After nearly eight years as secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Mukhisa Kityui returned home to Kenya to enter what is likely to be a bruising 2022 presidential race.

Kituyi wants to be Kenya’s next president. The 65 year-old resigned from his prestigious top post in Geneva in February and returned home to Kenya to begin the tough political journey to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is set to leave power next year.

Kituyi’s entry into politics has elicited mixed reactions from both political observers and the average Kenyan. The question is not so much if he is qualified, but how will he make it to the top seat, in a country where politics is strongly grounded in ethnic and regional concerns.

Experience has shown that intellectuals like Kituyi – no matter how qualified they may be – rarely succeed:

  • James Ole Kiyiapi, based in Transmara, is a professor and former permanent secretary in the ministries of education and local government. He was defeated at the 2013 general elections while running under the Restore and Build Kenya party. His rallies rarely attracted crowds, and he came in seventh position after garnering 40,000 votes.
  • The late Wangari Maathai was also a professor and social, environmental and political activist who won the Nobel Prize in 2004. She was the first woman to earn a PhD in Eastern and Central Africa. She ran the popular Green Belt Movement. She ran for president in 1997 as a candidate for the Labour Party. But following rumours of her withdrawal, she lost the race and took just 4,200 votes. She died in 2011.
  • Japheth Kaluyu, a professor and researcher specialising in urban health policy, had been living in the US before he decided to return to Kenya in 2017 to run for president. Unknown to many voters, he tried his luck as an independent candidate. He won just a little more than 11,000 votes.
  • Mohamed Abduba Dida has twice tried to become the next president of Kenya, in 2013 and in 2017. He was the first Muslim of Somali origin to run in a presidential campaign. Known as an eloquent and charismatic speaker, the English and religion teacher mounted his presidential campaign through the media. Running for the Alliance for Real Change in 2017, he got 38,004 votes.

Kituyi’s political base?

Kituyi was born in Western Kenya, and this is not the first time for this top technocrat to be involved in politics. He was a member of parliament and also served as trade and industry minister between 2002 and 2007 under former president Mwai Kibaki.

After a significant amount of time away from Kenya’s political scene, Kituyi knows he needs to tap into ethnic and regional networks to secure a base.

Unfortunately for him, the Western Kenya region and the Luhya tribe that he comes from already has two leading national politicians: former vice-president Musalia Mudavadi and former foreign affairs minister, and now senator, Moses Wetangula.

The two leaders are vying for the top job and are likely to form a coalition to strengthen their political bases.

What makes it particularly difficult for Kituyi is that Mudavadi, the Amani National Congress party leader, has for years been endorsed by elders as the regional flag bearer for Western Kenya.

Dealing with a godfather

For that reason, Mudavadi is seen by many in the region as the political godfather who has the mandate to rally local support. In 2007 and 2017, he rallied behind the former prime minister Odinga, and the region voted as bloc.

A number of politicians from the region aligned to Mudavadi and Wetangula argue that the entry of Kituyi into national politics is a plan by the political enemies of Mudavadi to undermine his presidential bid.

Those political enemies are made up of the regional economic and political influences that can sway support.

Titus Khamala one of the political leaders from Kituyi’s home turf, says the only politician they have faith in to deliver the presidency is Mudavadi.

“I have seen Mukhisa Kituyi is back. He wants to be president. I tell him we have Mudavadi and Wetangula running for the presidential seat,” he said in recent political rally.

To succeed, and get the support of his people, he will be looking to mix with local politicians who see him as merely a visitor in his own birth place: someone unreachable and someone not at their level.

But not everyone feels that way.

Benson Wafula, a motorbike operator in Bungoma town – where Kituyi hails from – says he sees the former UNCTAD boss as a potential presidential candidate even though he needs to identify himself more with the locals.

“I believe he can be a good president, but he has not been in the country for sometime now. I wonder if he understands the challenges we face,” says Wafula.

What change is Kituyi promising ?

Despite local doubt, Kituyi is confident that he is the right person for the job.

As head of UNCTAD, he gained a great deal of experience, and topping his agenda is strengthening the Kenyan economy. To boost livelihoods, he supports policies that focus on the creation of businesses to increase foreign investment and spur new local job opportunities.

“I will show sufficient attention to creating hope for the hopeless, reviving the livelihoods of those who are victims of the disruptions,” he said while speaking to reporters in Nairobi on 14 February, soon after his return from Geneva.

He also vows to bring a gust of fresh air into Kenya’s toxic political scene, which continues to divide the country after each political cycle. This, he says, can be done by bringing on board all political players to the table to solve the challenges that continue to fester, namely corruption, tribalism and poverty.

Potential compromise candidate?

He may talk the talk, but it’s hard to walk the walk with no political party at his side. Though he recently met with opposition leader Odinga for talks in Nairobi.

This meeting provoked many questions, but most importantly: is Kituyi the compromise candidate for Odinga and Kenyatta, who have been allies since their famous handshake in 2018 ?

Odinga has not announced if he intends to run again, but he has clearly stated that he will not support his former allies Kalonzo Musyoka, Mudavadi and Wetangula. Odinga claims the latter betrayed him after declaring his party as the official opposition in the country in 2018.

Professor Herman Manyora, a political analyst from the University of Nairobi, says if Kituyi is serious and wants to be president, he will need formidable partners like Odinga, who is both an intellect like him and has a powerful political base.

“He needs to meet top politicians, and start forming a political base, but he should avoid tribal politics,” stresses Manyora.

Should he receive an endorsement from Odinga and Kenyatta as a compromise candidate, then it would not be easy for deputy president William Ruto to succeed Kenyatta, with whom he has fallen out of favour.

Bottom line

Analysts say that Kituyi should avoid tribal alignments and present himself as a Kenyan who has the experience and vision to change the country.

They also say that he should make efforts to connect with local people in his region, to better understand what they want and ultimately gain their confidence. He has to look no farther than Odinga and Ruto to learn that fine art.

At a recent political rally in his home base of Kiambu, Kenyatta said he can never let a thief take over from him, but whoever will come must be a unifying leader.

Could that person be Kituyi?

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