The narrow margin with which Orange Democratic Movement’s Ochillo Ayacko won the Migori County’s senate seat in Monday’s by-election has stirred heated debate as to whether party leader Raila Odinga’s grip on the region is waning.
Mr Ayacko’s competitor, 27-year-old Eddy Oketch, managed over 60,000 votes in a region where ODM enjoys near fervent political support. Mr Ayacko, a former minister, garnered 85,000 votes.
Mr Odinga’s critics are now writing his political obituary. While that may be extreme, questions abound on whether Mr Odinga is gradually losing the touch in his Nyanza region backyard, especially after his shock decision in March to embrace his hitherto political rival President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“I am just as shocked as most political observers in Kenya. And all I want to understand is how a young political novice can get an experienced hand like Baba (Raila) and his ODM brigade to sweat it out to deliver such a narrow victory,” Kericho County senator, Mr Aaron Cheruyiot, said. The sentiments of the outspoken Jubilee legislator best capture the lingering questions on the minds of many.
National Assembly Minority Leader Junnet Muhamed, who spearheaded the former minister’s campaigns, concedes that the battle was not a walk in the park, but insists winning was all that mattered “not the margin.”
A local politician, Mr Tom Alila, said ODM was on the verge of facing a major political humiliation until the campaigning teams came to terms with the magnitude of the threat and requested Mr Odinga’s help at the eleventh hour.
He said the odds were heavily stacked against Mr Ayacko after he was handpicked for the ODM ticket amid protests from Migori Governor Okoth Obado who is Ayacko’s political nemesis. The county also has a huge non-Luo population that is gradually pulling away from the Odinga party.
Mr Obado is in custody over the murder of university student Sharon Otieno and word in Migori is that had he been around to employ his awesome grassroots mobilisation skills against the ODM candidate, Mr Oketch would have won. Mr Oketch is said to have had the backing of Mr Obado and Deputy President William Ruto.
“Contrary to the notion that Mr Odinga’s popularity is waning, for me this poll has demonstrated that people can still listen to the ODM leader and accord him his wish. Otherwise, this time around, most of us were certain things were looking very bad for him,” says Mr Alila, the Jubilee-allied politician.
Migori is the most cosmopolitan of the counties in Luo Nyanza region. With eight constituencies, Migori is also home to members of the Kuria community, who occupy Kuria East and Kuria West constituencies. There are also pockets of the Maragoli community in Uriri and the Somali in Suna East where Mr Muhamed is Member of Parliament.
The Oketch campaign team was partly banking on this cosmopolitan nature of the county to deliver victory to him and the Federal Party of Kenya. And although the ODM candidate won in seven out of the eight constituencies in the county, Okech performed relatively well in Kuria East and Kuria West constituencies. Obado’s deputy governor hails from the Kuria community, which has had a beef to pick with Mr Odinga for disregarding a 2013 power-sharing arrangement requiring that a member of the community serves as senator.
Mr Oketch also largely rode on the back of Mr Obado’s solid support base. In fact to some, this was round-three of nerve-wrecking Obado-Ayacko battle this year alone — the first being in the ODM nominations and on August 8 at the IEBC supervised poll. This explains why Okech carried the day in Uriri — his and Obado’s home constituency.
But also unknown to many, though, the young politician also gave a good showing owing to his personal political credentials.
He is a product of Barack Obama’s Africa Youth Leadership programme. He is well connected internationally having worked closely with the likes of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger and a number of business leaders including Equity Bank CEO James Mwangi. An alumni of the prestigious Yale University, he rallied the youth behind him running to run an electrifying campaign. The ODM fightback, on the other hand, was calculated. Its campaigners introduced Mr Ruto, a political rival of Mr Odinga, as the force behind Mr Oketch bent on installing a leader on locals.
Whether this worked for or against Mr Oketch is another matter. As for Mr Cheruiyot, Mr Oketch’s good showing would imply the DP has a huge following in the county. Mr Odinga’s supporters, however, say the by-election was not enough to gauge Mr Odinga’s popularity.