Since independence, the Mwingi-Kibwezi road, which cuts through Kitui County to Mombasa, has remained in bad state.
The 350km road, which also passes through Mutomo and Kitui, is part of the northern corridor extending to Meru and Isiolo.
It takes a grueling four hours to travel from Kitui to Mutomo town, a journey characterised by thick clouds of choking dust as vehicles meander through gulleys and potholes.
Things get worse during the rainy season, especially between November and December when the road becomes muddy and impassable.
A month ago, Kitui leaders, led by Senator David Musila, threatened to barricade the road at Kibwezi on Mombasa Road if the Government failed to allocate funds for its development this financial year. “It is clear there is no commitment and political will to tarmack the road. We will use every means to pile pressure, even if it means sub-dividing the land for people to plant crops,” Mr Musila said then.
But when it emerged President Uhuru Kenyatta would be visiting Kitui, the leaders and residents held their horses, hoping he would bring bagfuls of goodies.
And the day of the President’s visit came last Saturday. He landed at Kitui High School grounds accompanied by Lands Cabinet Secretary Charity Ngilu to attended 50 years jubilee celebrations for Kitui Catholic Diocese graced by the head of the Church in Kenya, John Cardinal Njue.
Among those who received the President were Musila, Governors Julius Malombe (Kitui), Alfred Mutua (Machakos) and Kivutha Kibwana (Makueni). Kitui Women Representative Nyiva Mwendwa and the eight MPs from Kitui County also attended. A huge crowd gathered at the venue and was expectant after word went round that the President would make a big announcement on the road.
Two Members of Kitui County Assembly donning T-shirts emblazoned with words “Kibwezi-Mutomo-Kitui-Meru Road, our priority” were arrested by police officers and stripped of the ‘offending’ attire as they tried to gain entry to the venue.
Peter Kilonzo (Athi) and James Munuve (Kanziku) were forced to strip under the watch of Kitui head of CID Adan Guyo.
At the venue, the leaders said the neglected road holds the key to unlocking the economic potential of Kitui County and pleaded with Kenyatta to construct the road before the end of his first term in office.
Musila, who presented the people’s request, was apt. “Your Excellency, we have many problems in our region but our priority number one is this road. Our priority number two is this road…and our priority number three is this road. If you give us this road, people from this region will never forget you,” he said as the crowd clapped.
Other leaders took the cue from him and pleaded with the President on the same. Some went straight for the jugular. “It is the feeling of Kitui people that we have been marginalised by design. It is your duty as the President to correct past injustices meted on us by your predecessors,” Kitui East MP Mutua Muluvi said.
Mrs Nyiva Mwendwa, a seasoned politician and the first woman Cabinet minister in Kenya got personal. “I had the privilege of asking for this road from all the past three presidents, and I will ask the same of you. Give us the road my son, we will be grateful, and also shorten the time of tarmacking it, so that I can also use it before I am incapacitated by old age”.
The President smiled and nodded. The crowd was now expectant; sure that he would grant the wish.
But when he stood up, President Kenyatta, in a few words, dashed the evident hopes of many. “We will not be coerced to initiate development in certain regions because you have asked for it, but because that is our responsibility as a government.”
He then went on as the crowd looked at him in disbelief: “I was invited here by Bishop Muheria (of Kitui Catholic Diocese) for a church function. There will be another day to talk about the things you are raising; not today.” He then wound up his speech in barely 10 minutes.
It later emerged the President had earlier given his word on the construction of the road during a leaders’ meeting. The leaders wanted him to declare that in public as a show of commitment.
His failure to commit publicly left a sour taste in the leaders’ mouths who went on a warpath almost immediately, terming his visit a cruel joke.
Kitui Central MP Makali Mulu said he was disappointed. “The President has taken us for a ride. Peoples’ expectations on this road have been shattered and we feel frustrated,” Mr Mulu said.
The MP told The Standard on Sunday that in the leaders’ meeting, the President pledged that the road would be done in three phases; Kibwezi-Ikanga, Ikanga-Kabati and Kabati-Mwingi in three financial years.
“His failure to announce the same in public shows there is no commitment at all,” Mr Mulu noted, terming the failure by successive governments to tarmack the road as an economic sabotage for “fear of losing business in other main roads in politically correct regions.”
“The President cannot promise us things in a boardroom and fail to declare the same in public. We feel cheated,” Mr Muluvi said.
Mr Kilonzo, the Athi ward representative, said only a major demonstration along the busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway will force the Government to prioritise the road. “We will do it loudly through a serious demonstration that will paralyse business along Mombasa Road,” he said.
Supporting the planned Mombasa Road blockade, Kitui Central Ward representative Ngoima Kimanzi said the President had shown “total ignorance and disinterest” for the road.
“It is a calculated scheme so that people from this region can eternally depend on relief food,” he lamented.
The leaders plan to meet the President in three weeks’ time to get a firm commitment on the matter, failure to which they will carry out their threat.
Curiously missing from the President’s entourage was a band of his fiery defenders who are wont to take on real and perceived enemies and critics of the Jubilee government.
The Standard on Sunday reliably learnt that the President had been strongly advised against coming to Kitui, a Wiper party zone, with his fiery Jubilee brigade.
MPs who were in the planning committee of the president’s visit and who talked to us anonymously, said Mr Kenyatta was under firm advice not to visit with perceived hardliners in his Jubilee Coalition.
“We were categorical to the President that Aden Duale and Kithure Kindiki should not accompany him because we could predict their usual venom against CORD,” said one Wiper MP.
“After listening carefully, the President saw sense in this, he however wanted to know if it was okay for him to come with Mrs Ngilu,” added another MP. “We told him Ngilu is our daughter and we had no problem with her,” he said.