POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE

Central Kenya's resistance to Uhuru a repeat of history

The people of Central Kenya are very independent minded, and their support can't be taken for granted

In Summary

• The resistance and opposition by elected leaders in Central Kenya to Uhuru Kenyatta has very many parallels with what his father, Jomo Kenyatta, faced in 1958.

• This was at a time when Jomo was in detention in Lokituang (in present day Turkana county) under the State of Emergency decreed by the British colonial government.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and founding President Jomo Kenyatta.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and founding President Jomo Kenyatta.
Image: COURTESY

Outside of Central Kenya, there is a tendency to think of the Kikuyu community as the most united vote bloc in the country, and one that can be relied on to support their recognised “muthamaki” (supreme leader) in all his political initiatives.

But recent events have revealed what should really have been an open secret all this time. That the people of that region are actually very independent minded, and that their support cannot be taken for granted even by a serving president of Kikuyu ethnicity, in this case, Uhuru Kenyatta.

Nor is this a new development. In 1992, in an election coming after many years of state-sponsored frustration of Kikuyu-owned enterprises, the prospect of putting an end to the Daniel Moi presidency did not produce political unanimity among the Kikuyu voters. Instead, they had two strong presidential candidates, in Kenneth Matiba and Mwai Kibaki – candidates whose total vote tally in the end easily exceeded that of President Moi, but being thus divided, allowed the incumbent to prevail.

And in 2002, again we saw two strong Kikuyu presidential candidates — Kibaki and Uhuru — fighting it out at the ballot and sharing the support available from their backyard.

Central Kenya is thus often deeply divided, and often at times when a political transition is at hand, in which they have every reason to present the rest of the country with a united front.

The voters of Central Kenya only seem to coalesce around a single leader after some degree of fluctuation.

In this context, the real power and influence wielded by a dominant leader from the region often depends on his being able to receive support from other parts of the country.

What is odd here is that the drama being played out before our eyes – that of Uhuru apparently being resisted and opposed by elected leaders in Central Kenya – has very many parallels with what his father, Jomo Kenyatta, faced in 1958. This was at a time when Jomo was in detention in Lokituang (in present day Turkana county) under the State of Emergency decreed by the British colonial government.

BOMBSHELL IN THE HOUSE

From the autobiography of the late Jaramogi Odinga, titled Not Yet Uhuru and first published in 1966, we get details of what happened when Jaramogi demanded that Jomo and his fellow detainees be released.

In a chapter appropriately titled “Bombshell in the House”, Jaramogi gives this account, which is well worth quoting in some detail:

“My opportunity to raise the Kenyatta issue came soon. The British Observer [newspaper] carried a letter from Kenyatta and the other four prisoners at Lokitaung complaining about the conditions under which they were detained. The government replied: ‘Lengthy and careful inquiries have been carried out and no evidence of any irregularities has come to light... The letter from Lokitaung had begun: ‘We Political Prisoners . . .’ The government objected that these men were not political prisoners…”

‘These people,’ I told the council, ‘before they were arrested were the political leaders of the Africans in the country, and the Africans respected them as their political leaders, and even at this moment, in the heart of hearts of the Africans, they are still the political leaders…Sir Charles Markham shouted: ‘You are going . . .’ but in the ensuing uproar I could not hear the end of his sentence.”

‘This has got to be known,’ I continued above the shouting, ‘because it is right deeply rooted in the African heart.’ The uproar and shouts rose again. I had been given the floor at the end of the day and the council adjourned in the middle of my speech. I resumed the following day.

…I was interrupted by shouts, and the Speaker struggled to call the House to order. One of the members shouted: ‘Mau Mau!’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘maybe you take them to be Mau Mau or you take them to be any other thing, but I am giving you what you should know about our feelings towards them as the African people, and before you realize that you can never get the cooperation of the African people.’ I was ordered to stop speaking…”

“The press had a field day. They reported gasps in the House when I made my speech…One paper said, ‘Let the people come forward now and hound Odinga out of political life forever.”

But this was not the end of the drama surrounding Jaramogi’s call for Jomo’s release from detention.

“Central Province loyalists put pressure on Mr Nyagah, the member for Embu who told a public meeting: My colleagues and I are of the opinion that Mr Odinga’s statement was unfortunate and harmful to the progress of the people of Central Province"
Jaramogi Odinga

CENTRAL PROVINCE LOYALISTS PUT PRESSURE

Jaramogi then goes on to explain that not all the elected leaders within the Legislative Council shared his views about Jomo, and in particular, not all elected leaders from Central Kenya.

He has this to say about Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, then a Member of the LegCo and already incredibly famous as the first indigenous Kenyan ever to obtain a PhD. [Dr Kiano was to go on to serve for many years in first Cabinet under Jomo, and subsequently under Moi]

“…That same weekend Kiano told a baraza at Fort Hall that he disagreed with my statement that Kenyatta and the others were still our real political leaders. He said the statement had been made in a fit of anger, and the only leaders of the African people were ‘those of us whom you elected and the chiefs.”

Dr Kiano was not alone in his lack of enthusiasm to have Jomo portrayed as the indispensable leader of the indigenous communities of Kenya.

There was also the saintly Jeremiah Nyaga, who was to go on to serve for decades in Cabinet and was famous as one of the very few ministers in all Kenyan history who was never once touched by any hint of a corruption scandal.

Well, political saint or not, Nyaga had his doubts about Jomo at that time, for according to Jaramogi:

“Central Province loyalists put pressure on Mr Nyagah, the member for Embu who told a public meeting: My colleagues and I are of the opinion that Mr Odinga’s statement was unfortunate and harmful to the progress of the people of Central Province. When I replied, through a press statement, to Mr Nyagah’s charge that my Kenyatta speech was harmful, the Kenya Weekly News published my reply, under the headline ‘Oginga Odinga Brays Again’.

We need to be reminded at this point that this Kenyatta was not just a random dreadlocked Mau Mau fighter who had been plucked out of the forests of Central Kenya, or a small-time regional political activist.

This was a man who, even by this stage of his life, had already spent decades living in relative penury in Europe agitating for the land rights of Kenyans, and arguing for the right to self-determination for the indigenous communities of the country.

Whatever may have been later said of him and the government he formed after independence — corruption scandals, assassinations, allegations of nepotism and land grabbing— at this stage, he was as close as you could get to a genuine liberator, who had struggled mightily to free his people from what Kenyans now love to term as “the yoke of colonialism”.

But this did not prevent, arguably, two of the finest politicians ever produced by Central Kenya — and political giants in their own right —Kiano and Nyagah — from deserting Jomo in his hour of need.

“YOU HAVE OUR FULL SUPPORT FOR YOUR STATEMENT ABOUT KENYATTA”

This spectacle deeply dismayed two of the prominent Kenyan leaders of the time. These were Joseph Murumbi, who was later to be Kenyatta’s second Vice President following Jaramogi’s resignation in 1966, and Mbiyu Koinange, who was Kenyatta’s brother-in-law and was to later one of the most powerful Cabinet ministers in Jomo’s government. Both men were then living in London.

They wrote to Jaramogi in great confidence, a letter the Star has since obtained a copy. It was considered so sensitive that they did not dare entrust it to the Post Office and instead sent it through the Indian Government’s diplomatic bag, ie, via the Indian High Commission in London, to the Indian High Commission in Nairobi. India had by then gained its independence and also already established as a strong supporter of Kenya’s struggle for independence.

India’s role in the fight for Kenya’s independence was to later be swept under the carpet by the indigenous political leaders, as were indeed the many sacrifices and contributions of patriots from within the Kenyan Asian community.

But now to the letter itself: It is dated September 16, 1948, and postmarked “110 Savernake Road, London NW3.”

The two salute Jaramogi and then state: We are writing jointly to congratulate you on the stand you have taken in support of Kenyatta. We are indeed very disappointed to hear that some members of the legislative council have disagreed with you and what is worse have openly attacked you…You have our full support for your statement about Kenyatta and we hope you will not give in to the pressures that are being imposed on you by European and African members of the legislature.”

Thereafter follows expressions of hope that there will be a restoration of “the spirit of unanimity which existed among the African members of the Leg Co”; a request for information concerning various “Mau Mau incidents”; a hope that “the relaxation of the State of Emergency” might soon come; requests for Jaramogi’s support for various fundraising initiatives; a planned tour of various independent African countries (Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia etc) to try and raise funds; etc.

All in all, clear signs of dedicated “activists” as we would now call them, working under great difficulty and in the face of daunting odds to end the reign of the British colonial government, and to help move their country towards self-rule.

IMMUNIZING THE NATION AGAINST TEMPTATIONS OF SUCCESSION

But what should be of particular interest to us at this time when Uhuru is having to really exert himself to try and get all of Central Kenya behind the Building Bridges Initiative, is that his father faced much the same challenge and did so while he was in prison.

Jomo may well have had a good part of the Central Kenya grassroots solidly behind him. But he did not have the unquestioning loyalty of the Central Kenya elite, as represented by the elected leaders from that region.

Thus, it was only through the support of Jaramogi, a man who commanded the unwavering support of his corner of the country, Nyanza, that Jomo was in due course able to restore himself firmly as the leader of the struggle for independence.

There can be no real comparison between a colonized people’s quest for self-determination, economic opportunity, and political liberty – and what we know as the BBI, which is basically an effort to immunize the nation against the temptations of succession; such efforts towards succession being the result of a perception recently mentioned by Uhuru, that just two tribes out of 44 have been able to monopolize the presidency for over 50 years of independence.

But all the same, the parallels between “the fruits of the handshake”, which have seen formerly “irreconcilable political rivals” Uhuru and ODM leader Raila Odinga, working together – and the manner in which their fathers also worked together starting from the period just before independence is indeed remarkable.

And no less remarkable is how Uhuru – like his father before him – was to find that when he most needed it, the support from his own political backyard in Central Kenya was wanting.

Here is a case of history, substantially, repeating itself.