Anthony Wombugu is becoming increasingly worried. With just a few weeks to go before Kenya’s presidential and legislative elections, the co-ordinator for President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee party in Kajiado county fears defeat.
“The campaign is all wrong, the strategy is all wrong,” he says. “Senior party officials are keeping all the resources for themselves. We keep telling them we have the votes here but we don’t have the people to bring you the votes.”
With Mr Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, only a few points ahead in the polls of his main rival, Raila Odinga, and only a small percentage of the electorate undecided, analysts say the respective sides’ grassroots operations will decide who runs east Africa’s dominant economy for the next four years.
Mr Odinga, a populist former prime minister in a unity government set up in the wake of election violence in 2007, is making his fourth attempt to upend the Kenyan establishment and win the top seat.
“This election is going to be won on turnout, period,” says Duncan Odoyo, a Nairobi-based analyst. “Whichever side does a better job in mobilising its base will win. A few more votes at each of the polling stations will make all the difference.”
Mr Kenyatta, who won with 50.5 per cent of the vote in 2013, clearly appreciates this. He regularly holds up to seven rallies a day, criss-crossing the country in a convoy of helicopters in an effort to energise his supporters ahead of the August 8 polls.
His approach appears to be working with Kenyans who hear him speak. “I backed the opposition at the last election but I’m going to vote for Uhuru this time,” said farmer Francis Siparo as he left a Kenyatta rally in Bisil, a village in Kajiado county. “He’s committed to development and helping the poor.”
There are no meaningful campaign finance rules in Kenya so it is impossible to know how much each side is spending. But while the president can draw on the resources of incumbency and the deep pockets of his many tycoon supporters, Mr Odinga’s National Super Alliance (Nasa), appears to be deploying grassroots activists more effectively.
Buoyed by mounting public anger over a sharp rise in the cost of living and a slowdown in economic growth this year, Nasa has recruited a new generation of activists.
“I never thought I’d be doing this, said Ali Hakim, who describes himself as a “barely employed taxi driver” in Ewaso Ngiro, a village near the Maasai Mara game reserve. “For the last two years I’ve really struggled to make any money. So I decided I should do something and try and bring change to this country rather than just sit around complaining.”
Mr Odinga told the Financial Times his campaign is giving his 200,000 staff and volunteers detailed training. “There are three stages: know your voter, get out the vote and protect the vote,” he said in an interview. “We have to know who our supporters are, we have to make sure they vote and we have to make sure the votes are not tampered with.”
Ledama Olekina, Nasa’s candidate for the national senate in Narok county, believes the investment in grassroots volunteers could well tip the balance in the opposition’s favour. “If we get this wrong, we will definitely lose,” he says. “The rest of the campaign is mostly about securing our base and that will be decided by our grassroots work.”
Senior Jubilee officials boast the party is deploying almost half a million activists around the country and that they are campaigning door-to-door every evening. While this is true in some places, the reality in many areas is very different.
The party office in Kajiado, the town of the same name as the county, is anything but busy. The only people present are two staffers who say they have not been paid for four months and claim the central office has neither paid for the office furniture nor distributed resources. The building is bereft of election paraphernalia.
The scene is exactly the same in the office in Kitengela, an industrial centre 45km to the north in Machakos county.
Mr Odinga says “protecting” the votes is going to be as crucial as persuading people to cast ballots. The veteran politician is convinced he was robbed of victory in both 2007 and 2013 through rigging as the votes were tabulated at the electoral commission’s national counting headquarters.
This time the results will be declared at constituency level rather than nationally, which diplomats and analysts say should reduce the potential for fraud. Nasa is also running a parallel tallying centre to track all the results as they come in.
Mr Wambugu, meanwhile, says he is not going to give up despite the minimal support he has received. “I sincerely believe my president and his party are the best option to drive Kenya forwards,” he says, with a glint in his eye. “The party might owe me Ks1m [roughly $10,000] but I will not stop campaigning.”