As the day for deciding the fate of the proposed constitution draws near, attention is turning to Rift Valley Province which is home to three million registered voters.
In what is by far the most populous of Kenya’s eight provinces, both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns are both keen to win as many of their votes as possible.
The province – which has been a national political hotbed for decades – is attracting extraordinary attention from campaigners as the controversy over Suswa in North Narok attests.
Retired president Moi held a ‘No’ rally there that was punctuated by heckling and tension, a few days after the ‘Yes’ side had asked him to stay away from the grounds considered sacred by the Maasai.
The ‘Yes’ supporters attempted to disrupt the rally in a style reminiscent of the violent politics that have plagued the Rift Valley since 1992.
Parts of the Rift Valley provide the bedrock of support for the ‘No’ campaign championed by Higher Education minister William Ruto and Mr Moi.
But the province is also a mosaic of other political and community interests that seem to be pulling apart over the proposed draft.
Cabinet ministers Sally Kosgei, Henry Kosgey, Hellen Sambili and Franklin Bett, together with nine other MPs, support the draft. The province has 49 MPs. The province has 29 Kalenjin MPs, 16 of whom oppose the proposed constitution. But the likelihood is that many Kalenjin voters will heed Mr Ruto’s call when they cast their ballots.
This realisation may have prompted Energy assistant minister Magerer Lang’at, who is the convenor of the 13 MPs from the province who support the draft, when she recently released a statement saying the group had would be holding closed-door meetings instead of public rallies.
“We have changed our strategy after realising the rally approach was not working due to polarisation in the region,” she said. But these politicians nevertheless have ventured into the politicised terrain, holding a number of rallies in the province.
According to Joseph Ndalila, a political science lecturer at Moi University, the results of the referendum in the Rift Valley will be as diverse as the ethnic communities in the province.
“Ethnic democracy, which had been buried in 2007, has come back. and the campaign has become a game of personality and political suspicion,” he said.
The Turkana, whose three MPs all support the draft, he said, easily embrace a system that brings government closer to them, especially in light of the lack of infrastructure and the rampant security menace in the area.
“In the larger Trans Nzoia district, the Luhya are happy with the manner of devolution which they say legitimises them as genuine residents of the region, unlike in the case now where they are treated as immigrants,” the lecturer said.
The province is also home to a sizeable Kikuyu population in the Central Rift region of Nakuru and Laikipia whose leaders have been busy campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote.
“Many Kalenjin elites are not happy with the dismantling of the Rift Valley as a province in the proposed nature of the devolution,” said political analyst Samson Komen.
He said it is the envisaged “loss” of Nakuru, the provincial capital, that is keeping the Kalenjin elite on their toes as they feel the community will be marginalised in a new order.
The community is only dominant in Kuresoi, even though they are represented in the other five constituencies in the larger cosmopolitan district. Should the proposed constitution pass, however, they would rule the roost in Nandi, Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, Baringo, Kericho, Bomet and West Pokot.
Maa speaking MPs
“Rift Valley, the name, is very dear, especially to the old guard who cannot imagine that their identity can be intact without this sentimental name,” Mr Komen said.
Interestingly, this is what might have driven other communities to throw their weight behind the proposed constitution.
Narok South MP Nkoidila ole Lankas said the opinion of non-Kalenjin leaders had been ignored whenever Rift Valley was referred to.
“When these people talk of Rift Valley MPs, you would imagine they are talking about us, when in reality they are talking about MPs from one ethnic community,” he said.
It is because of this, the legislator said, that the Maa-speaking MPs have a new-found unity to push for the passing of the draft.
The MPs from Samburu in the north to Kajiado in the south are firmly in the ‘Yes’ camp under the leadership of Internal Security minister Prof George Saitoti and Heritage minister William ole Ntimama.
The leaders are also happy with the devolution aspect which they say will bring about equity.
The leaders have, however, faced formidable opposition from their opponents. Last Wednesday, former Narok South MP Stephen ole Ntutu and UDM secretary-general Martin ole Kamwaro organised a rally at the historic Suswa grounds.
The meeting was addressed by Mr Moi, Mr Ruto and 12 other MPs opposed to the draft.
“We are not eggs to be put in one basket,” said Mr Ntutu.
Speakers also upped the stakes by claiming that a ‘Yes’ vote was tantamount to giving away land.
Another rallying point against the proposed constitution in the region where the Kalenjin-community is dominant is the perceived betrayal by Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
“After the betrayal by Mr Odinga in the Mau evictions and his stand on the prosecution of the suspects of the post-election violence, we want to use this vote to consolidate our support and teach him a lesson now and in 2012,” said Konoin MP Julius Kones, an ally of the Eldoret North MP.