I still remember a conversation I had with a coastal politician many years ago, during which he asked me to try and help him understand something he found totally perplexing.
As a preliminary to planning his campaign, a team of advisers had sought access to the voters register for the Mombasa constituency that he hoped to represent in Parliament. And what amazed them, when they saw the list, was the sheer number of registered voters whose surnames began with the letters ‘O’ or ‘A’.
Who on earth were all these Luos, Luhyas and Kisiis? And how could he hope to harvest their votes? For although he had serious support within his own coastal community, so did each of his rivals, all of them coming from different clans, tribes and sub-tribes of the Coast region.
So, it was clear to him that it was those “upcountry voters” who held the key to victory, since the indigenous coastal communities would no doubt vote in predictably splintered patterns, each supporting “one of their own”.
Well, my friend had stumbled on one of the iron rules of coastal politics: That it if you are a candidate for elective office, it really helps to have the former PM Raila Odinga in your corner.
For all those “upcountry names” in the register represented voters who were, as they say in the Coast, “Raila Damu” (which loosely translates as “Raila’s irreversibly-committed, genetically-hardcore, eternally-fanatical supporters”). And even that was not the limit to Raila’s influence: The locals also liked him.
So how does a “non-indigene” like Raila, end up with such massive influence at the Coast?
First is that it is the Luo, Luhya, Kamba and Kisii who are to be found in large numbers all over Coast. There is also a substantial Kikuyu entrepreneurial elite, but their numbers do not really count when it comes to the ballot.
Second is that there is very little resentment felt by the coastal indigenes towards the Luo, Kamba, Luhya and Kisii diasporas at the Coast. Partly because they generally are more of “guest workers” than “settlers”. Most of them even have communally-owned hearses that are dedicated solely to transporting their dead “back home” for burial. They may own property in urban centres if they can afford it, but rarely do they have any interest in coastal farmland.
Which brings us to the third and most potent factor of all. The coastal sense of grievance over various “historical injustices” – and especially the decades-long land-grabbing mania in which the Coast has been disproportionately victimised.
Indigenous coastal communities recognise that this uniquely cruel form of dispossession is an ill wind that blows from State House – to arrive at the Coast eventually with devastating effect.
Since only the Kikuyu and Kalenjin have ever “occupied State House”, this makes it really difficult for any presidential candidate from either of those two communities to make much headway with coastal voters.
And in addition to all this, Raila is known to very actively discourage his supporters from the upcountry communities from running for elective office at the Coast in direct competition with the indigenous candidates.
For these reasons, Raila has been deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of many coastal voters as a champion of their regional interests, and a man who will in time address their regional grievances.
And thus, the current campaign-like tours of the Coast by the Deputy President William Ruto are of symbolic rather than electoral value. He might as well be the ambassador of a European Union nation touring “development projects” at the Coast.
Local leaders will speak sweet words to the powerful visitor; he will be thanked for “bringing development”; and there will be cheerful, dancing crowds wherever he goes.
But when the next election looms on the horizon, many of those leaders now accompanying Ruto on his tours will abruptly desert him.
And without any sense of shame, they will flock to Raila to ask for his forgiveness and to beg for his support.