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Running-mate selections super-charge Kenya’s political marketplace

23 May 2022

Last week, the leading candidates for August’s presidential election in Kenya selected their running mates – below we unpack the nominations and find very different strategies (but shared challenges) in their efforts to conquer the key Central Kenya battleground.

Since the 2018 ‘handshake’ reconciling President Uhuru Kenyatta and long-time opposition leader Raila Odinga, Kenyan party politics has been dominated by the build-up to the August 2022 election, which will see the exit of Kenyatta and the accession of either Odinga or Kenyatta’s now estranged deputy president William Ruto.

As ever, the prospects of each candidate will be strongly shaped by their ability to assemble a winning majority across Kenya’s multitudinous ethnic groups and political parties, giving rise to considerable speculation and hypothesising about how the leading candidates will construct their tickets and coalitions. Last week, some of the uncertainty was laid to rest as Odinga and Ruto announced their running mates: Odinga named well-known former justice minister Martha Karua, while Ruto has opted for first-term MP Rigathi Gachagua.

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Contrasting strategies in the Central Kenyan battleground

With Kenyatta ineligible to run and neither Odinga nor Ruto enjoying a natural ethnic support base in Central Kenya, the region around Mount Kenya was always likely to be a key battleground in 2022. In order to win the race in August, both the main candidates will need to construct a strong base of support among the ethnic Kikuyu constituency – Kenya’s largest, accounting for around one in five Kenyan voters.

In this context, the choice of two Kikuyu running mates in Karua and Gachagua hardly merits comment. But the specific individuals chosen by the leading candidates speak volumes about Odinga and Ruto’s campaign strategies, which are as much about class as they are about tribe. In Karua, Odinga has opted for a respected and outspoken figure with potential appeal to Kenya’s international partners and the Kikuyu middle class. Moreover, with her Kibaki-era links to the Kikuyu establishment, her presence on the ticket may help to reassure those members of the Kikuyu political elite less convinced of Kenyatta’s wisdom in anointing Odinga as his successor. Odinga will also hope that as the leading female candidate in the race, she will draw women’s support across ethnic boundaries.

In clear contrast to Odinga’s ‘big tent’ (and somewhat elitist) approach to appointing a running mate, Ruto’s selection of Gachagua is more focused and calculating. Gachagua is unlikely to have great appeal to the middle-class voters targeted by Karua – or to constituencies much beyond Mount Kenya. But he is likely to be very effective in exploiting socio-economic inequalities and tensions within the Kikuyu community itself. In recent years the Mathira MP has proven extremely successful in mobilising support for Ruto in Central Kenya, especially in peripheral wards that benefit less from central and county government infrastructure investment and among under- and unemployed youth.

In Gachagua, Ruto is doubling down on his self-styled narrative as the leader of the ‘hustler nation’: in this narrative, the fact that Gachagua is a greenhorn MP and facing six counts of corruption-related charges is a perverse source of strength, amplifying the populist, anti-establishment rhetoric of Ruto’s Kwanza Kenya movement.

Jobs for the boys: the challenge of coalition building in an ideological void

Ticket formation is a key part of establishing a winning coalition. But it can also generate divisions that must be carefully managed to sustain a broad-based campaign. This has been most obvious in the case of Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja coalition. On the announcement of Karua’s selection, former vice president Kalonzo Musyoka announced that he was leaving Azimio, claiming that Karua’s nomination had not gone down well within his Wiper Party and among his predominantly ethnic Kamba community in eastern Kenya; Musyoka’s adherence to Azimio earlier in the year had reportedly been made conditional on his selection as Odinga’s running mate.

In a good year, Musyoka can claim a voting block of up to 9% of registered voters, so his loss would be a major blow to Odinga and efforts to bring the Wiper leader back into the fold are ongoing. Odinga has reportedly offered Musyoka the new position of chief minister within any Azimio administration, with Musyoka seeking reassurances that this will result in a substantive level of influence over government appointments and budgets. They have until 30 May to reach an agreement but given the potential impact of Musyoka’s return on Karua’s scope for influence in government, the negotiations are likely to run into the night.

Ruto, too, has been forced to make concessions to his Kwanza Kenya alliance partners following his decision to nominate Gachagua. Ethnic Luhya heavyweight Musalia Mudavadi (Amani National Congress – ANC) has been offered the concocted role of ‘Prime Cabinet Secretary’ and, together with Moses Wetangula’s Ford Kenya party, the ANC will be able to claim up to one-third of appointments in a Ruto administration, including political appointees, senior public servants and heads of state owned enterprises. Ruto’s allies will also reportedly enjoy a high level of control over investment spending in Western Kenya (Odinga’s homeland).

Market forces and the (re)politicisation of public administration

Notably, Ruto is reported to have introduced concrete electoral ‘performance targets’ for his partners. The more votes they bring to the Kwanza Kenya coalition, the greater the value of the appointments they will be permitted to make. The terms of the coalition agreement for Odinga’s Azimio have not been made public, but the efforts to accommodate both Karua and Musyoka – and their respective backers – are likely to necessitate a similar ‘auctioning’ of appointments and budgets, underscoring the extent to which Kenya’s political marketplace has become literally marketised in the country’s system of competitive patronage-driven politics.

In this context and whoever wins the election, it looks like the next government will be as much a coalition of convenience as the one constructed by Kenyatta and Ruto in 2013. Lacking few shared interests (beyond the avoidance of ICC prosecution), the Kenyatta-Ruto Jubilee Alliance administration endured escalating struggles between the ministries, agencies and parastatals under their respective control, as well as perennial tensions within ministries due to the layering of factional appointments. We expect significant policy differences to emerge between Odinga and Ruto in the coming campaign, but their actual performance in government may be as much shaped by such coalitional dynamics as they are by policy intent.

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