The shock defeat of two Orange Democratic Movement candidates in by-elections this weekend has jolted the opposition and exposed the covert role played by Deputy President William Ruto in engineering the loss of the Raila Odinga-led party.
Running on an MDG party ticket, Mr David Ouma Ochieng easily beat ODM’s Chris Karan to win the Ugenya by-election.
The Orange party’s Ishard Sumra fell by the wayside as Wiper’s Julius Mawathe comfortably strode to victory in Embakasi South.
The situation also revealed the split within the National Super Alliance and the war chest being assembled by the Ruto wing of the Jubilee party, which treated the by-elections as a warm-up to 2022.
While Jubilee — in the spirit of the handshake — officially chose not to field candidates in the two constituencies, Mr Ruto’s camp pitched tent in Embakasi to drum up support for Mr Mawathe and covertly backed Mr Ochieng.
Instantly, it became a Ruto-Raila contest, even overshadowing Mr Kalonzo Musyoka as team Tanga Tanga joined the fray.
And this was demonstrated by the tweet by Mr Ruto immediately IEBC confirmed the results on Saturday.
“Congratulations Ochieng and Mawathe for your God-given victory. Jameni wacheni MUNGU aitwe MUNGU. The hustler nation has spoken. The people have decided. GLORY TO THE ALMIGHTY GOD,” he tweeted.
Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro was even more scathing.
“Our candidates Hon Ochieng and Hon Mawathe are curtain raisers for 2022. The people of Ugenya...turned out in large numbers after being told Kura kwa Ochieng ni kura kwa Ruto (a vote for Ochieng is a vote for Ruto),” the MP said.
Since the March 9, 2018 handshake between President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, the DP increasingly sees the ODM leader as upsetting the power balance and complicating his State House bid.
The stage for the battle between Mr Ruto and Mr Odinga was set by the ODM leader when he attended the burial of former chief Daudi Owino last month.
He pleaded with Ugenya residents “not to embarrass me at the ballot”.
"Because of the unity and the spirit of working together, the President did not field a candidate in Ugenya and Embakasi. The President proved his support to me by not fielding a candidate in Migori last year. What will it look like if someone else got the seat? I urge you to vote for my candidate,” Mr Odinga said.
The message was emphasised by his allies during the campaigns.
“The Ugenya contest is not about Chris and the other guy. It is a faceoff between Raila and Ruto. If you vote Chris, you will be voting for Raila. If you vote the other guy, you will be voting for Ruto,” Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala said last week.
As the ODM team dragged Mr Ruto’s name in the campaigns, a group of lawmakers worked to ensure Mr Ochieng and Mr Mawathe had campaign resources. They also worked to appeal to swing votes.
On January 29, MPs allied to Mr Ruto — Moses Kuria (Gatundu South), Charles Njagua (Starehe), George Theuri (Embakasi West) and Simon Mbugua (East African Legislative Assembly) met and agreed to support Mr Mawathe.
They also asked Jubilee supporters, who were considered the swing vote, to back the Wiper man. Also in the picture were former Machakos Senator Johnson Muthama and Kitui Central MP Makali Mulu. Some Jubilee MPs admit Ruto allies were part of the strategy.
Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua said the Raila team focused on insulting Mr Ruto and forgot to sell its candidates in Ugenya and Embakasi South.
“We told voters what our candidates would do once elected. Ruto is not a polarising figure. He is accepted across board. Going for Ruto was the wrong strategy,” the lawmaker said.
Mr Gachagua said the loss is the clearest sign yet that Mr Odinga’s hold on the country’s politics is waning “and he should now retire”.
“There is a generation of voters that is not loyal. They are asking Raila: ‘what’s in store for us?’ He cannot provide answers,” Mr Gachagua said.
Some, however, say the wins have nothing to do with the Deputy President.
Wiper party told Mr Ruto to stop taking credit for the Embakasi win.
In a statement signed by Wiper Secretary-General Judith Sijenyi, the party asked the Ruto group to allow it savour the victory in peace.
“We urge them not to provoke us by trying to reap where they did not sow. This may be understood in the context of life in the jungle, where a brave cheetah brings down an antelope but just as he prepares to eat in peace, hyenas, vultures and ravens circle in for the meal, claiming it as their own,” she said.
Through his spokesman Dennis Onyango, the ODM leader said Mr Ruto had nothing to do with the mini-poll results.
“Uhuru made the decision that Jubilee should keep off. Ruto has a party called URP. If he had what it takes, he would have fielded URP candidates so his team is largely clutching at straws, Mr Onyango said, adding that Mr Odinga has congratulated the winners.
“Raila did not campaign in Ugenya because he had no misgivings about either candidate. He viewed both as his people. It was the same situation in Embakasi.”
He, however, acknowledged that the loss is a warning shot to the party.
“ODM will certainly need to review this performance, particularly with regard to messaging, organisation and tone of the campaigns,” he said.
Nyeri MP Wambugu Ngunjiri, who is a member of Jubilee’s “Kieleweke” team that is deemed anti-Ruto, also said claiming victory for the by-elections is a desperate move by the DP supporters.
“I don’t know what they are celebrating. Jubilee was not part of the elections. It is Kalonzo who has beaten Raila. The Ruto team should not steal Wiper’s victory,” he said.
He added that those claiming victory are against the handshake.
“You cannot be in Jubilee and claim to have won the elections. That means you contradicted the President and you don’t belong to Jubilee,” he added.
According to University of Nairobi don Godwin Siundu, it is premature to use the Ugenya by-election to conclude that Mr Odinga has lost his grip on Nyanza politics.
“Politics in Nyanza has for decades been organised on the assumption that there is an enemy out there who has to be fought. With the handshake, Raila killed that assumption. Attempts to revive this at the campaigns failed. If Raila had declared an enemy and asked to be given fighters, the story would have been different,” he said.
Dr Siundu added that the combative nature of Mr Odinga’s politics that mellowed after the handshake could have worked in favour of Mr Ochieng.
While Mr Ochieng is said to have an impeccable development record when he served as area MP from 2013 to 2017, the handshake too worked well for him. He vied on ODM ticket in 2013 but bolted out claiming he stood no chance at the nominations.
Some have also argued that if it were a General Election with Mr Odinga’s name on the ballot, the high voter turnout in the area would have favoured Mr Karan, courtesy of the six-piece gospel, normally preached by the political class.
Others blame Siaya Senator James Orengo for the loss, saying his message did not resonate with locals.
A grassroots mobiliser, Mr Ochieng is believed to be eyeing Siaya governor seat in 2022, a position the senator is said to be interested in.
It would have therefore been in Mr Orengo’s best interest to see him lose.
“Win or lose, those are the expected results of any election. That said, the party must address some underlying factors. We will review our performance with a view to establishing what could have been done differently,” ODM director of campaigns Junet Mohamed said.