When in 1992 Elijah Mwangale asked politicians from the Luhya community to support his call on President Daniel arap Moi to appoint one among them as Vice-President (VP), parliamentary colleagues from western Kenya roundly dismissed the then powerful Agriculture minister.
Led by Tourism and Wildlife assistant minister Moody Awori, they asked Mwangale to curb his unbridled ambition to become the first Luhya President.
Foreign Affairs assistant minister Joseph Muliro, Kanduyi MP Maurice Makhanu and AFC Leopards chairman Alfred Sambu even moved a step further to demand the minister’s resignation as Bungoma Kanu branch chairman for allegedly dictating to Moi who to appoint as his deputy.
This was at the turn of the first multiparty elections since the return of political pluralism, and Mwangale, who had foreseen an opposition wave in the region and had sought to stem the motion by getting Moi to replace Vice-President George Saitoti with a Luhya.
But Moi ignored his minister’s plea, and virtually all those who had strongly de-campaigned Mwangale, except Awori, lost their parliamentary seats. Mwangale was similarly replaced as Kimilili MP by Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, now secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Opinion remains divided as to whether or not Mwangale would have been appointed VP and proceeded to become the first Luhya president had his kinsmen stood by him.
However, nearly three decades on, the electioneering process among members of the populous community is mainly characterised by the pull-me-down syndrome.
And the community has registered history in rejecting two vice-presidents at the ballot, just when they – as is said of VPs – were a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Mr Musalia Mudavadi lost his Sabatia parliamentary seat in 2002, while Awori was shown the door by voters in Funyula in 2007.
Under the old Constitution, the President and VP were members of Parliament.
Now, backers of Mr Mudavadi, viewed as the political kingpin of western Kenya, accuse Devolution Cabinet Secretary (CS) Eugene Wamalwa and Council of Governors chairman Wycliffe Oparanya of pulling down the Amani National Congress (ANC) leader politically.
Mr Wamalwa and Mr Oparanya have lately intensified political activity in the region, which Ford-Kenya leader Moses Wetang’ula claims is aimed at undermining him and Mr Mudavadi.
“They are doing this to propel an outsider, other than themselves, into power. They have no business lecturing to us who to support because Mr Mudavadi and I are looking for leadership of this country,” said Mr Wetang’ula.
According to Mr Wamalwa, though, it is Mr Mudavadi and Mr Wetangula who are guilty of pulling him and the CoG boss down, stating his unwillingness to engage in mudslinging with his “politically senior brothers.”
The CS asks the duo to stop the suspicion and self-guilt because he has a job to do, which is to serve all Kenyans, including members of his community.
Incidentally, Mr Wamalwa and Mr Oparanya are today the most senior officials in government from the region.
The two are coincidentally in charge of devolution in the two levels of government – the CS is in charge in the national government, while the Kakamega governor is the boss of county governments.
“We may not be the best but we are all they (Mudavadi and Wetang’ula) have at the moment and instead of whining, they should take advantage of our positions in government to push through development agendas that will help our people,” says Mr Wamalwa.
Noting Mr Mudavadi and Mr Wetang’ula have been around longer and “have failed to lead the community into national leadership of the country”, Mr Oparanya observes: “We cannot do the same things all the time and expect different results.”
This time around, he insists, “we must do things differently by installing and reviving projects that are of economic viability to our people and teaming up with the President to form the next government”.
But Mr Mudavadi dismisses Mr Oparanya and Mr Wamalwa as mere messengers of other people tasked to pull him down and divide the community politically.
Noting that he has served in previous governments in various capacities, including as VP, deputy prime minister and Cabinet minister, the ANC leader says his goal is not to be in government but rather to form the government.
The ping-pong between the Oparanya-Wamalwa and Mudavadi-Wetang’ula pairs is an old instrumental tune that is struck almost every election year.
It is a political tune that has over the decades been danced to by political bigwigs from western Kenya, including former VP Michael Kijana Wamalwa and former ministers Masinde Muliro, James Nakhwanga Osogo, Moses Budamba Mudavadi and Mwangale in disharmony.
But political rivalries are not confined to the Luhya alone.
According to Dr George Katete, who teaches political science at the University of Nairobi, this is a historical challenge among all the Kenyan big tribes – Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin and Kamba – but one that the rest, except the Luhya, have managed to overcome.
“The Kalenjin, for instance, is a political tribe that was assembled by Daniel arap Moi when he rose to power as Kenya’s second President. Before that the communities in the Rift Valley region, including Nandi, Kipsigis and Pokot, among others, existed independently and in great competition,” says Dr Katete.
The don similarly observes that the political homogeneity of the Kikuyu almost ended with the death of first President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.
However, Dr Katete notes Mwai Kibaki managed to reunite the Kikuyu nation and even created the “Mt Kenya” political tribe including the Meru, Embu, Tharaka and Nithi, when he ascended to power in 2002.
“Among the Luo, political rivalry was characterised by the Tom Mboya and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (Constitutional Affairs minister and Vice-President at independence) camps. The animosity has continued even after their deaths under the South, Central and North Nyanza lines. But ODM leader Raila Odinga has nonetheless managed to solidly unite the community,” says Dr Katete.
He says Mr Mudavadi, the most senior politician from western Kenya and who served in government in several capacities from the age of 29, takes the largest responsibility for the community’s failure to unite.
“Where his contemporaries have ably succeeded, the ANC leader is still struggling to strike a unity formula,” says Dr Katete, who nonetheless concedes disunity in western Kenya is influenced by other external factors.
The merger talks between Ford-Kenya and ANC, for instance, have been on the cards for more than two years and the only thing one hears today even when politicians allied to the two parties meet is a cacophony of voices exhibiting allegiance to either Mr Mudavadi or Deputy President William Ruto.
Some, like Kimilili MP Didimus Barasa and Mumias East MP Benjamin Washiali, who have lately teamed up with the ANC leader, continue to advocate a Ruto-Mudavadi presidential ticket, a matter that utterly discomforts ANC deputy party leader Ayub Savula.
Mr Savula says they have reached out to the DP’s allies only because “we want to rope in everyone from Luhya land.”
It is this type of “back-and-forth politicking and bickering that has made us static, and that is why we must change tack,” Mr Wamalwa says
“In times of a crisis the wise build bridges, but the unwise build barriers by ringing fences around their tribes, and have decided to join other Kenyans in forming the next government,” he says.