Skip to main content
September 23, 2018

Tribe and Patronage: Bitter Fruit Of The Gikuyu-Kalenjin Union

Tribe and Patronage: Bitter Fruit Of The Gikuyu-Kalenjin Union. Photo/Patrick Gathara
Tribe and Patronage: Bitter Fruit Of The Gikuyu-Kalenjin Union. Photo/Patrick Gathara

As we saw last week, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s decision to abandon the Pan African movement’s foundational ideals immediately he took office as head of state had significant implications that continue to play out to this day.

Indeed, the action defined Kenya. Our current condition – a dynamic, toxically tribal, politically volatile, socially dysfunctional, largely valueless society in terms of the essentials of nationhood such as public mores – stem partly out of this.

The spiritual vacuum is filled by the fact that we are, to a considerable extent, the most prayerful thieves in Africa. We even have churches created by convicted gangsters and conmen who promise their vulnerable congregations the most outrageous alchemy.

Ironically, African leaders who joined the Pan Africanist struggle and the largely left-leaning nationalist ideological bulwark that emerged from it after Kenyatta ultimately achieved a far more significant transformative impact on their countries in terms of nation-building as opposed to state-building.

These include Patrice Lumumba, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda; and, later, individuals like Samora Machel and Thomas Sankara. Countries like Zambia and Tanzania were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid, non-aligned and South-South movements.

In Kenya’s case, abandoning the Pan Africanist cause brought us closer to the West, with all the benefits that accrued. Indeed, to an extent the West underwrote our political stability much as they did in, say, Iran under the Shah or Chile under Pinochet. The model worked – in a sense.

For a while after Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s death in 1978, the Gikuyu-Kalenjin elite partnership was sustained. However, Daniel arap Moi, Kenyatta’s longest serving vice-president, quickly demonstrated his political pivot on his ascension to power.

For a start, he sought to forge a more inclusive and populist - albeit still authoritarian - regime. He immediately freed all political prisoners.

He appointed a Cabinet that included ethnic communities who had been invisible in power since Independence. In a move of huge psychological profundity, he formed the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry aimed primarily at providing the Kenyan people with high political theatre.

This was achieved via the humiliation of the formerly all-powerful Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, an unapologetic Anglophile and man of steely resolve and high discipline who’d come to represent the anti-African ethos in Kenyatta’s ostensibly African but ideologically vacant government.

Ironically, Njonjo had also been the most steadfast opponent of tribal organisations such as the Gikuyu Embu and Meru Association, Abaluhya Union and the Luo Union, later proscribed by the very same Moi. In 2016, some of these are back under different guises as ‘elders groups’, ‘cultural groups’ and the like.

As Kenyatta’s self-effacing deputy, Moi had demonstrated a tremendous capacity to absorb political and even personal abuse. As president, he proved cunning, rapidly expanding the use of incumbency-derived patronage to widen his support base outside the Kalenjin community to all others excluded during Kenyatta’s tenure.

Indeed, much of Moi’s legitimacy was derived from the unspoken political narrative that resonated to some extent with all other Kenyans even as he ran down the economy and turned increasingly authoritarian politically: “I’m not a Gikuyu president, I have gotten the Gikuyus off your backs and now all the tribes have a chance ‘to eat’ ”.

Any group, institution, or group of individuals who saw this as an opening to imagine a new more grounded and politically inclusive Kenya was ruthlessly crushed.

When Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and his allies tried to form an opposition party in 1982, they were halted in their tracks; in June that year, the country became a de jure one-party state.

A coup attempt the following August saw a far more paranoid Moi proceed to deconstruct entire institutions with tireless dedication and thoroughness.

Our public universities have never really recovered. Under Moi, the organizing political principle of tribe and corruption was bolstered and even regimented within the Kanu party.

That said, while corruption had always been the prevailing reality of Kenya’s political economy – and I avoid making qualitative distinctions between different types of theft of public resources – Moi’s corruption, theft and patronage were far more inclusive than his predecessor’s was.

He used it tirelessly. It was such a rapacious system that parastatal, banking and other institutions were hollowed out to feed it.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the politics on the ground in Kenya, as elsewhere, changed dramatically.

A forceful political opposition, having teamed up with the international community, churches and civil society in demanding an opening up of the political space, gradually became more and more vocal and powerful.

Noting that many of its most prominent luminaries were Gikuyu, Moi was ruthlessly willing to remind them of the old political pact between the Gikuyu and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley.

He made it clear that he perceived Gikuyu participation in, and even leadership of, ‘the opposition’ as political betrayal for which retribution would be exacted in blood.

Violence had always simmered out of the Rift Valley since Independence, but it intensified after the reintroduction of political pluralism in 1991.

That September, it was as if the Kalenjin and related communities decided to make war on all those amongst or neighbouring them perceived to be supporting the fledgling opposition.

Between 1991 and 1998, tribal pogroms gripped the Rift Valley and other regions, especially around election time. This willingness to militarise tribal aspirations to economic and political power isn’t unique to Kenya.

The Burundians and Rwandese, for example, took it to its extremes; while another ideologically vacuous leader, Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, under pressure to liberalise politically similarly whipped up tribal sentiments into convulsions of violence leading to, for example, the expulsion of thousands of Kasai-Luba from Shaba Province.

What it demonstrated, once again, was how far we’d drifted from the ideals that had informed the agitation for independence.

When Moi ceded power to Mwai Kibaki, his former vice president, in 2002, it was the first time in Kenya’s history, save for a brief period after Independence, that the Kalenjin elite was not politically incumbent.

Kibaki came to power on a wave of popular support that traversed Kenya’s traditional tribal cleavages. There was no precedent for this.

Additionally, the coalition of opposition parties that swept to power did so on an anti-corruption ticket and the promise to undo the economic devastation wrought by the Moi regime. It was another moment like the one immediately after Independence; one of genuine great hope and excitement across all our peoples.

Kibaki could have created an inclusive regime implementing policies aimed at forging a nation out of the ossification and fragmentation of political tribal blocs Moi had left in his wake, despite his philosophy of ‘Peace, Love and Unity’.

It took eight months for Kibaki and the elite around him to blow it. Tribe and corruption is so much easier, more profitable, more secure…

For the Kalenjin elite it was an existentially discombobulating time. Disoriented Kalenjin public servants, relieved of their jobs by the Narc administration from 2003, supported the formation of the Kalenjin support-group and community development society, Emo.

Meanwhile, the rise of the Kalenjin language Kass FM station, now a fully-fledged media group, accelerated. It was really the first time the country saw the Kalenjin elite take an interest in civil society.

The rigging of the 2007 elections, which saw the preeminent Kalenjin politician, William Ruto, join hands with the pillar of the opposition, Raila Odinga, in opposing Mwai Kibaki’s regime, led to the worst spasm of ethnic violence in Kenya’s history. It terrified Kenyans out of their own skins. And, as in the 1990s, Gikuyus in the Rift Valley were amongst those most heavily targeted in the violence.

While not articulated loudly, there was an uneasy perception that the violence was informed by the old pact from the 1960s; Gikuyu exclusion of the Kalenjin elite from power and stealing was intolerable – period.

The underlying sentiment linking Kibaki’s regime to the politics of exclusion was shared in large swathes of the country, and so the violence spread. Indeed, such was the violence that it took the intervention of the international community to help stop the meltdown.

The internationally backed coalition government between 2008 and 2013 brought everyone back into government. This was a relief for the political elites from all over, since incumbency of even this kind meant everyone could steal.

Events, however, also eventually led to the International Criminal Court charging Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto, among others, with crimes against humanity.

The pact was back, uniting the elite from the Gikuyu and Kalenjin again; this time with a bond forged by much more than just tribe and theft.

This time, the prospect of accountability at the global level conspired to create the most unlikely coalition between the leaders whose tribesmen had been killing each other just a few years before.

As such, the ICC proved one of the most potent political interrupters of Kenya’s political status quo we’ve ever experienced. It recreated – in blood – the Gikuyu-Kalenjin elite pact.

Basically, ‘no other tribe could be trusted’ to extricate Messrs Kenyatta and Ruto from the clutches of the ICC! Besides, this alliance had produced the longest period of stability in Kenyan history – between 1964 and roughly 1991.

This time, however, the population is a far more enlightened one; both younger and better educated. Add to this that the 2007/8 crisis had created unstoppable momentum for a new liberal constitution, finally promulgated, much to the silent horror of the incumbent elite, in 2010.

This placed considerable limitations on the one essential ingredient of any successful hegemonic tribal pact, leave alone the Gikuyu-Kalenjin one, that going by our history equates to patronage fed by the theft of public resources and conflict of interest.

It is thus that the contradictions that attend to the current regime are so many. This is with regard to governance generally, but especially graft; for they say one thing but have conjured up the most corrupt government in our history.

This is fed in part by the fact that we have a back-to-back Gikuyu presidency (from Kibaki to Kenyatta) that has led to something of a legitimacy crisis in entire swathes of Kenya.

John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally.

Email: [email protected]githongo.com.

Poll of the day