Migori Deputy Governor Nelson Mwita Mahanga is technically the man running county affairs since his boss Governor Okoth Obado is facing charges in the murder of Rongo University student Sharon Otieno.
Mr Mahanga formally assumed the role on Monday, when Mr Obado pleaded not guilty to murder charges before Justice Jessie Lessit.
As Mr Obado was being arraigned, Mr Mahanga chaired a meeting with representatives from the World Bank, which is funding several agriculture projects in the county.
This development excited some members of the minority Kuria community, from which Mr Mahanga comes.
People from the larger Kuria region thronged Migori county offices to meet the deputy governor.
“While we stand with the governor and wish him well, we went to see our son and wish him well as he runs the affairs of the county in his absence. The constitution provides for the deputy to take charge if the governor is away,” said a resident of Ntimaru.
Some of the people took to social media with discussions on the possibility of a governor from Kuria, but this could be a longshot given Mr Obado has a long chain of recourse in law to prove his innocence.
One Mr Chacha Kimwama posted on Facebook: “Let the people of Migori prepare for a governor from Kuria if things do not work for Governor Obado.”
In law, Mr Mahanga can legally complete the term as governor if the courts find his boss guilty and he is removed.
But the same law provides for two steps of appeal after the first court delivers its verdict.
Still, Mr Obado’s lawyers on Tuesday fought the charges and asked the court to free him, arguing he had already been vilified in the social and mainstream media.
The excitement among Kuria residents did not go down well with supporters of Mr Obado who accused Mr Mahanga’s of being insensitive.
“It is unfortunate that people are already talking about the next governor yet the case has not been determined by the courts. We maintain that the governor will be vindicated. We shall be happy to welcome him back as our beloved governor,” one said.
The Mahanga factor has rekindled the sharp political differences between the majority Luo and the minority Kuria communities in the county.
There has been deep political mistrust between the two communities. While the Kuria gravitate towards President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, the Luo are ardent supporters of the opposition.
This mistrust was deepened by a failed attempt by the Kuria to push for negotiated democracy in ‘sharing’ the county’s political posts.
In 2013, the two communities entered a political agreement that saw the Kuria take the senator and woman representative positions while the Luo took the powerful governor position.
In the arrangement, which was brokered by Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader Raila Odinga, the Kuria were to vote for him in the 2013 presidential election.
Mr Wilfred Machage (now Kenya’s High Commissioner to Nigeria) and Ms Dennitah Ghati, from Kuria, were elected senator and woman representative respectively.
However, Mr Kenyatta garnered many votes in the region, something the Luo perceived as betrayal.
In the 2017 election, another round of negotiated democracy fell through. All of the county’s elective positions, save for deputy governor, were taken by the Luo so the Kuria cried foul.
The mistrust was aggravated when the Kuria, in the larger Nyanza region, participated in the October 2017 repeat presidential poll, which was occasioned by the Supreme Court’s nullification of President Kenyatta’s victory.
The attempt by the Kuria community to take the county assembly speaker’s position was also thwarted when chaos marred the election after Kuria’s Kerario Mwita took the lead in the first round.
Mr Boaz Okoth, from the Luo side, was later controversially installed as the speaker.
It is perhaps because of these political differences that the Kuria are hopeful for a governor should Mr Obado’s fate be sealed by the courts.
Besides, the murder of Ms Otieno is likely to play a role in the upcoming senator by-election.
Mr Obado vehemently opposed ODM’s move to hand Mr Ochillo Mbogo Ayacko the party’s ticket for the seat.
The county chief, who fiercely battled Mr Ochillo for the post, vowed to campaign against Mr Ochillo and back former Rongo MP Dalmas Otieno.
However, after Mr Otieno withdrew from the race to take a job at the Salaries and Remuneration Commission, Mr Obado covertly turned his support to Mr Eddy Gicheru Oketch of Federal Party of Kenya.
Ms Otieno’s murder, in which the governor is adversely mentioned, has largely been seen as a reprieve to Mr Ayacko as the governor has been distracted from the race to concentrate on clearing his name.
The seat was left vacant in June, when Ben Oluoch Okello succumbed to throat cancer. The by-election is slated for October 8.
While giving his first ever statement on the murder of Ms Otieno, whose seven-month old unborn baby he admitted was his, Mr Obado urged politicians not to politicise the case.
“I appeal to our political leaders not to politicise this issue. We must show political maturity and allow the detectives to effectively investigate the matter,” he said.