On December 13, 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta was on an official trip to Garissa. Surprisingly, part of his entourage included ANC party leader, Musalia Mudavadi.
The fact that the two flew together in the presidential chopper got political tongues wagging as to whether the Uhuru succession politics had taken a new turn.
In my opinion, the trip was more symbolic than a helicopter ride, part of Uhuru’s itinerary on the day, was to open a new military barracks in Garissa. This is perhaps the most presidential duty there is. In fact, not every President gets to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime privilege.
The optics of tagging along Mudavadi, and not his deputy or Raila Odinga to this event, speaks volumes.
Nothing short of presidency
However, Mudavadi is not a new entrant to the 2022 succession race. His political moves in the last few months betray a man who is willing to go for nothing less than the top seat in 2022.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of this intention came late last year when Deputy President William Ruto seemed to make overtures to work with Mudavadi, an opportunity I reckon many national leaders would relish, given the current state of affairs.
The ANC leader however flatly rejected the said overtures. His explanation came in a September interview with the Nation where he’s quoted as follows: “The economic crisis ravaging the country has been authored by the Jubilee administration, of which Ruto is part…..He cannot offer anything new…..he cannot be the solution of problems manufactured by the administration he is part of.”
US tour and book launch
This would soon be followed by a US tour by Mudavadi and some ANC leaders that culminated in him opening the Kenya Diaspora Conference in New Jersey.
Before the dust settled, there was the launch of his memoirs, Rising Above the Storms of Passion. The serialisation of the book by the dailies was indeed a good way for him to reintroduce himself to the electorate.
There are several factors going for Mudavadi as the succession race heats up.
Vote-rich ethnic base
Whilst not ideal, the reality is that Kenyan politics, particularly presidential elections are heavily based on ethnic arithmetic and mobilisation. Mudavadi comes from the vote-rich Western Kenya region. If he manages to unite that bloc solidly behind his candidature, then Mudavadi will enjoy a considerable cushion as he ventures to other regions to look for support. That being said, however, he shouldn’t take this vote for granted lest a repeat of 2013, where ODM’s Raila Odinga beat him in his own backyard.
Strong, consistent messaging
The second factor going for Mudavadi is his messaging. So far, he seems to be the only potential candidate whose message is fixing the economy.
In all his media appearances, he speaks about the Kenyan economy passionately and in great detail. More importantly, he has managed to maintain an admirable fidelity to this message in instances where it would be tempting not to.
For example, during the BBI report launch, he was the only speaker willing to take on this subject, a great risk given the passions prevailing on the day.
Speaking directly to the President, he said “….and your Excellency, the economy. What is ailing us? The economy”
Indeed, he was right. It is easy for the all-important economic question to get lost in political hullabaloo yet it touches on the life of all Kenyans without exception.
Economic policy experience
Furthermore, Mudavadi has the goods to back his messaging, given his long -standing public service experience.
Specifically, Mudavadi took over the Treasury in 1993, when Kenya was undergoing what was arguably a more difficult economic crisis than today.
His economic policy interventions, including but not limited to, abolishing the office of the price controller and clawing back the power of the Central Bank of Kenya over ownership of foreign currency. Many pundits argue that these interventions helped to steady the ship and prevent a collapse of the economy.
However, for his messaging and experience to translate to political capital, Mudavadi must be more aggressive in demonstrating that he has innovative answers to the economic question as it stands rather than only focus on how we got here.
The title of his autobiography, in and of itself, is an attempt to enhance a specific quality of the Musalia Mudavadi brand, his non-divisive and non-aggressive nature. To rise above the storms of passion, requires the ability not to take passionate discourse so far that it completely alienates opponents and their supporters.
Throughout his political career, Mudavadi has demonstrated this quality. More instructively, his would be toughest opponents, Raila and Ruto are polar opposites in this regard. This is what makes talk of Mudavadi as a compromise candidate — a term he doesn’t particularly like, preferring to be called the “right candidate” — so popular.
Safe pair of hands
In Kenyan politics, one cannot underestimate the power of the conservative political and economic elite. This particular class is obsessed with stability and a level of predictability that allows for their interests to thrive.
In picking his 2013 campaign slogan, “a safe pair of hands”, Mudavadi could have been appealing to the support of this class as much as the electorate.
It is no surprise, therefore, that political action groups such as the Mount Kenya Foundation are warming up to his candidacy. This may explain the late night meeting between the President and Mudavadi on December 12 and the Garissa trip the next day.
All said and done, one thing is for sure, it would be foolhardy to write off Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi in the 2022 race.
He does, however, have his work cut out for him. The race won’t be a walk in the park and might require him to leave his comfort zone to lead a more aggressive campaign.