Rift Valley Discord Imperils Kenyan President’s Election Bid

  • Deputy president’s ability to deliver Kalenjin vote questioned
  • Ruling party may get 30 percent fewer votes in Rift Valley

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s bid for a second term in East Africa’s biggest economy is running into trouble in one of his ruling coalition’s previous strongholds: the Rift Valley.

Kenyatta, 55, is counting on a commitment by Vice President William Ruto, 50, to deliver the key voting block in the August election and in return has said he will ensure the backing of Kenya’s ruling party for Ruto’s presidential bid in 2022. That deal has become doubtful after a party led by the son of former President Daniel Arap Moi announced plans to enter a candidate in the 2017 race.

“For Uhuru to win, he needs two key voting blocks -- one such block is facing a lot of antagonism, this is the Rift Valley,” said Ndung’u Wainaina, a political analyst based in Nairobi, the capital. “In 2017, it’s not looking like he will get this block the way he got it in 2013.”

Elections in Kenya are fractious times for investors because of violence that’s erupted in three of the past five votes. Anxiety about instability around this year’s ballot contributed to a drop in Kenya’s main stock index to a four-year low last month, while the shilling has weakened 1.2 percent against the dollar so far this year. The government has warned the election may result in slower growth in the $69.2 billion economy this year, while the International Monetary Fund says there may be “heightened political instability.”

Volatile Region

The Rift Valley, part of a 6,000-kilometer (3,728-mile) transcontinental trench that cuts through western Kenya, has always been a volatile region during elections. In a disputed December 2007 vote, it was the flashpoint for two months of ethnic violence that left 1,100 people dead and forced 350,000 more to flee their homes, slashing the country’s growth rate by almost four-fifths. Post-election fighting also erupted in the area in 1992 and 1997.

The last ballot in 2013 was free of unrest because Kenyatta formed an alliance with Ruto, uniting two of the country’s biggest ethnic groups -- Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community and Ruto’s Kalenjin group -- which fought a decade ago.

While Ruto was able to deliver “a lion’s share” of the Rift Valley vote in the 2013 election, his contribution this year will be reduced by a material margin, said Dismas Mokua, an independent political analyst based in Nairobi.

“This time his support will reduce significantly, by as much as a third, because he has not been able to build a consensus among the leaders of his community in the Rift Valley and he has created unnecessary political enemies,” Mokua said. “There will be four counties of the 14 in the Rift Valley that will cause a challenge for the deputy president.”

Concern within the Kenyatta camp about withering support in the Rift Valley led Uhuru’s mother, Ngina Kenyatta, to meet Moi last month to discuss possible collaboration between their sons, the Nairobi-based Star newspaper reported Jan. 23. Daniel Arap Moi succeeded Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father and Kenya’s first president after independence in 1963, and backed Uhuru as the nation’s leader in elections in 2002.

A week after the meeting, Gideon Moi’s party, the Kenya African National Union, announced it’ll compete on its own in the elections, signaling that an alliance with Kenyatta isn’t imminent.

Kalenjin Infighting

Ruto is being assailed on two fronts by sub-groups of his Kalenjin ethnic community.

Isaac Ruto, the unrelated governor of Bomet county, has clashed with the vice president frequently since the 2013 elections, claiming the support of the Kipsigis, the largest of at least nine Kalenjin subgroups, in the southern Rift Valley. In the central Baringo county, Moi, 53 and a member of the Tugen sub-group, has also campaigned against William Ruto, who belongs to the second-biggest Nandi sub-group.

“I foresee Moi’s son and Isaac Ruto finding some fusion in the south Rift and working together against the deputy president,” said Barrack Muluka, an independent political analyst based in Nairobi. “The question is whether they will ultimately vote against Uhuru in the election.”

A political alliance that’s been suggested between former Premier Raila Odinga, former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, ex-Finance Minister Musalia Mudavadi and Senator Moses Wetang’ula may wrestle “a portion of the Kalenjin vote away” from the deputy president if it secures the backing of Isaac Ruto and Moi, according to Emma Gordon, an analyst with Bath, England-based Verisk Maplecroft.

Ruto and Moi have been linked to the new opposition coalition, known as National Super Alliance, though they haven’t publicly said whether they will join it.

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