Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s overtures to his former-ally-turned-bitter-foe William Ruto have underlined the Eldoret North MP’s emergence as the kingmaker ahead of next year’s elections.
Mr Ruto has in recent months been courted by prominent members of the G7 alliance, including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka.
The URP leader further held consultations with Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi last week, cementing the perception that the Rift Valley, the largest and most populous region in the country, could hold the trump card on who emerges tops in the Kibaki succession.
The entreaties by Mr Odinga, in which he reportedly committed himself to serve for one term as well as cede 50 per cent of the Cabinet positions to Mr Ruto, underlines the importance of this vote basket.
Curiously, however, Mr Odinga on Saturday appeared to make a veiled attack on the Eldoret North MP who was a vocal opponent of the new Constitution.
“There are those who were showing you red cards before the referendum, they are non-reformists and they like to remain in the past and it’s not possible for them to take this country to a different level,” Mr Odinga said in Narok, hours after his presidential campaign secretariat issued a statement denying reported details of a proposed deal with Mr Ruto.
A further layer of intrigue was added when elders from the Kalenjin and Luo communities held talks in Eldoret for what they described as peace-building initiatives.
The talks, which come after the Tuesday night meeting between Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto, heightened speculation about alliance-building before the elections. (READ: What Raila offered Ruto)
At stake is the major candidates’ initiative to try and secure the support of voters in the Rift Valley. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission records show the Rift Valley had 3 million voters during the referendum on the Constitution.
The region, which voted overwhelmingly for Mr Odinga in the last election, has seen most of its leaders troop to Mr Ruto’s United Republican Party.
The latest to join the party, which was founded in January, was Kilgoris MP Gideon Konchellah who on Thursday ditched Uhuru Kenyatta’s side moments after signing a pact with TNA.
The overtures to Mr Ruto are part of efforts the PM has made to win back a region that voted for him overwhelmingly in 2007 before he fell out badly with some of its leaders over the Mau Forest rehabilitation and the trial of post-election violence suspects.
On Saturday, Roads minister Franklin Bett said in Narok that he was ready to mediate between Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto. “Mr Ruto has announced publicly that ‘if you see the PM tell him I am looking for him’. We tell him here and now that we have heard and are ready to welcome him,” Mr Bett said.
The crowd vouched for Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi, too. But, in another twist, ODM secretary-general Prof Anyang Nyong’o on Saturday evening dismissed a statement sent to newsrooms in the morning by the head of the Raila Campaign secretariat George Owallo that there was no deal on the table for consideration by the two leaders.
“The Prime Minister announced yesterday (Friday) clearly in Kilgoris that those who had left the party were free to come back, who is Mr Owallo to counter it?” (READ: Raila invites ODM rebels back to party)
The sentiments were echoed by ministers Henry Kosgey, James Orengo, Paul Otuoma, and assistant minister Gen (rtd) Joseph Nkaissery, who said if Mr Ruto and Mr Mudavadi returned the PM would win the presidential election in the first round.
Mr Odinga is not the only one attempting to reach out to Mr Ruto. An aide of Mr Kenyatta downplayed the meeting between the PM and the URP leader, saying Mr Kenyatta was aware of it and was “relaxed” about the meeting.
The official said the meeting was timed to coincide with the presence of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the country to show that Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta were a formidable force despite what they perceive as efforts to paint them as pariahs.
“It is unlikely Mr Ruto will give up URP,” he said. “The lesson from Narc and ODM in 2002 and 2007 was that supporting a candidate and not having your own party would expose you to dismissal after the elections. Mr Ruto will probably go all the way and angle for the powerful position of House majority leader.”
An insider in Mr Musyoka’s camp also claimed that Mr Ruto had an arrangement with Mr Musyoka. He said they had been in talks for many months and that it was only a matter of time before a pre-election agreement was revealed.
In Nairobi on Saturday, the ODM Reloaded campaign team urged Mr Ruto and Mr Mudavadi to return to ODM.
“We know our friends William Ruto and Musalia Mudavadi were misled to leave the party but we are telling them to come back because we started this journey together with them and we want to finish it together,” said Sports minister Ababu Namwamba.
Mr Namwamba dismissed suggestions that the party had been weakened by recent defections of some of its MPs, saying those who have left the party had insignificant support. He was speaking at the KICC grounds during the Orange party’s open day forum.
The manoeuvres by various camps to woo Mr Ruto partly reflect the quest to fulfil the constitutional requirement for each candidate to attain 25 per cent of votes in at least half the counties. The Rift Valley has the bulk of counties in the country.
Among other strategies, Mr Odinga’s campaign will reportedly seek to woo the URP leader who he is treating as a “friendly opponent”. “We have decided to go slow on projecting Ruto as an enemy. You will see us treating him with kids’ gloves even as we charm his supporters,” said the highly-placed source.
It is this approach that is credited for having brought Mr Ruto to the negotiating table. The last census ranked the Kalenjin — a conglomeration of 11 ethnic groups — as Kenya’s third largest community after the Kikuyu and the Luhya.
“However, in terms of voting patterns, the Kalenjin are the second biggest constituency after the Kikuyu,” said Mr Lelei Kiboy of Masinde Muliro University. “Look at the 2007 figures and you will see a constituency which any serious presidential candidate will ignore at his or her own peril.”
Sources from the ODM elections board revealed that the Kalenjin contributed about 1.5m votes to Mr Odinga’s presidential basket. Mr Ruto is seen to command the support of about 10 counties: Trans Nzoia, West Pokot, Elgeyo Marakwet, Uasin Gishu, Nandi, Baringo, Kericho, Nakuru, Narok and Bomet.
The MP has also reportedly made inroads in Ekwee Ethuro’s Turkana County, North Eastern, Samburu, Upper Eastern (Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale) and sections of the Coast.
With the approval of new boundaries, after the next election Rift Valley will have 75 elected MPs, up from the current 49. Any candidate that will bag a majority of seats from the region will, therefore, have a head start in efforts to control Parliament.
Some of the Eldoret North MP’s allies such as Cherang’any MP Joshua Kutuny have, however, warned that Mr Ruto should use the advantage of numbers judiciously.
“The move to see Raila has made us lose credibility and trust with our allies. This move will give room to smaller parties in the region to gain ground,” said Mr Kutuny.
Political observers partly attribute the new-found scramble for Mr Ruto to his charismatic character.
“He is perhaps the most energetic of all the present campaigners. He is also a self-made politician who together with (Lugari MP Cyrus) Jirongo saved Moi’s Kanu from being vanquished by the opposition in 1992,” said Kabianga University College lecturer Herbert Kerre.
Mr Odinga’s former top adviser Miguna Miguna lends further credence to this assessment. “Ruto is charismatic, articulate, hardworking, rumbustious and ambitious. He is also extremely restless.
"Unlike both Raila and Mudavadi, he is a teetotaller, and thus less distracted from political campaigning,” writes Mr Miguna in his memoirs, Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya.
Mr Ruto also reputedly commands considerable financial resources.
“Big money is the oil with which serious presidential campaigns are run. Recent research indicates that the cost of running a presidential campaign has leapfrogged to Sh12 billion, more than double what President Kibaki and Mr Odinga spent in 2007. Money is an important consideration in seeking allies,” said Moi University don, Prof Peter Simatei.
However, there are the lingering doubts about Mr Ruto’s candidature. The International Criminal Court, where Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta are facing crimes against humanity charges, has indicated that trials could begin after March 2013.
And, while this may not interfere with the election, the run-off date set by the electoral body coincides with the beginning of trials set for April 10 and 11. A number of activists, including Ndhiwa MP Agostinho Neto, have gone to court seeking to bar Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta from vying.
Mr Annan and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also warned that electing people facing charges at the ICC will have implications on Kenya’s foreign relations.
It is this apprehension, analysts suggest, that has ignited a wait-and-see approach by voters, an attitude which makes them contemplate a scenario where they could vote for an alternative leader.
Some analysts say Rift Valley is one of the regions where voters have not fully decided who to support.