For the past few weeks, our country has been systematically defined on various online news sites as gripped in a downward spiral towards civil war.
Images of Kenyan demonstrators wielding slings as they confront heavily armed police have even made it to the ‘Week’s Best Photos’ of some very prestigious sites.
You would think that what we have ahead of us is something like what happened in the former Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War: A seemingly stable and diverse nation suddenly experiencing an explosion of the most bitter and irreconcilable differences among its various ethnicities. And this in turn leading to an outbreak of unspeakable violence, yielding large-scale destruction and dramatic population shifts.
And all this has been blamed on an epic struggle between ‘the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties’; or alternatively, an unending contest for political supremacy between ‘the Kikuyu tribe of the Mt Kenya region and the Luo tribe from the shores of Lake Victoria’.
The truth is, however, that Kenyan politics are far too fluid and dynamic to be simplistically explained as revolving around dynastic rivalries or binary tribal enmities.
For the benefit of misinformed foreigners who eagerly anticipate a Sarajevo-class bloodbath, let me offer a short history of the Luo-Kikuyu political dynamic:
The two tribes were close political allies in the early 1960s, both before and immediately after Independence. So close as to generate real fear in all our other 40 (mostly much smaller) tribes that these two would monopolise ‘the fruits of Independence’ and leave everyone else empty-handed.
Then came a falling out in the late 1960s, with the two key Luo leaders of the day, Jaramogi Odinga (father of opposition leader and former PM Raila Odinga) being detained without trial; and the Independence hero Tom Mboya disposed of via a state-sanctioned assassination.
Subsequently, throughout the 70s and 80s, these two tribes were on very frosty terms, politically speaking. But in 1991, it was precisely the Luo and Kikuyu who worked together to oppose the authoritarian, single-party regime of President Daniel Moi (of the Kalenjin tribe) and to compel a return to multiparty democracy.
Of course, this historic effort involved many others not from these two tribal communities: Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro, Ahmed Bahmariz, etc
But the spearhead of this campaign were the Kikuyu and Luo politicians whom Moi had unwisely sidelined.
The two then reverted to their old rivalry for about 10 years. Then came the Moi succession election of 2002.
That election featured two leading candidates both from the Kikuyu tribe: The current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and retired President Mwai Kibaki. The Luo supported Kibaki (guided in this by Raila) and the Kalenjin voted for Uhuru (who was Moi’s handpicked successor).
Kibaki won. But by the 2007 election, it was Raila who was the presidential candidate supported by the Kalenjin, who were determined to see Kibaki out of office. And Uhuru had by then made peace with his tribesman, and ended up appointed a Deputy Prime Minister by Kibaki, when the office of the PM was created for Raila following the tragic post-election violence of 2008.
This sequence of well-documented political alliances and rivalries hardly bespeaks undying tribal hatreds entrenched among the Kikuyus, Luos and Kalenjins. Rather it reveals highly fluid temporary alliances — which may well be ill-advised or short-sighted, but are certainly not symptomatic of irreconcilable enmities.
Thus the 2013 election brought the unexpected spectacle of the two tribes who had been at the centre of the massacres and mass evictions of 2008, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, forming a brand new political alliance, to prevent PM Raila from ascending to the presidency.
In the current political alignments, two of Raila’s key allies, former Deputy PM Musalia Mudavadi (of the Luhya tribe) and former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka (of the Akamba tribe) have in the past been Raila’s rivals in presidential elections.
Yet now, despite five years out of office, they nonetheless seem to effortlessly resist every effort by Uhuru (Kikuyu) and Deputy President William Ruto (Kalenjin) to have them desert Raila, and accept some top position in government.