Deputy President William Ruto and his pick for presidential election running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, were reportedly classmates at the University of Nairobi in the mid-1980s, where they stood out as part of the “contra” group employed by President Daniel Moi’s regime to contain radical student activism.
Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his running mate, former Gichugu MP and Justice minister Martha, were in the trenches together taking the fight to President Moi’s one-party regime right from the onset of the campaigns for democracy and human rights in the early 1990s.
So it would seem like both went for familiar faces and comrades-in-arms. They also made safe, pragmatic choices that would help them win the large Mt Kenya voting bloc.
In the absence of a serious presidential candidate from the populous region, nor any heir apparent to outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the two deputy president nominees will be facing-off in the charge to win a large floating for their respective principals.
To that effect, this presidential race will not just be Ruto versus Raila, but also Gachagua versus Karua. In their respective choices, however, both Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga took calculated risks.
In selecting the Mathira MP, Dr Ruto went for a loyal, tried and tested ally, and one who boasts deep resources to add to the campaign kitty. It is, however, now well-known after the long-stand-off that delayed the weekend announcement, that Mr Gachagua was not the choice of the Mt Kenya MPs in the Kenya Kwanza camp.
Once established that the pick would be from Mt Kenya, MPs from the region were asked to have their say, and they unanimously preferred Tharaka-Nithii Senator Kithure Kindiki over Mr Gachagua. Prof Kindiki was lauded as a respectful, sober and thoughtful complement to the ticket, and in addition one from the Mt Kenya East side of the region that needs reward for consistently backing Mt Kenya West in presidential quests.
By contrast, the rambunctious Mr Gachagua was described by some as a bully lacking finesse and diplomacy, disrespectful of colleagues, and lacking the values of statesmanship and national appeal that a Mt Kenya leader must display in order to cultivate links with other regions to ease a power bid in the future.
Questions were also raised about Mr Gachagua’s reputation, particularly the number of court cases awaiting him that might distract him from the campaigns and also help fuel the narrative that Kenya Kwanza was the refuge for crooks.
Dr Ruto was aware of these sentiments as he made his choice, and he must have felt from the body language of those in attendance at his Karen residence that Mr Gachagua was not a particularly popular option.
But he must also have felt that in the forceful, aggressive and no-holds barred campaigner, he has the partner required to wage fierce battle against the Raila troops.
The DP might also have calculated that having already secured the bulk of the Mt Kenya vote, there is no risk in having Mr Gachagua as a running mate, especially as he wants one who can be depended on to fearlessly march forward even after President Kenyatta unleashes his arsenal for the Raila campaign.
In Ms Karua, Mr Odinga took an even bigger risk, but at the same time a very brave and inspired choice.
The risk is that in choosing from Mt Kenya, he jettisoned former Vice-President and two-time running mate Kalonzo Musyoka, together with a solid base of 1.6 million Ukambani vote bloc, which supported him in the last two elections. That is a vital basket that, though far smaller than the Mt Kenya vote, is still vital to Mr Odinga’s prospects in his fifth presidential campaign.
He might, however, have come to the conclusion that Mr Kalonzo is not worth the trouble he brings after the unceasing public demands for the running mate slot ever since he was persuaded to stop being coy and join Azimio. Mr Kalonzo claims he was promised the slot by President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga as payback for abandoning his own presidential bid, but there is no record of that in the Azimio agreement he signed.
In his speech announcing Ms Karua, Mr Odinga purposely outlined the role of a deputy president and relationship with the president, highlighting trust and partnership, rather than whining and undermining the president. That was not just a dig at Mr Kalonzo who clearly talked himself out of contention, but also at Dr Ruto whose second term as President Kenyatta’s deputy has been one of opposition leaders within.
To placate the Kamba vote, Mr Odinga could have, as an alternative to Mr Kalonzo, gone for Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu or Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana, but finally decided to take the plunge into fishing for a Mt Kenya vote.
Whether Ms Karua brings much that can counter the Kalonzo exit remains to be seen. As she was being nominated, Mr Musyoka walked off in a huff to relaunch his presidential bid. It might look like a hopeless cause at this stage when all he can depend on is the Wiper party faithful from Lower Eastern. However, his bid could be fatal to Mr Odinga as it takes away what would otherwise have been a secure Azimio vote.
With Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto tied neck-and-neck according to the latest polls, Mr Musyoka’s biggest impact might be denying either of the two main combatants the over 50 per cent threshold, forcing a runoff where he will be in a stronger bargaining position.
Mr Odinga’s campaign would have been aware of this, and decided that it does not want to kowtow to Mr Musyoka’s demands. In settling for Ms Karua, however, there is the big risk that she brings nothing from the Mt Kenya vote basket, at least nothing that compensates for the Lower Eastern exodus.
The calculation might be that in running a presidential campaign where it is clear he has no chance of winning, Mr Musyoka will not appeal to his faithful as strongly as he would as number two in what looks like a winning team. It could also be projected that even if she doesn’t overturn the Ruto juggernaut, Ms Karua will bring enough from Mt Kenya to offset any losses.
What does seem apparent, even without counting projected votes, is that Ms Karua generates much more excitement than Mr Gachagua. She is already a national figure with her role in the multi-party campaign and one of the performers in President Kibaki’s government.
The biggest plus, which the Odinga campaign will exploit to the maximum, is Ms Karua being the first major party woman candidate for deputy president. The buzz that has been generated might be worth more than ethnic considerations.