Skip to main content
February 20, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: Cheering Coast crowds deceptive

Ballot box
Ballot box

It seems like we are forever learning new things about the practical implications of our ‘new Constitution’ of 2010, with every week that passes.

One recent lesson is that a Kenyan Deputy President who hopes to succeed his boss must start early. In previous decades, anyone seeking high elective office was considered to have started much too early if he initiated campaigns two years before a general election. But now it seems that if you wait until the ink is dry on your deputy-presidential oath of office, you will have left it too late.

I daresay there is something to be admired in DP William Ruto’s relentless campaigns — mostly focused on the Coast region — to gather unto himself additional vote blocs which could help propel him to the presidency.

I say admirable because he has in two general elections ( 2013 and 2017 ) assiduously courted the voters of the Coast region, and subsequently met with a devastating rejection come voting day.

The rapturous welcome that top leaders invariably receive at the Coast does not always translate into bankable votes.

There is an incident from about 15 years ago which influences my conclusion in this matter. This is what happened:

I was strolling through the streets of Mombasa (where I then lived) with a friend of mine, when he greeted a stout, middle-aged, buibui-clad woman who walked past us. Once we were out of earshot, he told me that he regretted very much that he had not spotted her in time to tell me to take a close look at her. For this was a lady — he told me her name — who was something of a legend in Mombasa politics.

Apparently, this middle-aged woman walking all alone was the storied political operative I had heard spoken of as the indispensable ‘crowd mobiliser’ of Mombasa politics. She was reputed to have the ability to conjure up a crowd of up to 3,000 women at very short notice, for political purposes.

She had previously been some sort of social worker, helping organise women into self-help groups, and had wisely kept her extensive networks intact. Her stock in trade was her reputation for scrupulous honesty: Whatever sums the politicians who needed an instant crowd handed over to her, would always be equitably shared out.

Given just 24 hours’ notice, this lady could apparently cover the sidewalks of any Mombasa streets with a large crowd of women, chanting the praises of a visiting VIP, or a politician on the campaign trail.

My friend told me that the skill this lady (and others like her) had when it came to mobilising crowds to welcome such dignitaries, had completely fooled the (now retired) President, Daniel Moi, into believing that he had considerable support in Mombasa, during the first multiparty elections in 1992.

When opposition parties went on to win three of four seats that were available, Moi was absolutely stunned.

I don’t doubt there are other ‘youth leaders’ and ‘women’s leaders’ today, all over the Coast, who are so influential that — at their word — many hundreds will pour into the streets to welcome whoever has paid whatever the going rate is.

But these ‘influencers’ (as I imagine they must now be known) cannot actually get anyone to vote for you. Indeed, they do not even try. And in any event, those large crowds that they seemingly conjure from thin air, only represent a very small percentage of the total electorate.

The unyielding political reality is that for at least two decades now, the coastal vote has been profoundly anti-establishmentarian. For the indigenous communities they have neither forgiven nor forgotten the decades-long and uniquely cruel marginalisation that they have been subjected to by consecutive governments.

This explains why in 2002, opposition leader and presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki was able to win an overwhelming majority of votes cast at the Coast.

And then, just five years later, in 2007, when President Kibaki, seeking reelection, allowed himself the consoling delusion that the cheering crowds on the streets of Mombasa meant that he had political support in that city, a rude shock awaited him when the votes were finally counted.

Poll of the day