Tycoons who control politics behind scenes

Monday, July 5th, 2021 00:00 |
Nasa leaders enjoy Iftar at Serani Arab Boys Grounds. Raila Odinga and the Nasa team had organised a grand exclusive dinner that targeted Sh1 billion that was expected to fund the ODM leader’s presidential campaign in 2017. Photo/PD/File

Eric Wainaina @Ewainaina

 A cabal of affluent businessmen from Mt Kenya region have reportedly been canvassing for the possibility of cobbling up an alliance around opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The move has ignited debate on the role played by tycoons in Kenya’s presidential elections. 

The multi-millionaires have reportedly been playing a covert role in building Raila’s candidature and plotting how to brand the ODM chief in Mt Kenya region, with the first of a series of planned engagements having been organised by a senior bank executive two weeks ago in Ruaka, Kiambu county, where he (Raila) had a nyama choma eating session with businessmen in what pundits opine is part of the 2022 game plan.

Besides the businessmen, the meeting at Runda Care Resort was also attended by former presidential candidate Peter Kenneth, a Raila confidant and presumed running-mate next year, who has been getting backing from Central Kenya tycoons, among them Equity Bank founder Peter Munga, who also chairs the influential Mt Kenya Foundation.

The group has been pushing for Kenneth to inherit President Uhuru Kenyatta in Mt Kenya politics. Nominated MP Maina Kamanda has been vocal in vouching for Kenneth. 

Wealthy businessmen, keen to build interlocking relationships across the political spectrum, have since 2007 been playing a hidden yet critical role of not only cobbling up political alliances but also using their financial muscle to bank roll their preferred candidates –sometimes by holding fundraising dinners where millions are raised within hours to fund campaigns.

Large business firms, pundits argue, have to be keen about having the right leaders in power to preempt a hostile business environment, which analysts argue informs the interventions of rich individuals to ensure perpetuation of favourable regimes in the long-interest of their businesses.

With the battle to succeed President Uhuru gaining momentum, the king makers have started crafting political alliances of individuals eyeing the presidency and other national seats that would be created should the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) get relief at the Court of Appeal.

Political scientist Amukowa Anangwe notes that wealthy people get involved in shaping domestic politics even in the developed world through financing and other intrigues to ensure victory for their preferred candidates. 

Locally, the tendencies exist and are manifest, especially during the General Election.

“For instance, for a long time in the US, there has been a nexus, comprising the Rockefeller and other foundations that have been involved through the Council of Foreign Relations in shaping not only domestic politics, but also global affairs.

Business firms and their key owners are important political stakeholders whose primary interest is to secure a conducive political environment for their businesses,” Dr Anangwe told People Daily.

Notable businessmen who have played a key role in assembling alliances and financing candidates include Munga, Equity Bank CEO James Mwangi, businessman Jimi Wanjigi, Narendra Raval Guru of Devki Group of Companies, the late Chris Kirubi, Royal Media Services chairman S.K. Macharia who backed Raila in 2013 against all odds, and Kenya National Chamber of Commerce president Richard Ngatia among others.

Other figures known to influence the outcome of elections through their deep pockets are Mohamed Jaffer of Grain Bulk Handlers, Abu Joho, the brother of Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho, Central Organisation of Trade Unions Secretary General Francis Atwoli and Mombasa-based businessman David Langat, the chairman and founder of DL Group of Companies.

Heavy sway

During former President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, former UAP chairman and University of Nairobi Chancellor Joe Wanjui was said to be one of the personalities with a heavy sway on his election alongside Joe Kibe (who chaired the Council of Eminent Persons), Pius Ngugi of Thika Coffee Mills, Stanley Kinyanjui of Magnate Ventures and immediate former Kenya Tea Development Agenc chairman Peter Kanyago.

Peter Muthoka, who owns Acceler Global Logistics, and former Machakos Senator Johnstone Muthama also fall in this category of political financiers. 

While Muthoka financed Jubilee campaigns in the Lower Eastern region, Muthama was one of the power barons behind opposition coalition Nasa and the Wiper Party.

Roles played by the tycoons to midwife governments in Kenya was laid bare during the recent burial of Kirubi when a number of high-profile leaders recounted how the late business mogul staked out his neck during electioneering period in a bid to shape the country’s political direction.

For instance, Equity Bank official Polycarp Igathe, who was forced to quit as Nairobi deputy governor in 2018 after falling out with former Governor Mike Sonko, said Kirubi designed their candidature in 2017, with a plan to have the county, which the businessman felt had become “too harsh for business” to be reverted to the national government.

“When it was impossible to do business in the city, it was Chris who made sure that Nairobi goes back to the national government politically.

It is Kirubi who designed the Sonko-Igathe ticket, for which we were very glad. Though we did not succeed with the mission as Chris (Kirubi) had intended, the man was unique in his thinking,” said Igathe. 

Wiper party leader Kalonzo Musyoka, while eulogising Kirubi, revealed how a clique of billionaires organised and presided over negotiations that saw him picked as Vice-President by his rival Mwai Kibaki in 2008 when the country was in flames over the disputed 2007 presidential elections.

Kalonzo disclosed that the businessmen together with Munga and Equity Chief Executive Mwangi brokered talks that laid ground for him to be picked as Vice-President despite having contested against Kibaki in the 2007 elections. 

“The mission was simple; it was to tell me you have to act in a manner that saves our country.

This was, as you can remember, followed the election violence of 2007 and 2008 and that is how I became our country’s 10th Vice-President.

A negotiated position, thanks to the men who had the courage to come and tell me, ‘Kalonzo, you are being stupid. You must save your country’,” Kalonzo recounted.

In 2013, Atwoli is said to have spent about Sh500 million financing the campaigns of a certain presidential candidate from Western Kenya. 

“Yes, it is true, I spent Sh500 million on the candidate who never made it. I have funded campaigns of several MPs across the country for years. We do it in an attempt to have good leaders elected,” Atwoli told People Daily.

Interest groups

Former Mukurwe-ini MP Kabando wa Kabando says it has been the practice in the world that interest groups be they corporates, underworld shadowy figures, organised elites, reformist academia and even civil society organisations seek to control public policies favourable to their mandates or goals.

“However, leaderships that are made by the rich and wealthy will not always favour the underdogs and downtrodden.

In fact, most corporations or classes of the richest mostly alienate regimes from the proletarian class, thus undermining social welfare and social democracy.

Exactly because they are largely extreme rightists in ideology,” the former lawmaker said.

Before Munga and Mwangi brokered the deal to nominate him VP, Kalonzo in his book ‘Against All Odds’, writes that business magnate Raval, who owns Devki Steel Mills, National Cement and Maisha Mabati Mills, had initiated talks to have him abandon his presidential bid in favour of Kibaki but he declined only for him to emerge a distant third in the race.

“One evening just days before the election date, I was invited to dinner by Raval… I arrived at his residence and we had a brief talk, only to be surprised to see Kibaki walk into the room in the company of his advisor Stanley Murage,” Kalonzo says of the meeting.

However, Kabando says all businessmen who give a helping hand in politics should not be trusted, saying for some, “It is their business of profiteering and interests they are protecting are not genuine pursuit for national good”, adding: “Kenya needs a new egalitarian regime that will be obliged to put common good beyond the of interests of cartels.” 

“Sadly, those wealthy Kikuyus now pushing a Raila presidency are doing it after betraying him all their lives and now they imagine he is old, fatigued, mellowed and weak to be manipulated or owned by them for exclusive ‘extraction politics’,” he said.

In a past media interview, Raval confessed to participating in politics, saying: “No doubt in politics we know all as good friends and well-wishers. But we never did or do any business with the government as a policy of our company. 

And you cannot be a successful businessman if you are deepening your business on political confection.” During 2013 polls, Wanjigi participated in building Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto’s candidature. His design had also included Kalonzo, who later joined Raila’s camp.

“Their (UhuRuto) government was formed in this home. These are the facts. I also want to say further that after the last General Election, it is in this home Baba agreed to shake hands with the President after the Supreme Court had upheld his declaration,” Wanjigi said when police raided his home months after the 2017 elections. 

Kalonzo stated that initially Uhuru and Ruto had agreed on a line up for the elections in which Uhuru and the Wiper leader would be on the presidential ticket while Ruto was to be Majority Leader in the National Assembly “before things fell apart”.

“Then on that night, Uhuru and Ruto arrived at my home in the company of Wanjigi, a Nairobi businessman and political strategist.

Wanjigi is the son of former Kamukunji MP and Moi era Cabinet Minister, Maina Wanjigi.

We walked down to the gazebo where dinner was to be served, ” Kalonzo observes in his book. It was at this point that he realised that things had changed.

“Ruto and Jimi sat silently as Uhuru spoke: ‘Kalonzo,’ he said, “We have decided that you should choose some other position, but not the presidency or deputy presidency.’

I was stunned. I did not know at what point the arrangement we had earlier, of me being on the presidential ticket, had been changed.”

Political strategist 

Role of tycoons in past elections as well as in crafting Mt Kenya succession politics also emerged last year at a funeral in Makutano village in Kirinyaga in September, when former Kiambi Governor William Kabogo accused Equity Bank founder Munga and other powerful business personalities, of rigging him out in 2017 as they allegedly pushed for Kenneth as the next Mt Kenya kingpin.

“They (Mt Kenya Foundation) went to President Uhuru and told him that I am arrogant, proud and that I should be dethroned.

That is how I lost. They are headed back to the President to propose Peter Kenneth simply because they portray me as brave and fearless.

We will not allow them to fool the President anymore,” said Kabogo, who has been uncomfortable with Kenneth’s “special” treatment by Uhuru’s confidants.

Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi knows better how difficult it is for anyone to make headway in politics without blessings of the kingmakers.

Mudavadi remembers vividly how on December 4, 2012, Uhuru and Ruto drove in one car to his Riverside Drive home in the company of Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala and Chirau Ali Mwakwere to inform him they would back his quest for the presidency.

That was the time Uhuru and Ruto had been indicted by the International Criminal Court and their candidacy was facing resistance from opponents, who argued they were not eligible for the top seat.

“I had declared my intention and was preparing to launch my campaigns formally, then these two gentlemen drove into my compound and declared their support for me,” Mudavadi recalls.

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