A young man is sitting on a dock, looking out at the dhows in Mombasa harbour. His ancestors used to rule this land from Malindi to Mozambique, a trading empire unrivaled on the Indian Ocean coast. Hundreds of miles away, upcountry in the rift valley, an uprising is stirring. The Mau Mau Rebellion is in full swing, guerrillas are fighting for independence.
The man is leaving tomorrow. On a boat. To the colonial motherland, with but a suitcase and a postcard with an address for a guesthouse in Birmingham. He wonders if he’ll ever see the dhows again.
Fast forward a few years, and the young man is hurriedly studying for his finals. He finds himself in a cold rooming house in Montreal. It’s December of 1963. His friend drops off a newspaper for him. He thumbs towards the back of the world news section and sees something that makes his heart jump. Kenya is an independent country.
He finishes his PhD in 1966. He knows it’s time to go back. There are a lot of opportunities for an educated Kenyan in the post-independence era. He takes a job at Makerere University in Uganda instead.
Just over fifty years later, this same man finds himself sitting on a porch in a run-down guesthouse in Ottawa. He’s been spending his summers in Ottawa for decades, with two young children. They’ve long since moved away. He came this year out of fear. He didn’t want to be in Kenya for the election.
It became clear early on that Kenyan political life would be dominated by ethnic tensions, and mitigated by the Cold War. All the newly independent former colonies had to pick sides. From Korea to Vietnam to Iran, this tragedy played out to the same tune.
After independence, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, aligned himself with the Western bloc. Kenya’s strategic location at the horn of Africa, with socialist governments in Tanzania to the south and Somalia to the north fostered a critical bilateral relationship. Back in those days, Western governments weren’t as interested in transparency and good governance.
Most African countries were created by European Colonial powers back in 1885 at the conference of Berlin. They didn’t pay much attention to the people actually living in Africa at the time, just their own strategic geopolitical interests. There are 47 different ethnic groups in Kenya. The big 5 – Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, Kalenjin, and Luhya – make up around 75% of Kenya’s population. In Kenya, tribe and ethnic group are interchangeable concepts.
Kenyatta’s tribe, the Kikuyu, are the biggest in the country, with around twenty percent of the population. Kenyatta governed through pure patronage, which laid the foundations that linger to this day.
He would either buy off or coerce the elites of the other five big tribes in an attempt to foment some semblance of national unity. It worked, for about two years.
His first prime minister, Oginga Odinga was a Luo. They were brothers in arms in the colonial struggle, when they were able to put aside their historical tribal grievances for a common cause. But now, in a free country, beset by poverty, corruption, ethnic favouritism and scarcity, cracks quickly appeared in the hastily constructed facade.
Odinga split from the national independence party KANU in 1966. He formed his own party, the KPU – a socialist party. He felt like Kenyatta was enriching himself and his people, at the expense of the majority of Kenyans. He wanted to redistribute wealth. This was the first clear cleavage in Kenyan political life.
I met up with the man in back Ottawa. Before the election in 2017. He takes a long drag on a cigarette. There’s a heavy mist in his eyes. He’s seen a lot of hope extinguished. He helped Oginga Odinga with the KPU behind the scenes. He smuggled socialist literature into Kenya from Uganda. He was in regular correspondence with a number of high ranking government officials in Kenya. That was of course, until the assassination.
In 1969 Tom Mboya, a high-ranking KANU official was assassinated. Mboya was also a Luo. This was a critical moment in Kenyan history. After days of rioting in the Luo homelands near Lake Victoria, Kenyatta banned the KPU. Odinga was jailed. No official explanation was given. Kenya became a one-party state. Odinga remained at the fringes of Kenyan political life until the return to “democracy” in the early 1990s.
The man knew Tom Mboya. They were sending letters back and forth at the time. He still has newspaper clippings of the assassination. After a coup in Uganda a few years later, the man felt the need to leave, fearing for his safety. The new regime did not look kindly on socialists. He spent years on the move, taking up temporary teaching positions around the world. He eventually came back to Canada in the late 1980s.
After the cold war, western donors and governments decided they were a lot more interested in democracy and transparency, so they would withhold loans and grants unless the Kenyan elites cleaned up their act.
By now Kenyatta was long dead and replaced by his long-serving prime minister Daniel Arap Moi. Moi was a Kalenjin, the fourth biggest tribe in Kenya and he understood patronage politics. He knew as long as he paid the right people, he would be able to rule the roost. Moi was one of the most prolific kleptocrats in post-independence Africa. His family’s wealth is purportedly in the billions.
To appease the western donors, Kenya became a multi-party democracy. The first election split itself along ethnic lines, setting a trend. Moi, being a master of manipulation, coercion, and favouritism, won the election despite only getting around 40% of the vote. He had a secret police force and a notorious underground jail in Nairobi. Overt political dissent was risky. He managed to maintain his grip on the country quite expertly. There were a few small-scale riots in the late 90s, especially in the slums of Nairobi, where poverty, desperation, and ethnic favouritism came to a head.
Odinga passed away in the mid-90s and his son, Raila, took up the family’s mission. In the early 2000s, he teamed up with Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and part of Kenyatta’s old inner circle, to form an anti-Kalenjin coalition to finally topple Moi’s mafia. Moi was retiring and chose a young, inexperienced businessman named Uhuru Kenyatta to run in his stead. Uhuru was the son of Jomo Kenyatta. Moi was banking on the name. It didn’t work. After 39 years of rule since independence, KANU was out of power.
I asked the man about the 2002 election.
“There was so much hope. We believed it was finally changing. We trusted Kibaki to change the politics of Kenya.”
The man had been spending more time in back in Kenya, building his retirement home near Mombasa. He wasn’t as scared anymore. Many of the old ghosts from the 1960s have left the stage. Some still remember.
Much like the early 1960s, once in power Kibaki (a Kikuyu) and Odinga (a Luo) couldn’t govern effectively together. There were a number of high profile scandals. Odinga left the government to form his own party in time for the elections in 2007.
Odinga tried again in 2013, this time against a Kikuyu-Kalenjin coalition. Uhuru Kenyatta was back, now the richest man in Kenya, with William Ruto (a Kalenjin) as his running mate. At the time Ruto and Kenyatta were being charged by the International Criminal Court for their role in stoking and organizing the violence in 2007. Both had their cases thrown out on the grounds of “insufficient evidence”. The cases were dogged by allegations of intimidation and bribery.
Kenyatta and Ruto won the election. There were allegations of voter intimidation and fraud. Odinga cried foul and took his case to the Supreme Court again. Unsuccessfully.
And here we are, in 2017 with a Kenyan election yet again pitting a Kenyatta against an Odinga.
After the election, I asked the man what he thought. He was my age when Kenya became a country. He lived through hope and despair. He taught political science to future heads-of-state for decades across the continent. He had a lot to say, but one thing really resonated.
“I am disappointed. The same oligarchy is in power. The Kenyatta dynasty lives on. Over 50 years since independence and nothing has changed.”
He’s worried about the future. Worried that the losing coalition will stoke the fires of ethnic resentment again. Worried they might bring some more skeletons out of the closet.
He’s not optimistic.
The noted journalist, Michela Wrong, wrote a book detailing the political history of Kenya. She tells it through the travails of John Githongo, a man hired by Kibaki to fight the endemic corruption in Kenyan politics. Unsuccessfully. Githongo ended up running away out of fear. The story emphasized the power of the well-named “mount-Kenya mafia” a small cabal of elites that have run the country since independence. It’s no surprise that Jomo Kenyatta’s son is now the president is it? Nor should it be a surprise that Uhuru Kenyatta is the wealthiest man in Kenya.
There’s a phrase that Wrong borrows for the title that more or less sums up Kenya’s politic.
It’s our turn to eat
I was at a cocktail party a few months back, with some younger Kenyans. Kenyans who were born after independence, and grew up with patronage, corruption, and ethnic favouritism as the norm. I asked them about the election, ethnic tensions and the future of the country. They were unanimous. We are Kenyan first, tribe second. There was a Kikuyu dating a Luo. That would have been unheard of a generation ago. They want to make Kenya better, for everyone.
Will the political elites let them?
Note: After the author wrote this article, the Kenyan supreme court annulled the August election this year, with a new election set for late October. They cited voting irregularities. Perhaps change has come.
By Rashid Ahmed
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.