No shift in the Rift: Why Rift Valley vote bloc hasn’t gone anywhere

The forays by NASA into Deputy President William Ruto’s Rift Valley backyard and the large crowds they have pulled have given them hope in a region seen as crucial in the outcome of the coming August 8 General Election.

The massive crowds that have attended opposition rallies have brought us a new political mantra — Shift in the Rift. However, there has actually been a ‘rift’ in that shift. Things may not be so rosy for NASA, after all. The vote-rich region collectively known as the Rift Valley or ‘the Rift’ in short, is home to 24 per cent of all the 19.6 million registered voters.

That’s a huge chunk of the pie, which is why it is being staked out vigorously by both sides of the political divide. Already, out of the 14 counties in the Rift, there are those that are in the firm grip of either NASA or Jubilee. Of the total votes in the Rift, the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu vote is overwhelmingly in the majority, and this is why Jubilee has marked it as its stronghold. In terms of absolute numbers, NASA is the follower. To reverse this, the opposition coalition has been employing the political clout of Bomet Governor Isaac Rutto a NASA principal, who is also a bitter rival of DP Ruto. His brief is simple — deliver the Rift to NASA.

The rise of Isaac Rutto

To increase his political clout, Governor Rutto was enthroned as the Kipsigis spokesman, a move that has caused controversy within the Kalenjin community. Pundits have dismissed it as a divisive and one aimed at splitting the Kalenjin vote ahead of the August 8 polls.

Hard questions have been asked in nearly every Kalenjin vernacular radio station that beams over the Rift Valley. Caller after caller has dug in to the meaning of the enthronement of Rutto as the Kipsigis spokesman, and what it means for the community. The big question is whether the Kalenjin community is better off in a NASA or Jubilee government. Going by the sentiments of the callers, the overwhelming majority seem to be firmly in the Jubilee court.

Their main argument has been who has a better chance of taking over the leadership of Kenya between DP Ruto and Governor Rutto. They argue that Rutto has joined the NASA bandwagon in position five, which means if the opposition principals were to lead Kenya in the order they came in, he has no chance of leading the Kalenjin to ‘Canaan’ in his lifetime.

Crowd-pulling in NASA rallies

Wesley K is a young person aged 24, who hails from Silibwet, Bomet county. I met him last year, when conducting some historical research in the county. After my research, we spoke about political matters and I found him to be quite updated on the goings-on in Bomet, enumerating the political weaknesses of his governor. When I spoke to him last week, he confirmed that together with many of his fellow villagers, he was present at the massive NASA rally hosted by Rutto at the Bomet Green Stadium two weeks ago.

I asked whether he was now convinced to vote for NASA, and he was firmly in the negative, saying he was now even more convinced to vote for Jubilee. Several other people that I called were not convinced by NASA. Even then, Rutto has his own (firm) backers, who have given currency to his position in NASA. The main concern of those backing Rutto is the impact of the Sh38 billion Itare Dam project by the Jubilee government.

The politicisation of Itare dam

The Sh38 billion Itare Dam is turning out to be an example of the politicisation of resources, with the undertones of resource nationalism. It has ceased to be an environmental issue, or even one about the economy of Kericho or the fate of the tea industry, jobs and blah. It is not surprising that the elders behind the enthroning of Rutto to the position of the Kipsigis spokesman are also associated with the attempt to stall the said project.

They want to place Itare Dam on the political forefront against all odds. Last year they met with Raila Odinga at a Kericho hotel and have used his now close association with Governor Rutto to champion their case. Their concerns on Itare Dam have consistently been downplayed by the Jubilee government, and are frustrated that it has not gained traction as a political issue among the Kipsigis. Some of the most vocal champions against the Itare Dam is Joel Kimeto, the chairman of the Kipsigis Clans Association, an organisation that brings together about 250 Kipsigis clans. (Joel Kimeto should not be confused with his namesake, a Kipsigis gospel musician).

It was from his platform that he organised the installation of Rutto to become the Kipsigis spokesman together with his fellow anti-dam champions William Ketienya and Wilson Sigei. The argument was that Rutto, as a NASA co-principal would be able to champion issues close to the Kipsigis, but the truth is that Itare dam is probably their main issue. Kimeto led the team that organised the July 1 ceremony, which led to the enthronement of Rutto as the Kipsigis spokesman. The ceremonial ‘Sambuut’ outfit was placed on Rutto by Bartaa araap Milgo, a Kipkenda elder from Chebunyo. However, during his speech, Rutto’s ‘Sambuut’ fell, which was immediately picked up by his opponents as a sign of mischance.

A crossed heritage

Governor Rutto hails from the Kipkenda clan, one of the largest Kalenjin clans that runs in several sub-tribes, including the Tugen, the Nandi, the Marakwet, the Keiyo and the Kipsigis. On the other hand, DP Ruto comes from the Komosiik clan, a sub-clan of the larger Kibiegen clan, prominent in Nandi, Kipsigis, Terik and Tugen. The Nandi equivalent of his clan is Kapsatoo, who have been infuriated by Rutto threatening the pre-eminence of their cherished son.

The Bomet governor is genealogically from Kipsigis migrants, who had settled for many years in Nandi and Uasin Gishu. His father Mzee Paulo T (I will only use first names to protect their privacy) was an itinerant preacher associated with the ‘Tendereza’ movement that was very popular in Nandi from the 1950s through to the early eighties. He in fact settled at Cheptiret in Uasin Gishu, where Governor Rutto was born. In his adulthood the governor eventually settled in Tumoi, Bomet, making it the seat of his family.

On the other hand, DP Ruto’s father Mzee Daniel S first came to Nandi in 1964, following in the footsteps of his cousin Mzee Simeon K, who first came to Nandi in 1960 from Cheptuiyet village, Kericho, and settled in Kipsiorori village in Kaptumo.

However, Mzee Daniel could not find a suitable land in Kaptumo and it was just about that time that a window opened in Jua Kali area near Eldoret, when departing Europeans were selling land. And so he moved to Uasin Gishu and established a new family, whereupon the DP was born in 1966. Two sons were born in a crossed heritage and have become the bitterest of political adversaries, each staking a claim on their political backyard — the Rift Valley.

War of the in-laws

The conflict between Governor Rutto and DP Ruto is a little deeper than that of the Capulets and the Montagues. Most Kenyans have attributed it to petty jealousies, pride and egoism on both sides. However, it is a most confounding proposition indeed. Rutto’s wife is from the Deputy President’s clan, making this essentially a war of the in-laws. Pundits have argued that one should respect their in-laws and have called on Rutto to respect the DP. But it gets trickier.

When Joel Kimeto a member of the Kaboboeek clan (a brother clan of the Kapkomosiik clan) organised the installation of a member of Kipkenda clan, he was effectively handing over power to another clan away from his own. DP Ruto has already been once before installed as a Kalenjin spokesman and his was done only after Moi had retired from the presidency. It is, therefore, argued that you cannot draw power or share it from your brother-in-law, a relationship among the Kalenjin that is highly revered.

A house divided

The move by the Kipsigis Clans’ Association elders to enthrone the Bomet governor has infuriated the larger Myoot (Kalenjin) Council of Elders, which brings together many more elders from all the Kalenjin sub-tribes. Their Kipsigis chairperson Bishop Paul Leleito, who was not present, has distanced himself from that elevation. They have castigated the KCA, saying it was usurping powers vested in the Myoot Council of

Elders that oversees the cultural work of the entire community. They said that they did not recognise the elevation of Rutto, insisting there was no vacuum in the house to warrant such a move. They further argue that in the current political dispensation, the Deputy President was elevated to the community’s spokesman in June 2006 because he was the senior-most Kalenjin politician after the retirement of President Moi.

Back in 1966, Moi had himself been enthroned in a similar ceremony held in Nandi (which enjoys pre-eminence as the upper house in all the 10 Kalenjin sub-tribes). Moi was enthroned in a ceremony attended by various representatives of the Kalenjin community held in Kapsabet in 1966.

The ‘prophecy’ of Mugeni

Back in 2007 — at the height of his popularity among the Kalenjin — some people predicted the presidency of Raila, saying that Mugeni had said so. Mugeni, who died between 1890 and 1900, became one of the most quoted Kalenjin prophets (particularly loved by the late Kipsigis musician Kipchamba araap Tabotok).

Pundits attributed to Mugeni a prophecy to the effect that the leadership of the country ‘would come from the lake.’ That is how Raila got the name ‘araap Mibei’ for indeed he hails from the lake region and became wildly popular among the Kalenjin. However, when in 2007 he failed at the polls, many dismissed the prophecy as fake.

A modified version of the prophecy did the rounds, saying that Mugeni said ‘the man would win but would never rule…’ It is this new prophecy that has dampened Raila’s prospects among the Kalenjin, and it is in part the reason why he has not risen at the polls among them.

Politics of the ‘Sambuut’

Back in October 1905, shortly after the murder of the Orkoiyot Koitalel Samoei by British forces, his cousin Kibeles was enthroned as the Chief Laibon over the Nandi. Col. R Meinertzhagen, leader of the expedition that killed Koitalel, took a photo of the new Laibon in his regalia of office (Sambuut). The power of raising and blessing leaders was traditionally attributed to the Talai clan, which Koitalel and Kibeles belonged to. However, Kibeles died in September 1911 and it fell upon the young son of Koitalel named araap Koitalel to become the next Laibon.

However, the British quickly found out that he was not recognised by the Nandi, who instead recognised Barsirian araap Manyei his younger brother. Manyei, was a non-collaborator and after cancelling the ‘Sagetab Eito’ ceremony he had organised in 1923, the British exiled him to various places in Kenya, ending up as the longest serving Prisoner of Conscience in Kenyan history ( 1923-61 ). Upon release through the gallant effort of Nandi MP Jean-Marie Seroney, Manyei placed the ‘Sambuut’ over Seroney on January 14, 1962, shortly before he left for the Lancaster House Conference in London.

Manyei was chosen to enthrone Jomo Kenyatta as a Kenyan leader, a ceremony which he performed on December 12, 1963 on Independence Day. Manyei placed the Sambuut over Jomo Kenyatta and blessed him. The next ceremony was that of Moi held at Kamatargui near Kapsabet in 1966. This, however, was not performed by Manyei but by two elders from his clan.

Controversies of the ‘Sambuut’

However, the elevation of Vice President Moi was much to the chagrin of his fellow politician Seroney, who was against power moving from the Upper House (Nandi) to the Tugen. Seroney was so infuriated that he refused a heifer handed to him as a gift (an act considered extraordinarily impolite). Moi became VP for 12 years and then ruled for another 24 years. At the end of his tenure, he was asked to hand back the Sambuut given to him in 1966. He was said to have declined when he learnt that Ruto would be given the same.

The Myoot elders then organised another ceremony and gave Ruto another monkey-skin outfit at the Eldoret Sports Club in June 2006. Being that his animal totem is the Baboon (Kibiegen), pundits argued that it was ‘home’. They were then understandably surprised when they learnt of the elevation of Rutto and they were not even invited. Interviewing one of them Samuel Ngeny of Nandi, he categorically stated that the elders did not recognise the elevation of Rutto because it was not consultative and lacked consensus.

A female elder, Everlyn Ruto, who is a current member of the Myoot Council, dismissed it, saying it was not good when the ceremony was followed by an outcry. She argues that the ceremony was done within a political context, and the attendance of alien people made it lose its sacredness. Those who support the move say Rutto from the Kipkenda clan is from a house of leaders starting from the legendary prophet Mugeni.

The significance of the ‘Sambuut’

The ‘Sambuut’ is a garment that signifies authority and power among the Kalenjin. Few politicians have been given the said garment, which is why it was a big deal that Rutto was one. Prior to the coming of the Myoot Council of Elders, a few people — mainly members of the Talai clan — would conduct the ceremony and in fact enthroned Raila at a ceremony carried out in,Nandi, in November 2016.

This, however, was dismissed as being driven by commercial interests cashing in on politicians keen to stamp their authority over the Kalenjins.

The Myoot Council of Elders, which is drawn from most of the Kalenjin sub-tribes, is currently backing DP Ruto, which is why there is essentially no shift in the Rift.

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