ruto the man to beat, saying URP has packaged itself as the party for pastoralists.
But former Fafi MP Barre Shill, Mr Odinga’s pointman in Garissa County, dismissed allegations of Mr Odinga’s failures, saying the coalition government never gave him a “real half loaf”.
In his estimation, Mr Ruto’s undoing will be his reliance on sitting MPs. “We all know 70 per cent of MPs lose their seats. North Eastern is very ruthless on MPs, and this time will not be different.”
While Mr Dahir describes Mr Musyoka as “totally unpredictable”, Mr Affey believes the VP is the man to beat.
“Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka will be the greatest beneficiary of the northern Kenya vote because he has demonstrated that he is not allergic to work with people from the region,” says Mr Affey.
“And like the residents of the northern Kenya region, the VP has tasted poverty.”
In his prediction, Mr Shill says the spoils will be shared between Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta. Mr Kenyatta’s support for a Somali candidate, Mr Yusuf Hassan, in last year’s Kamukunji by-election shored up his rating.
Mr Hassan, although in the Wiper party, says that Somalis see Mr Kenyatta as trustworthy.
“Somalis think he can fight for them. He asked his community to support a Somali and this still evokes a lot of emotional fondness,” he said.