When President Uhuru Kenyatta invited Narc-Kenya leader Martha Karua and Jubilee Party’s candidate Anne Waiguru — both Kirinyaga governorship contestants — to the podium during his tour of the county, their supporters threw flowers and peas on the stage, causing a security scare.
The two plants have come to symbolise the fight for the heart of the Kirinyaga political leadership between some of the two most colourful women in the Kenyan public psyche — both former powerful Cabinet ministers, albeit in different regimes.
Ms Waiguru is being referred to as Minji Minji (‘minji’ is Kikuyu for peas, mostly green, but colloquial for a young, beautiful maiden) and the flowers represent Ms Karua’s Narc-K party symbol of a red rose.
And the governorship race is shaping up to be a contest involving three women, the two plants and 351,000 voters.
The third fulcrum in the fight is Jubilee woman rep candidate Wangui Ngirichi, a popular, flamboyant billionaire with close connections to the family of late spy chief James Kanyotu and whose pervasive influence looms above Ms Waiguru and Ms Karua like a political colossus.
But the gubernatorial battle will not be just about flora and fauna; it could boil down to the Jubilee influence, choice of running mate, age, regionalism, and accessibility of candidates and their manifestos.
And although independent candidates Bedan Kagai and Joseph Ndathi, the incumbent, are also in the race, the two women have captured the imagination of the voters.
Ms Waiguru has the ruling party ticket, name recognition and backing from Jubilee candidates but critics accuse her of being aloof, her Kirinyaga roots are being questioned and her link to the National Youth Service (NYS) scandal is a negative.
Ms Karua is seen as more experienced and incorruptible.
Although she supports President Kenyatta’s re-election, however, her past association with opposition leader Raila Odinga (since the days of the struggle for multi-party democracy) could become her Achilles heel.
Ms Waiguru’s clinching of the Jubilee ticket was supposed to be a harbinger that the seat was only a heartbeat away as the county tends to vote for the popular party’s candidates.
However, President Kenyatta’s decision not to endorse her during his tour last month has been interpreted differently in both camps.
“I’m fine with either Ms Karua or Ms Waiguru. Whoever loses the seat, I will give her a job,” President Kenyatta said.
DP BACKS WAIGURU
To Ms Karua’s running mate Gachoki Gitari, the statement is a sign that Ms Waiguru is a political liability to the President.
“The President has never failed to campaign for his party candidates in Kirinyaga. He even campaigned for me during my by-election.
“It is very telling that he did not endorse her (Waiguru),” Mr Gitari observed.
The Kirinyaga Central MP was the runner-up in the Jubilee nominations, even though he did not put up a single poster.
But the Waiguru camp sees it differently, with the former Devolution CS saying in Mwea Constituency: “The Deputy President urged residents to elect the local Jubilee gubernatorial flagbearer in the August polls.
“It is a sign of the confidence the party has in me.”
That Ms Waiguru was counting on Deputy President William Ruto for support is a sign of changing political times.
The DP lambasted her last year when she linked his personal assistant to the NYS scandal in which taxpayers lost billions of shillings through inflated payments.
“Give us a break!” quipped Mr Ruto then. “Those behind theft of public funds should tell us where the money is badala ya kizungu mingi na catwalk (instead of giving us lectures in English and behaving like catwalk models in Parliament).”
But former Mwea MP Alfred Nderitu defended Ms Waiguru.
He said: “Corruption is no longer an issue in this race. Who can prove that Waiguru stole anything? If she did, why is she not in jail or facing charges? It is Nasa leader Raila Odinga who was persecuting her.”
Ms Karua’s decision not to dissolve her party and join Jubilee is also giving Ms Waiguru political arsenal.
“If Ms Karua wants to support Uhuru, why didn’t she dissolve her party and join Jubilee like the others? She may be working for the Opposition,” Mr Nderitu added.
The accessibility of the candidates and their roots have also become a political issue.
Mutithi MCA Roman Namu Jamumo, who is campaigning for Ms Karua, accuses Ms Waiguru of being inaccessible and contemptuous towards the common mwananchi.
“In addition to surrounding herself with people from one ward, Ms Waiguru is rude even to her campaigners and does not listen to anyone.
“She is campaigning on top of vehicles instead of interacting with people,” Mr Jamumo said.
But Ms Waiguru dismissed the claims as propaganda, protesting: “I beat my opponent by a margin of over 80,000 votes during nominations.
“Could I have done that if I was inaccessible? I am, basically, a woman of the people.”
Ageism has also reared its ugly ahead. Ms Waiguru’s campaigners have branded her as a young lady to appeal to youthful voters — thus the nickname Minji Minji.
But in rallies, Ms Karua is using that to her advantage.
“I have served as the Gichugu MP for 20 years and as a minister in former President Kibaki’s administration and I can do a better job for residents than all my rivals,” Ms Karua said.
The choice of running mate could also determine who occupies the new county headquarters in Kutus.
Ms Karua and Ms Waiguru both hail from Gichugu Constituency (with 86,407 voters) and may end up splitting the vote.
That leaves Mwea, Ndia and Kirinyaga Central as the battlegrounds.
Ms Waiguru picked Mr Peter Ndambiri from Mwea as her running mate, hoping he will deliver the 122,352 votes in the constituency.
But Ms Karua went for the two-time MP Gitari, eyeing the 142,983 votes in both Ndia (66,524) and Kirinyaga Central (76,459).
The two constituencies vote as a bloc as Kirinyaga Central was hived off from the larger Ndia.
Should residents vote purely by regions and Mr Gitari delivers the Ndia vote and Ms Karua splits Gichugu, the Narc-K party leader has an advantage.
But if they opt for “six-piece voting” for Jubilee candidates, as in other elections, and Mr Ndambiri delivers Mwea and the Waiguru campaign does not lose steam, then the former Devolution CS has a head-start.
Then there is the influence of Ms Ngirichi — who garnered the highest number of votes in the Jubilee nomination — and whom she decides to back in the race.
It was she who introduced Ms Waiguru to voters after the latter left Cabinet.
However, she has kept off the governor race amid reports that she and Ms Waiguru had a falling out over the sharing of Cabinet slots should Jubilee win the seat, claims that she denied.
“I have never sought any post-election deal and I will not do any business with the county if elected. Both Waiguru and Karua are my friends, so I cannot fight either of them,” Mrs Ngirichi said.
The manifestos of the two are similar: Both have vowed to ensure completion of Thiba dam, stop rice imports, improve coffee and tea farming, improve health care and build roads and other infrastructure.
I know how the government works, so I will be able to get investors and other goodies to Kirinyaga,” Ms Waiguru said, to which Ms Karua responded: “As MP, I lobbied and got major projects done when there was no CDF. I can do much more now.”
Added Ms Ngirichi: “The good thing is, no matter who becomes governor in August, Kirinyaga will have a better leader than in 2013.”