BY TIMAN MNYIKA
Sometime in mid-2002, Moses Wetang’ula was preparing to contest the Sirisia parliamentary seat in Bungoma for the second time. His first attempt in 1997 on the then ruling party Kanu ticket had ended in failure, drowned by the strong wave of the Michael Wamalwa-led Ford Kenya. The lawyer had tasted parliamentary politics as a Kanu Nominated MP between 1993 and 1997.
As the 2002 polls approached, Wamalwa’s grip on Bungoma was even tighter than in 1997. Mr Wamalwa had entered into an alliance with Mwai Kibaki and Charity Ngilu and it was looking increasingly likely that it would give Kanu a run for its money. And when Raila Odinga joined them later, it was obvious that Kanu’s 40-year grip on power was coming to an end.
This must have been the consideration that made Mr Wetang’ula make one of his many strategic political decisions.
“I’ve decided that I want to serve the people of Sirisia as their elected MP. If that means leaving Kanu to join Ford Kenya, so be it,’’ Mr Wetang’ula, then serving as chairman of the Electricity Regulation Board, told this writer during a meeting at his Corner House Law office in Nairobi. ‘’But please don’t publish this because I’m still the chair of ERB,’’ he had pleaded.
Come the election, Wetang’ula won the Sirisia seat on a Ford-K ticket and thus starting his journey to the helm of the party.
On his way up, the shrewd politician who cut his teeth during the Moi years has made a number of other decisions that have done his ambitions a lot of good. One of them was his decision to back Musikari Kombo against Dr Mukhisa Kituyi for the chairmanship of the party following Wamalwa’s death in 2003.
He knew that between the two, Kombo was the weaker one who could easily be brushed aside in a challenge for party leadership when he was ready. At the time Weta as he is popularly known was still new in the party and many of its diehard members saw him as a Kanu man who could not lead Ford-K.
But having taken care of Dr Kituyi who went on to become Director General of UNCTAD, Wetang’ula bid his time understudying Kombo and waiting for the right moment to strike.
That moment came in 2011 when Kombo, after what many saw as a below average reign, called party elections. He then announced that he will not contest, opting instead to support Eugene Wamalwa, the brother of the man he inherited the party from. Using his financial muscle and organisational capability, the Bungoma Senator easily overcame the Wamalwa challenge and has held onto the party ever since.
In the run up to the 2013 elections, after serving as a Cabinet minister in the Grand Coalition government, Mr Wetang’ula announced that he would contest the presidential election on the Ford-K ticket. He put together a team led by Tongaren MP Eseli Simiyu, one of his key supporters to prepare the ground.
“We are ready for the contest,” Dr Simiyu said then.
A team of professionals was identified to steer Mr Wetang’ula’s bid.
Wetang’ula himself said of his ambition: “It is a progression in life. One feels that after climbing one part of the ladder it is automatic that you go to the next. That is why I am going for the top seat. I am no different from the others who have walked the same path’’.
However, as the polls neared, he made yet another decision by opting out of the race to align himself with ODM’s Raila Odinga and Wiper’s Kalonzo Musyoka in the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord).
He contested the Bungoma Senate seat amid under this deal, he was slated to be the Majority Leader in the Senate. In the end, he became Minority Leader after the coalition lost the elections to its Jubilee rival.
Despite the loss, this decision has given Wetang’ula a massive political boost. He is the only Cord principal who was elected, giving him a political platform that Raila and Kalonzo do not have. Indeed, the fact that Raila and Kalonzo were not elected has been blamed for the turmoil in the Coalition and their parties.
The Orange Democratic Party tried to hold elections in February that ended in chaos with Raila looking increasingly unable to exert any influence in the party.
Wetang’ula on the other hand has been able to keep a tight control on Ford-K affairs, enabling him to sell himself across the country without any distractions.
His profile has risen from the leader of a small party with support in a small corner of the country to a national profile where he can count on the support and networks of the coalition. Now as the 2017 elections approach, Wetang’ula has forced himself into contention.
In the Cord arrangement he has even managed to outshine Kalonzo, the far more senior and experienced politician.
Of course supporters of Raila are already talking of another, possibly the last, attempt to win the prize one more time. But there is no doubt that should the nomination race be open, Wetang’ula will be a serious contender.
And he has a very powerful argument.
Having lost elections in 1997, 2007 and 2013, talk that Raila should give way for Kalonzo or Wetang’ula is saturating the political realm. In the former Western province, Mr Wetang’ula has led a loud campaign for the presidency come 2017. It is obvious he covets the Cord ticket and is receiving quite some support from Cord-allied politicians in the region.
Raila is under pressure from the so-called young Turks in his party who are pushing for change. The party was rocked by chaos during the its botched elections recently when hired goons disrupted the polls as it appeared like his preferred line up would lose.
The referendum campaign has boosted Raila’s fortunes somehow but there are still undercurrents of discontent in the party. Last month, a group of ODM leaders said Raila should give way to someone else in 2017.
The leaders who include senators, governors and MPs believe that the best way for Cord to win the elections is for Raila to throw his weight behind another candidate.
‘’ODM should allow other people a chance to contest the presidency,’’ Kitutu Chache MP Richard Onyonka who claimed to be speaking for the leaders was quoted as saying in a daily newspaper.
‘’He has tried three times without success. There are people who have vowed never to vote for him and finally, the majority of voters today have no connection with the suffering he underwent under the hands of President Moi to bring about the Second Liberation,’’ Mr Onyonka said.
But this was dismissed by Raila’s supporters led by Suna East MP Junet Mohammed.
Within ODM Onyonka was seen as speaking for a faction that supports Nairobi governor Evans Kidero who has launched a high profile campaign in Nyanza through harambees.
Mr Mohammed, in apparent reference to this said Raila has a political ideology and is not just trying to use money to win leadership.
The other unfinished business in ODM is the matter of party elections which Raila has to address.
That Wetang’ula is a force to reckon with was proved by his re-election in the Bungoma Senate by-election after he lost a petition.
While Raila launched a scathing attack on the court after the decision labelling it compromised by the executive to fight Cord, Wetang’ula was upbeat. “The same voters who gave me the victory are still here. They have not migrated. They will vote for me again,’’ he said.
Of course he romped back with an even bigger margin against Kombo than in the 2013 elections.
Today, with Kalonzo missing in most of the referendum campaigns, it is Wetang’ula who is basking in the limelight and who is being seen by Cord supporters as a likely alternative to Raila.
Of course there are those who say Kalonzo’s withdrawal is motivated by the fact that he is uncomfortable with the way Raila is leading it in a manner likely to suggest that he will still be in the running for 2017.
Kalonzo and his allies say that he reached an MoU with Raila to support him in 2017 and will be disappointed if Raila does not honour it.
But his withdrawal for the moment can only work to the advantage of Wetang’ula.
He has argued that all the three Cord leaders have an equal chance in 2017.
‘’We are three equal partners in Cord. There is ODM led by Raila, Ford Kenya led by Wetang’ula and Wiper led by Kalonzo Musyoka. Each party is distinct and independent. We have an agreement we have signed as a legal instrument. We came together as a coalition and subordinated our candidacy to Raila and his candidature was for 2013. The 2017 is a different ball game. As a coalition, we must stay together because big is good in politics but on who is going to be the presidential candidate, that is a bridge we will cross when we reach it, no one is automatic,’’ he said a couple of months ago.
But Wetang’ula has a lot of work to do if he is to succeed in his bid. First of all he must either unify or vanguish all the other pretenders to the throne in western Kenya. Musalia Mudavadi, Eugene Wamalwa and Kenneth Marende, Cyrus Jirongo are all waiting in the wings.
Bonnie Khalwale may also want to have something to say about it. And then there is the Raila factor.
If Agwambo is still in the race, he will be a huge obstacle because of his massive following in the region and his national networks.
It will possible for him to use his network to frustrate Wetang’ula even in his home region. Indeed, some of the politicians in Western may be used by Raila to light fires in the region and make sure he does not have the time and space to campaign elsewhere.
Wetang’ula himself is acutely aware of this. “Your strategic ally can also be your strategic rival,’’ he was quoted saying recently at a meeting of professionals exploring his candidature.
If Raila backs him, it will be a huge lift, but if he does not there is work to be done. It’s all about strategy.
Of course he also has many skeletons in his closet that may come back to haunt him. These include the fact that Judge Francis Gikonyo, who nullified his election, also found him guilty of the offence of bribing voters.
Although the judge wrote to Director of Public Prosecutions Keriako Tobiko to investigate the matter and bring charges against the senator this never happened allowing him to recapture the seat.
This matter may come back to haunt the senator even though his supporters say that many other politicians, have been allowed to contest elections with even more serious criminal charges hanging over their heads.
Mr Wetang’ula went to the Court of Appeal to contest the finding on bribery and the court upheld it. He then moved to the Supreme Court which is yet to rule on the matter.
If the ruling does not go in his favour, then his political career will take a very big hit. Then of course there is the small matter of scandals that have hit him during his time in government, including the Tokyo embassy deal for which he was at one time suspended from the Cabinet.