On September 6, 2014, the then Council of Governors chairman, Mr Isaac Ruto, and his would be successor Peter Munya made a stopover at Muthara township in Meru County during campaigns for the Pesa Mashinani referendum.
Shortly before they addressed the huge gathering that had attended the public meeting, they were joined by Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya.
What followed next was proclamations by the three county bosses that they would not be cowed and would carry on with the campaign for a referendum.
And the only way to silence the demands for a plebiscite, they continued, was to allocate more funds to the counties.
Governor Oparanya said the referendum campaign was not based on partisan politics but on the interests of Kenya that devolution was meant to tackle.
It is the same unwavering stand that he pledged to pursue after his election as the fourth Council of Governors (CoG) chairperson earlier this week.
His consistent push to have the National Treasury expeditiously disburse county monies is believed to have also helped push him to the helm of the powerful and influential CoG post.
“One of the key issues I have prioritised is the reshaping of the referendum national agenda in the context of devolution. The council will purposely endeavour to drive the referendum discussion by engaging stakeholders,” he said in the maiden speech.
CoG has had Mr Ruto of Bomet (2013-2015), Meru’s Peter Munya (2015-2017) and the former immediate CoG boss Josephat Nanok from Turkana who served from December 2017 as chairpersons.
Insiders at Monday’s CoG election said Mr Oparanya won the confidence and support of his colleagues, including the most influential ones.
Having secured his second term in a race that saw about 25 of his former colleagues shown the door in the 2017 election, he was one of the best options for the CoG chairman’s post.
The Sunday Nation learnt the decision was made largely owing to his charisma and the quiet manner in which he has transformed Kakamega, making it a model of devolution.
Also, working with government as former Minister for Planning where he had unfettered access to the statistics of the country such as literacy levels, healthcare, the poverty index and unemployment was an additional advantage over other competitors.
One of his influential colleagues contacted by this paper said they were awed by Mr Oparanya’s performance but also the 2022 politics played a crucial role.
“A majority of us who attended the meeting viewed him (Oparanya) as a possible political asset in 2022 politics. I can confidently state that he had the support of governors from Central and Mt Kenya, his western and Nyanza backyard as well as those from Coast,” the governor, who wished not to be named so as not to appear to be antagonising CoG politics, told the Sunday Nation.
Of keen interest is the recent meteoric rise in his political profile which played a key role in his election.
One of the most visible achievements by the Oparanya administration has been the rehabilitation and modernisation of Bukhungu Stadium, transforming it into the best sporting facility in the region.
Just recently, the governor received delegations at his homes in both Kakamega and Nairobi, including a high-powered group from Mt Kenya region.
The politicians, edged out of elective politics after the disputed Jubilee Party primaries, held a four-hour closed-door meeting with the ODM deputy party leader at his home in Karen, Nairobi, in December.
At that time, they said that although their discussions touched on the 2022 presidential election, the issue of a referendum to change the country’s governance structure from a purely presidential to a parliamentary system took centre stage.
Kakamega was picked to host last year’s Annual Devolution Conference, one of the most watched gatherings by the national government. The county was also picked to host the 2018 Mashujaa Day celebrations.
Additionally, Oparanya was unanimously elected by his peers as the founding chairman of the Lake Region Economic Bloc, which brings together 14 counties in Western Kenya.
Instructively, this is the only regional bloc whose launch the President has presided over.
“My plea is to all institutions and people involved in delivering devolution to reflect on the real intent and purpose for which the 2010 Constitution is called a devolution document. Let us strive to give devolution its deserved chance,” Mr Oparanya said in his maiden speech.
The new CoG boss has a full in-tray as he settles for the assignment.
Like his two predecessors (Mr Ruto and Mr Munya), he has had to fight turf wars with the national government and faced hostility and resistance from local politicians who read mischief and politics in every development project.
The Senate’s Public Accounts and Investments Committee (PAIC) in 2017 wanted him arrested for refusing to honour summons to answer audit queries.
The queries arose from the county’s revenue and expenditure accounts for the 2014/15 financial year. Initially, he had filed a case in court challenging the powers of the committee to summon governors saying it amounted to a political witch-hunt.
He claimed the summons and arrest warrant were part of a scheme by then Kakamega Senator Boni Khalwale, then a member of PAIC and whom he defeated in the 2017 gubernatorial poll, to portray him negatively.
That committee now expects he will make positive strides in improving relations between Senate and the CoG.
“I wish to congratulate Mr Oparanya on his election. One of the issues I expect us to work on is how to improve oversight and accountability mechanisms for county governments,” the committee’s chairman and Homabay Senator Moses Kajwang told the Sunday Nation. In his tenure, Mr Oparanya has promised to strengthen CoG’s secretariat and ensure timely disbursement of county funds.
Additional reporting by Samuel Owino