Skip to main content
Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tyranny of the Past: Historical parallels of the two Kenyatta victories

President Uhuru Kenyatta is greeted by supporters after casting his vote in the Kenya election in his hometown of Gatundu in Kiambu county, Kenya August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
President Uhuru Kenyatta is greeted by supporters after casting his vote in the Kenya election in his hometown of Gatundu in Kiambu county, Kenya August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

In many ways, the just-concluded General Election was a repetition of the 1966 Little General Election of 51 years ago. The August 8 2017 election was a monumental event, in which President Uhuru Kenyatta fought off a powerful Luo-Kamba onslaught against his presidency, and, with the help of the Kalenjin, he prevailed. There are clear historical parallels between the presidencies of Founding President Jomo Kenyatta and his son, Uhuru, not just in this defining election but in the way they conducted the affairs of government. With Uhuru winning this election, it has become even clearer to the casual observer that we may just be reliving our history all over again. There were massive disputes against the conduct of the 1966 election, just as is the case now. The election brought in an air of national mistrust and a feeling of despair in certain quarters, just as is happening today.

Let us examine how we got here.


You have definitely heard the expression, ‘History repeats itself.’ While historians do not quite agree whether the statement is true, they generally agree that there are certain events that seem to recur periodically that lend credence to that thought. Historical recurrence is defined as the notable pattern of similar events returning after a period of time. Eminent historian GW Trompf, in his book The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, clearly points out aspects of historical recurrence in political thought and behaviour from ancient times. The election of 1966 saw the Kalenjin rally powerfully behind Daniel Moi to support Kenyatta and Kanu, a fact that contributed to the appointment of Moi as Vice President in January 1967.


The recurrence of history brings about a sense of ‘déjà vu’ — that feeling of having seen or heard something before, but since more than 90 per cent of the voters in the just-concluded election were not here in 1966, they may not be aware that they are a part of a giant historical loop. Despite being in government briefly during the first dispensation, the Luo today find themselves in a similar position as in 1966, this time led by Oginga Odinga’s son Raila. This parallel is most interesting since the rivalry between Kenyatta and Oginga has now come full circle, with their sons in continuation. However, just as it did in 1966, this rivalry has engulfed the nation, splitting it down the middle. What emerges in contrast between the two periods, is the Luo and the Kamba political union.


In April 1966, Vice President Odinga orchestrated a dramatic walkout from the government. He had felt slighted by the decision to split the Kanu vice-presidency into eight positions, and so he quit the Independence party altogether. He went on to launch his own political party.

The upshot of it was that 27 MPs, including nine senators, resigned from Kanu and joined Odinga. They formed what was known as ‘The Opposition Party’, and Nairobi East MP JD Kali (a Kamba) was appointed opposition whip, while Odinga became the head. This was the birth of a Luo-Kamba unity, which was reflected by the spread of the resignations. However, they did not know that their problems had just begun. Attorney General Charles Njonjo moved fast and amended the law to ensure that those who resigned from Party had to seek a fresh mandate. When the Bill became Law, they immediately lost their seats and by-elections were called. Odinga went ahead and formed the Kenya People’s Union and, in the election that ensued, Kanu went ahead and fielded candidates in all the electoral seats and won all of them, save nine that went to KPU. Of the KPU legislators, all were from Luo Nyanza and one was from Ukambani, Simon Musau Kioko, who won the Machakos East seat. It was natural then that S.M. Kioko would be appointed the Deputy Opposition Leader to Oginga Odinga. Exactly 50 years later, the Luo-Kamba alliance came in the persons of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka. Notice the fact that Kioko and Kalonzo share the exact same initials in what can be defined as a case of historical recurrence.


German philosopher Georg F Hegel said in his writings that, in one way or another, all great events and personalities in global history tended to reappear after a while. Karl Marx, agreeing with him on this issue, stated that Hegel had forgotten to add that history repeated itself “… the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Marx was commenting on the fact that Napoleon III had come to power in France in 1852, reviving the empire of his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte, who had come to power in 1799, some 53 years earlier. That to him — the coming to power of Napoleon Bonaparte — was ‘tragedy’, and the rise of his nephew Napoleon III was ‘farce’. It is easy to say the rise of Kenyatta was a tragedy as he set us on the path of kleptocratic rule and a hegemonic ‘State Capture’ by him and members of his family. Conversely, Uhuru’s presidency has been marred by allegations of massive graft, pitting members of his close family and associates in a grand theft of state resources. Some have therefore described his presidency as farce.


There are numerous other observable parallels in the two Kenyatta regimes. One of them concerns the legal issues that surrounded the coming to power of the two Kenyattas. During the clamour for Independence, Mau Mau orchestrated horrendous acts of violence (as the Mungiki did in the Mwai Kibaki period) and both led to thousands of needless deaths. Kenyatta was said to have been behind the Mau Mau, and was described as ‘a leader unto darkness and death’ by Governor Patrick Renison. Uhuru was similarly described as being behind financing the Mungiki, helping them take part in the 2007-08 post-election violence. In fact, the Western powers, in particular Britain, backed Oginga to form the Independence government —preferring him over Kenyatta. Similarly, the Western powers backed Raila for the presidency in 2013, preferring him over the younger Kenyatta. In both cases, however, the two Kenyattas won power but had to suffer blame for the chaos, enduring gruelling national/international justice. While Kenyatta was jailed in a sham trial, there was actually good reason to believe that he had been behind the Mau Mau. His coming to power was a tragedy insofar as human rights was concerned. Conversely, Uhuru pointed out to the bogus evidence in his trial and led a spirited effort to extricate himself of the charges before the ICC.


Another similarity of the two Kenyatta regimes is the political cooperation of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. The appointment of Moi as Vice President brought the Kalenjin to the forefront of national politics. Today, a similar arrangement has seen another Kalenjin, William Ruto, deputising a President Kenyatta, exactly like it was a half-century ago. In the earlier arrangement, Kenyatta was said to have appointed Moi to ensure the Kikuyu quietly settled in the Rift Valley. The second arrangement was designed to beat the perennial Kalenjin-Kikuyu rivalry in the Rift Valley, and ensure their peaceful co-existence.


Another historical parallel is the Kalenjins opposing the two deputies — Moi and Rutto. Not all the Kalenjins welcomed the appointment of Moi as Vice President. Soon after the appointment of Moi, there were several prominent Kalenjin politicians who were against him: Tinderet MP Jean-Marie Seroney was one such. DP Ruto is today embroiled in a long-shot race to succeed Uhuru, just like Moi was in the few years into his tenure as Vice President. Moi had to endure mounting resistance to his bid to succeed Kenyatta, not just from the Kikuyu but also from fellow Kalenjins. Today, there is a section of the Kikuyu who do not quite trust the DP, and if the past is anything to go by, Ruto can only expect even greater pressure against him, going forward. Also tied to this is the deep resentment of Ruto by some of his fellow Kalenjin leaders such as fallen Bomet Governor Isaac Rutto and at some point Nandi Hills MP Alfred Keter and the defeated Zakayo Cheruiyot.


Closely tied to this is the Kenyattas’ marked intolerance to dissent. It is clear the two Kenyattas had little time for the media. In fact, the media in this country is today struggling to find its space in the face of repressive and highly punitive media laws, not to mention (in)direct government interference or indifference. Soon after coming to power, Kenyatta Snr orchestrated numerous expulsions of high-level journalists and media personnel attached to international media. On April 11, 1969, Vice President Moi, who was also Home minister, expelled the Nairobi-based correspondent of the Russian daily paper Pravda, and lashed out at Chinese publications critical of Kenya. Fast-forward to today and government pressure has seen the removal of media personalities deemed critical to it.


The other parallel of the two political dispensations is the massive personal financial power of the major players. Kenyatta, Odinga and Moi, representing the first dispensation, had extensive business interests in nearly every sector of the economy, as do Uhuru, Ruto and Raila, not to forget the next generation of the Mois. They are involved in high-profile business ventures and it is clear to all that their financial muscle is the bedrock of their political power.

Whether they somehow benefited from the taxman’s wink or the direct appropriation of state resources, I can’t tell, but your guess is just as good as mine.


The next parallel is the doubtful commitment to Devolution by the two Kenyattas. Kenya went into Independence with a federal (Majimbo) Constitution that recognised eight devolved regions, but soon after the coming of the First Republic in 1964, Kenyatta embarked on a series of constitutional changes and political actions that saw him entrench more power in the Office of President and began systematically centralising the nation. It was on his watch that the Senate was killed. The 2010 Constitution brought about 47 devolved units, but there has been strong censure from both sections of the political divide against the Uhuru administration, saying it could have done more for devolution. Whether devolution will die on their watch remains to be seen, but there is observable danger on the horizon.


Another parallel is the role of the Provincial Administration. Kenyatta raised the profile of the provincial and district commissioners, while the younger Kenyatta has reinvented it into what is now known as the National Government Administrative Officers – NGAO. Last year, I needed to have a special bank account opened to help a needy case and I was referred to the area chief for approval. When I arrived at the Mugumoini location chief’s offices (yes, that is in Nairobi), I was asked to first get the nod of the Nyumba Kumi chairman. Looking for him is a story for another day, but yes, the old colonial relic is still very much alive. The old ‘Bwana DC’ John Bull isn’t dead; he continues to govern the affairs of independent Kenya with a whole new name. In fact, after learning of the Uhuru victory in the election, someone on social media commented that he pitied the NASA-leaning Makueni chiefs, who had received a direct threat of dismissal from Uhuru. According to him, their goose is cooked.


Another quite important parallel is the inheritance of cross-border conflict with rebel elements from neighbouring Somalia. The two Kenyattas had to deal with the Shifta and al Shabaab insurgents, who used terror against Kenyans. Both sent in the national army, which was backed by both the United Kingdom and the US/EU respectively. The first Kenyatta prevailed and we sure hope the second one does so too. From next year, we will be on to the second post-Independence historical cycle. We don’t know what the future holds, but, in the final analysis, nothing is certain in this world. In 1849, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Karr truthfully observed that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Thank you for participating in discussions on The Star, Kenya website. You are welcome to comment and debate issues, however take note that:
  • Comments that are abusive; defamatory; obscene; promote or incite violence, terrorism, illegal acts, hate speech, or hatred on the grounds of race, ethnicity, cultural identity, religious belief, disability, gender, identity or sexual orientation, or are otherwise objectionable in the Star’s  reasonable discretion shall not be tolerated and will be deleted.
  • Comments that contain unwarranted personal abuse will be deleted.
  • Strong personal criticism is acceptable if justified by facts and arguments.
  • Deviation from points of discussion may lead to deletion of comments.
  • Failure to adhere to this policy and guidelines may lead to blocking of offending users. Our moderator’s decision to block offending users is final.
Poll of the day