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December 19, 2018

Defections can cut both ways


For the last week or so, the ruling Jubilee Party’s presidential campaign has largely taken the form of ‘receiving defectors’.

No matter where President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto go, what we see are some fairly prominent regional leaders announcing their departure from the opposition NASA, and seeking a new role within Jubilee.

This kind of thing has a long history in Kenyan politics, going back to the return of multiparty elections in 1992. Its objectives — to weaken the opposition, and reinforce the ruling party — are always quite clear. But its benefits have often been somewhat dubious.

Following that 1992 election, for example, there were quite a number of MPs from Western voted into Parliament on the ticket of the opposition Ford Asili party, led by Kenneth Matiba, with the late veteran politician Martin Shikuku as its secretary general.

President Moi, reelected with just 36 per cent of the vote (and only victorious because the opposition leaders were divided), set out to shore up his parliamentary strength. One at a time, he enticed the Western Kenya opposition Ford-A MPs to first resign their seats, then run for the by-election on Moi’s Kanu party ticket.

Supported with the vast resources of the state, many of these men ended up as Kanu MPs within just a year or two of the historic 1992 election.

Stories abounded back then of just exactly how much each MP had “cost the government”, with some insisting that these MPs were so weighed down by election-related debt that they would greedily accept ‘peanuts’ as the price of their defection. But others insisted that these defectors had — one and all — been rendered instant millionaires as a reward for their newfound devotion to the Moi political establishment.

Moi also tried the same scheme with the other substantive opposition party of that time — Ford Kenya. This party had its stronghold in Luo Nyanza and was led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, father of the former PM and current presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

Here Moi ran into the solid rock of pro-Odinga fanaticism. For although Moi was successful in enticing various Luo MPs from Ford-K to defect to Kanu, not one of these men — after resigning their seats and seeking reelection under the guidance of their new best friend Moi — was ever successful in regaining that seat at the subsequent by-election.

It was out of recognition of this immovable support that Jaramogi (and Raila after him) had in that region, that Moi in the end did what was then widely regarded as ‘unthinkable’. With the incredible patience and skill that was the hallmark of all his major political schemes, Moi slowly but surely brought Raila into the Kanu fold, starting from just after the 1997 election, which Moi also won, and in which Raila was a presidential candidate.

From having been one of Moi’s most severe critics and most implacable political enemies, Raila ended up in 2001 as the secretary general of Kanu, and Moi’s minister for Energy.

In this history of Moi-era defections, there lie a few lessons for the present.

First, that political party defections are very much a two-edged sword, and can cut both ways. Some of those senior regional leaders currently swearing their loyalty to Jubilee and President Uhuru Kenyatta personally in his reelection efforts, may well have “moved to Jubilee with their supporters” as they invariably claim to be doing.

But many of them — when the votes are cast in the October 26 presidential election — might well have the unpleasant surprise of discovering they have moved alone, and left all their supporters firmly in NASA.

It is not so easy to figure out at this stage which of those senior leaders — former governors, former senators and so on — are strong regional figures whose supporters will automatically follow them.

And who are the paper tigers, enthusiastically promising the president regional votes which they are in no position to deliver — that is assuming there will indeed be a presidential election in the near future.

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