Meru Senator Kiraitu Murungi and Governor Peter Munya. (Photo: Courtesy)
A clash between youth and experience, political alignments and aspirations of the community occupying Kenya’s most fertile county has caused the race for governor to be the most lively contest in the Mt Kenya region.
Crowded the race might be, but it remains largely a two-horse race between the incumbent, Peter Munya, 48, and his former political ally and Meru Senator Kiraitu Murungi, 65.
Kiraitu hit the campaign trail after the Jubilee Party nominations while Mr Munya has been milking the benefits of incumbency – campaigning while launching health centres, nursery schools and other projects.
Munya officially launched his campaigns on Friday, with rallies in his home village of Muthara, before proceeding to Kiraitu’s home base of Nkubu and moving on to Maili Tatu in Igembe yesterday.
Other candidates in the race include former presidential adviser on education Kilemi Mwiria on a Maendeleo Chap Chap ticket, Kiambi Atheru (independent), first-term Buuri MP Gatobu Kinoti (independent) and Winnie Kaburu on a Wiper party ticket.
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Some like Mr Kinoti and Dr Mwiria are seen as being capable of chipping away some votes from the baskets of the leading candidates.
Mwiria is popular in his former Tigania West constituency, which he represented for two terms, while Kinoti is popular in his constituency and with women, and is seen as representing the aspirations of a large chunk of the youth. Word has it he has the tactical support of the predominant Roman Catholic Church in Meru.
Still, the race remains between the two former allies and lawyers whose paths first crossed at Kamau Kuria & Kiraitu Advocates at Chai House in Nairobi. Whoever wins may be the one who grabs the undecided swing vote besides their solid bases.
Perceived development credentials and potential to develop Meru are perhaps the most important determinants of the winner.
Charismatic but combative Munya believes his government has done well. His flagship projects include the expansion of health facilities, which has resulted in an increase of dispensaries from 89 before devolution to 136.
The expansion of main hospitals in Meru, Nyambene and Kanyakine has seen inpatient bed capacity rise from 720 in 2013 to 1,088 today, according to a summary of Munya’s social economic transformation published recently.
His government also claims it has done well in infrastructure development, including building 14km of low-cost tarmac roads and gravelling 1,125km of earth roads. It has also cabro-paved market streets and bus parks in main urban centres including Meru, Maua, Timau, Nkubu, Muthara, Kangeta, Kianjai, Mitunguu, Laare and Mutuati.
Munya’s government has managed to deliver projects in most of the key areas albeit against claims of inflated costs or questionable quality from his rivals.
There was even an unsuccessful case taken to court seeking to bar him from being cleared to contest the seat. The High Court, although noting that the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission had filed evidence admitting ongoing investigations, ruled that the petitioner had jumped the gun.
On the other side comes Kiraitu, the soft spoken and longest-serving Mt Kenya East legislator. His campaign pitch is that what he delivered for South Imenti for five terms can be replicated in the whole of Meru.
South Imenti stands out as the most developed constituency not only in Meru but the whole of Mt Kenya East, with the best tarmac roads, public health centres, schools and best-planned markets.
Its three tea factories are in the top 10 most efficient small-holder processing units in the country and are about to become self-sufficient in power once two Sh1.8 billion mini-hydro power projects are commissioned by the end of the year. Meru also leads in banana production, with the bulk coming from South Imenti because the former minister supported irrigated banana plantations by initiating community water projects.
Yet the unparalleled development in South Imenti often provides juicy fodder for Kiraitu’s opponents, who accuse him of failing the rest of Meru.
According to Munya, 60km of tarmac roads in South Imenti were built at Sh6 billion while Kiraitu opposed the construction of 350km of low-cost probase technology roads at Sh7.5 billion.
Kiraitu says that was an inflated figure and that the Ministry of Roads banned probase technology after finding it environmentally unsound for Kenyan roads. The trial Kianjai-Miathene road, he claims, was supposed to be 10km but only eight were delivered.
Disagreements over projects between the two are usually about the control of the Meru pay cheque according to Mugambi Imanyara, the Party of National Unity (PNU) senatorial candidate.
A key factor that might influence the end result may be the Meru sub-tribe balance and party loyalty.
The PNU is being marketed as representing the hopes of the Ameru and candidates such as Imanyara have urged voters to reward Munya for his bravery in declaring that he will run for president in 2022.
“No other Meru has ever declared (an interest in) this seat and Munya’s dream is Meru’s dream, and should not be aborted,” says Imanyara.
Yet Jubilee, by dint of its popular presidential candidate, remains a significant player in Meru, especially if Uhuru Kenyatta makes a pitch for the party’s candidates against Munya’s plea that the contests be left to the locals.
Interference by Jubilee principals could also be counter-productive and the party appears to appreciate that. Uhuru has avoided delving into local political tiffs since he was elected and has rarely to retain some impartiality.
A key Jubilee insider says for Meru and all of Mt Kenya East, Uhuru might not interfere in local choices to pre-empt the possibility of being used by rivals as an example of continued dominance by the Mt Kenya West cousins.
Nevertheless, Kiraitu continues to be seen as a consensual team player with cordial links at the national level while Munya is seen as a combative lone ranger, but one that could strongly come in for the larger Mt Kenya in the Uhuru succession matrix.
Indeed, the choice of nicknames the two have chosen in the present contest are significant. While Munya has chosen Laing’o (warrior), Kiraitu is informally referred to as the ‘King of Meru’.
Those two names have attracted mockery. King is seen as an improper term for one seeking to serve the people while Kiraitu recently said Laing’o was a name traditionally used for cattle rustlers.
The Meru sub-tribe divide remains a key factor in the outcome of the final ballot. Kiraitu comes from the populous Imenti sub-tribe, which almost commands votes in South Imenti, Central Imenti, North Imenti and Buuri.
Figures from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) show that the four constituencies have a combined voter strength of 365,688 or 48.4 per cent of Meru’s 755,461 votes.
Munya comes from the Tigania region that has two constituencies – Tigania West and Tigania East – with a combined voter tally of 152,079 votes (20.1 per cent). The other region is Igembe with three constituencies and 238,484 votes (31.5 per cent) according to IEBC’s latest statistics.
Igembe and Tigania constitute what is known as Nyambene region (the miraa-growing area) that share historical connections and many common interests.
How Igembe votes will be a key determinant in the outcome of the Meru race and both contestants have tried their best to lure key leaders from the region to their stables.
Munya’s running mate, Peter Kaberia, is from the area and key PNU parliamentary candidates include former MP Ntoitha M’Mithiaru and Joseph Mwenda “Mzalendo.”
Jubilee’s key campaigner here is senatorial candidate Mithika Linturi backed by parliamentary candidates Kubai Kiringo (Igembe Central) and Maore Maoka (Igembe North).