The re-entry of Mr Peter Kenneth into the Nairobi gubernatorial race, just days after the Jubilee Party unveiled corporate executive Polycarp Igathe as the running mate for party candidate Mike Sonko, dramatically shifts the political equation in the battle for the capital city.
It was expected to be a fierce two horse race between the mercurial Mr Sonko and incumbent Governor Evans Kidero of Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), but the focus now shifts to Mr Kenneth’s entry into the fray.
Still smarting from the humiliation suffered at the hands of Mr Sonko in Jubilee nominations, despite prior signals that he had been endorsed by President Kenyatta, Mr Kenneth’s comeback as an independent candidate turns it into an intriguing three way contest that will reverberate way beyond the city.
There is also a fourth candidate in lawyer Miguna Miguna, also an independent, who will bring a sharp intellect into the campaigns but is still an unknown quantity.
Of interest is that in drafting Mr Igathe from the corporate boardroom to join the Sonko ticket, Jubilee power barons were looking for a deputy governor who represents what they lost out in rejecting Mr Kenneth.
The two fierce rivals for the Jubilee nomination represented diametrically opposite sides of the party, the wild, colourful and rough-hewn ghetto fighter in Mr Sonko, up against the urbane and polished corporate executive in Mr Kenneth, who had just come out of sabbatical since his disappointing run for president in 2013.
Once Sonko secured his runaway victory, top figures in Jubilee decided that to offer a credible challenge to Dr Kidero, their candidate must be transformed to present a more Kenneth-like persona, one who would not scare-off the Nairobi middle and upper classes and the business elite.
Step one was to bring in Nairobi PR consultant Cynthia Nyamai to help him craft a new image, ditching the dyed Mohawk hairstyles, ripped jeans, gaudy gold chains, and foul language and penchant for scuffles; to be replaced by sober business suits and calm public behaviour.
Step two was to rope in Vivo Energy boss Igathe, to represent the management expertise in the pair to run Nairobi.
It was a task Jubilee took seriously. Out of Kenya’s 47 counties, it was only Nairobi selected to highlight the choice of a running mate for the governor.
The party was keen to re-assure Nairobi’s jittery business class and social and economic elite that the unpredictable Mr Sonko would be kept on a tight leash with a trusted managerial type shadowing him.
When Mr Igathe announced to his staff at Vivo Energy that he will be switching careers to vie for political office, it was notable that he did not attribute his selection directly to Mr Sonko.
Instead, he wrote in a memo to staff, the offer to join the ticket as Deputy Governor had come from the “Jubilee leadership”.
It was also of significance that his official unveiling on Wednesday was not just a Sonko affair, but a carefully choreographed presentation presided over by Deputy President William Ruto at the Jubilee Party headquarters in Nairobi.
“You will appreciate my choice of running-mate reflects the corporate governance image that the residents of Nairobi would like to serve them,” Mr Sonko said in a brief address that reflected his clear bid to craft a new image.
But if there were lingering doubts that Mr Sonko can change his ways, bringing in the suave corporate executive was designed to calm the fears of those alarmed by the prospect of a Sonko in the governor’s mansion with only hazy plans on what needs to be done to restore the faded glory of capital city.
Mr Igathe’s own speech at the press conference came with a large dose of irony.
He said the capital city “can no longer be left in the hands of people who have no clue”.
That conclusion clinches it perfectly, for the fear in Jubilee’s upper echelons and Nairobi’s elite was that populist Mr Sonko, clueless in the finer arts of management, was on the verge of being elected governor.
That was why Mr Igathe was brought in to lend an air of balance and respectability to the ticket, and also stand as the face of modern corporate governance by which the city will be run.
The subtle message being sent out was that Governor Sonko would be political head of the city, but with Deputy Governor Igathe effectively in control of policy, planning and development.
Mr Kenneth in his announcement took a clear dig at that, dismissing as a big lie, any suggestions that a city as important as Nairobi could be entrusted to a “figurehead” governor while somebody else ran the show.
A big unanswered question was whether it would be possible to shackle Mr Sonko, once he was safely settled in office, especially as the Constitution does not contain any job description for a deputy governor who can only perform the duties assigned to him by the governor.
Mr Igathe would need a strong hand indeed to dissuade Mr Sonko from some of his more outrageous schemes, such as proposals to turn Uhuru Park into a giant matatu stage, and open up the central business district and the Nairobi arboretum to hawkers.
That right now might be the least of Jubilee’s concerns as Mr Kenneth’s entry upsets the equation.
For one, his bid for governor dilutes Mr Igathe’s designated role of lending respect to the Jubilee ticket.
Mr Kenneth will appeal to the very same constituency that Mr Igathe was supposed to offer comfort to.
There is the elite repelled by Mr Sonko’s antics, and also concerned over his lack of coherent plans to restore the city to its former glory.
Mr Igathe’s selection was also intended to appease Nairobi’s powerful Kikuyu mercantile and political establishment that had rallied around Mr Kenneth, in whom they saw not just a prospective County governor, but also a future contender for State House once President Kenyatta bowed out.
There was also the loss of one of the community’s veteran Nairobi political kingpins, Starehe MP Maina Kamanda, who was beaten to the Jubilee ticket by a Sonko protégé, musician Charles Kanyi, alias Jaguar.
Mr Kenneth took potshots at both Governor Kidero and Senator Sonko during his announcement, and like nearly all Jubilee nomination losers who turned independent affirmed his support for President Kenyatta.
He now has the task of proving a point: that he was indeed rigged out at the Jubilee primaries, in which case he will be aiming his bullets more at Senator Sonko.
That bruising battle for the same core bloc will be keenly observed by Governor Kidero who stands to reap from the split Jubilee base.
If the numbers by which Mr Sonko won the Nairobi Senator’s seat in 2013 and the adulation he receives from the Nairobi masses are anything to go by, he might still be the favourite, but the new development complicates matters.
Meanwhile, there will be an interesting sub-plot in the battle for Nairobi: whispers that Mr Kenneth was setting the stage for a presidential bid in 2022 had attracted the attention of Deputy President Ruto’s supporters.
They had taken note of signals that powerful businessmen and community leaders under the aegis of a Mt Kenya Council of Elders were plotting to trash the Uhuru-Ruto power sharing and succession pact, and place one of their own to carry their flag.
Indeed in the wake of the Jubilee nominations, a group of prominent losers in central Kenya have re-grouped to blame succession politics for the defeats, pointing the finger at Mr Ruto’s allies.
This might turn out to be more than just a battle for Nairobi.
This article was originally published in the Daily Nation on May 20, 2017.