What was to be a normal Christmas feast at the home of Cotu Secretary-General Francis Atwoli and attended by ODM leader Raila Odinga has kicked up a political storm in Western Kenya, sucking in even Deputy President William Ruto as the 2022 succession race starts in earnest.
While politicians allied to Amani National Congress (ANC) leader Musalia Mudavadi have questioned the purpose of the function, arguing it was meant to isolate their man, Mr Atwoli has insisted it was purely an end-of-year get-together of friends.
The meeting took place on December 26 at Mr Atwoli’s rural home in Ebukwala village, Khwisero Sub-County.
The Sunday Nation has learnt that Mr Odinga’s wife Ida attended the party, as did Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, Kenya National Union of Teachers Secretary-General Wilson Sossion and Kenya Union of Post-Primary Teachers chairman Omboko Milemba and other trade unionists.
Others were Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala, Nominated MP Godfrey Osotsi and ODM Secretary-General Edwin Sifuna.
But it was Mr Odinga’s presence that has triggered strong reactions, especially after it emerged that among the things discussed was the possibility of Mr Atwoli and Governor Oparanya holding a major political rally in Kakamega in which the region would take a common stand on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report.
Some political leaders from the region feel that this is a ploy to install a Luhya kingpin ahead of the next General Election.
Mr Atwoli has said he has every right to invite anyone to his home whenever he likes.
“Those who have followed these events may have noted that Raila visits me on December 26 every year. I am not a member of ODM. I am 100 per cent Kanu. There was no politics at my home on the material day,” Mr Atwoli said.
“People who have used the Luhya community for political brokerage are now in panic mode and are running scared,” said Mr Osotsi.
Lugari MP Ayub Savula, who was invited to the Atwoli party but did not attend, also dismissed claims that it was a political event and insisted it was just a social get-together. The meeting has caused divisions among the major political actors in the region, with speculation that it could be used to dethrone Mr Mudavadi as the community’s spokesman and install Mr Oparanya in his place.
A meeting is scheduled for January 18 at Bukhungu Stadium in Kakamega, and the planners — who include Mr Oparanya and by extension Mr Odinga — target at least 35,000 participants to come from all the Luhya dominated counties: Vihiga, Kakamega, Busia, Bungoma and Trans Nzoia.
Mr Mudavadi has accused the Cotu boss of concentrating too much on politics at the expense of addressing the plight of workers.
“It is regrettable that most workers’ unions leaderships are today in atrophy.
“Some trade union leaders flaunt excessive wealth in public while the workers are homeless and going hungry,” said Mr Mudavadi in a statement.
Even though Mr Oparanya said the meeting is intended to give the community direction on BBI, speculation is rife that the veteran unionist will use the forum to make public another declaration dubbed Bukhungu Two. Other than Mr Mudavadi, other Luhya leaders opposed to the meeting are Ford-Kenya leader Moses Wetang’ula, former Cabinet Secretary Rashid Echesa and former Kakamega Senator Boni Khalwale.
The Western Elders Council, chaired by veteran politician Philip Masinde, said in a statement that they are disturbed by the latest events spearheaded by Mr Atwoli. They said they would not be party to a scheme to undermine unity in Western region.
“We cannot allow ourselves to support divisive politics,” they said on Wednesday.
But Mr Atwoli maintains that he has nothing to do with the January 18 meeting, saying that it will be a state function.
“It will be a BBI meeting, not a forum to anoint a Luhya leader,” he said.
“The Luhya people are very united. If there will be a meeting to anoint a Luhya leader it will come in December 2021.”
Yesterday, Mr Oparanya said the January 18 meeting is a national government function and dismissed claims that it was being pushed by Mr Odinga and it would discuss Luhya unity.
“This is a meeting fully funded by the national government. There is nothing like Luhya unity or Atwoli going there to do this or that,” he said, noting, like Atwoli, that the time to discuss the political future of the community will come and all leaders would be involved.
“There will be no Luhya politics in Bukhungu — only the BBI politics.”
At the launch of the BBI at the Bomas of Kenya last November, the national government asked the 47 county commissioners to select 100 people from each county for the meeting.
But Mr Oparanya says the government has changed tack after realising that governors are more grounded at the grassroots than the county commissioners.
According to him, the government has detailed each governor in the four counties in the former Western Province to pick 500 people who will attend the event to discuss the report that seeks to change the country’s governance structure.
In many respects, Mr Atwoli has come to characterise the sudden falling-out between Mr Odinga and Mr Mudavadi. Coupled with his rabid opposition to the possible Ruto presidency, the voluble trade unionist finds himself in a tight spot that either could help decide the voting patterns in the region in 2022.
One of the most significant political developments of 2019 was the falling-out between Mr Mudavadi and Mr Odinga, given their closeness in the last elections. While it has happened before, the latest break-up seems to be bitter and could signal the end between the two friends.
To some observers, it would appear that Mr Mudavadi has never recovered from President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga’s 2018 rapprochement which gave birth to the handshake and the BBI
In his memoirs, Soaring Above the Storms of Passion, published last year, the former deputy prime minister makes no secret of his disdain for the deal and sets aside considerable space in the book to assail the former PM, portraying him as untrustworthy.
Mr Mudavadi’s anger with Mr Odinga has stretched to the handshake’s product, the BBI report.
Neither Mr Mudavadi nor his ANC made submissions and, while everyone has been falling over themselves to endorse the report, Mr Mudavadi and his party took the bold step to dismiss it.
Both Mr Atwoli and Mr Odinga are unrepentant proponents of the BBI report, which technically draws them apart from Mr Mudavadi, whose position has recently been ambiguous, blowing hot and cold.
A 2016 poll commissioned by Mr Atwoli showed that at that time Mr Mudavadi was the most popular leader of the Luhya community. The trade unionist followed it and unveiled Mr Mudavadi as the community’s spokesperson at a function at Bukhungu Stadium on December 31, 2016.
But now Mr Atwoli is unhappy with Mr Ruto’s forays into the Western region and frustrated by Mr Mudavadi’s alleged failure to provide the necessary checks in this incessant forays.
Lately, the DP has been a regular visitor to the region, presiding over fundraisers and other public functions in what is seen as a scheme to sway the Luhya vote to his side.
In the view of Mr Atwoli, who fancies himself as the region’s kingpin, the onus is on Mr Mudavadi and his ANC troops to provide the defence lines against the DP’s incursions.
“He has totally failed to stop Ruto from making Western Kenya the theatre of his political games,” Mr Atwoli protested.