AJUOK: Why narrative of 'Luo slavery' falls flat on its face

Voting together and sticking as one in times of trouble have become survival mechanisms

In Summary

• Kenya Kwanza government functionaries, especially Ruto, Gachagua and Ichungw'ah have made it a habit to castigate Raila for his call for demos.

•  They have been making the derogatory reference to him “enslaving the Luo community”.

Azimio leader Raila Odinga during mass action protest in Mathare North on March 20, 2023.
Azimio leader Raila Odinga during mass action protest in Mathare North on March 20, 2023.

During the launch of the Azimio coalition ahead of the 2022 election, Kanu chairman Gideon Moi shared this anecdote from the days Kanu joined the nascent Orange grouping to oppose the mutilation of the constitution in 2005.

The Kanu team comprised then Chairman Uhuru Kenyatta, secretary general William Ruto and the young Moi. They were joining the battle-hardened Liberal Democratic Party faction of Raila Odinga to oppose what they considered an attempt by the Kibaki regime to impose an unpopular new constitution on the people. Their NO side eventually won the referendum that followed.

At the Azimio bash last year, Gideon narrated how during a tense 2005 Orange meeting at Uhuru Park — which the police had outlawed — then Ndhiwa MP Orwa Ojode (deceased), saw him and immediately warned him that things were about to go down and this stuff wasn’t made for him (Gideon).

Ojode immediately allocated Moi some of his Luo youths to watch over Gideon in case police unleashed violence. Soon enough, teargas canisters started dropping and the inexperienced Gideon inhaled his fair share, while his eyes were momentarily rendered useless.

He said the last things he remembered seeing were Ruto escaping into the nearby Railways Club golf course and Uhuru running on foot towards State House (where his house was a neighbour).

As for Gideon, the Ojode youths dutifully carried him shoulder high into the Grand Regency Hotel, where he stayed for two full days to recover!

Obviously, nobody worried about the “Luo faction” at the meeting, being veterans of street agitation and police encounters. The role of the Luo community in the agitation for democracy, good governance and liberty cannot be gainsaid. It also goes back a long way.

Since the community — in practical sense — left the government as early as 1966, just three years into Independence, their collision with successive regimes has been longer than any other big tribe in the land. By the time Tom Mboya was murdered in 1969, the bitterness that had been boiling underground over the shoving of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga out of government three years earlier, exploded to the surface.

In subsequent years, the Luo would become pariahs of the state, either attempting to find ways back into government or seeking to bring down sitting governments.

Modern history has an interesting perspective though. In the early 1990s, the community took the lead in the agitation for multiparty democracy, with its sons paying a heavy price through detentions, police brutality and death. When the fruits of their fight were realized following the repealing of Section 2(a), the whole country erupted in celebration.

This would be followed up with more successes during the fight for the IPPG [ Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group] election framework in 1997, the Luo contribution to the end of Kanu rule in 2002, their refusal to accept a flawed constitutional process in 2005, their role in the promulgation of the new Constitution in 2010 and let’s face it, their current participation in the demand for the price of essential goods to be lowered.

Despite this glittering history, Kenya Kwanza government functionaries, especially Ruto, [Deputy President Rigathi] Gachagua and National Assembly Majority leader Kimani Ichungw'ah — a man whose loose tongue will soon rival Kanu’s James Njiru from back in the day — have made it a habit to castigate Raila for his call for demos. They have been making the derogatory reference to him “enslaving the Luo community”.

It is difficult to understand how the community, whose frontline role in both the first and the second liberations of the nation stands out, can be deemed slaves of anyone. It is even more confusing when you consider that Ruto himself joined the Luo community in rejecting the 2005 constitutional draft at the referendum, before playing a leading role as one of the chief campaigners for Raila presidential bid in 2007.

I wonder if he was joining “Raila’s slaves” in trying to make him president. However, the truth of the matter is that Ruto’s aligning with the Luo community both times raised his profile and set him on the road to the presidency.

It is important to note that the Luo political behaviour mirrors that of President Ruto’s own Kalenjin community. Borne of age-old traditions based on following one leader (the Luo Ker and the Nandi Orkoiyot, for instance), these communities hardly deviate from the path of the leader they consider a hero of the community. There was no Kalenjin challenge of the Moi's rule and they voted overwhelmingly for him in the 1992 and the 1997 elections, before lining up to a man behind his preferred choice in 2002.

By the same token, after Ruto rose to become the community supremo following his being charged at the ICC after the 2008 post-election violence, he consolidated his political hold on his community, rallying them to vote to a man for Uhuru in 2013 and 2017, before sweeping the board himself in 2022, when his new UDA party practically choked any opposition off Kalenjinland.

In simple terms, if the Luo community is said to have only ever followed Jaramogi and Raila, the Kalenjin have also only ever followed Moi and Ruto.

We could even proceed to remind Ichungw'a h and Gachagua of the voting patterns of their community during the reigns of Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru, which plainly revolved around sticking with the community’s leader at the expense of all others.

There is no reason for this to be termed “slavery” when it is the Luo, but not with the other practitioners. I find it rather disrespectful to the Luo community, especially to the “defectors” who have been visiting the President and his deputy, to refer to them as slaves. It may be a phrase aimed at taking potshots at Raila, but it ends up caricaturing the community as robots who follow a path without any ideological attachment to it. This is false.

In all the years that Jaramogi and Raila have led the community to agitate for anything, the messages and themes have carefully been articulated around issues to do with electoral justice, freedom, political pluralism and good governance.

In view of the invasion and destruction of Uhuru’s property earlier in the week, I dare add that this Luo agitation has never included the invasion and grabbing of private properties. There may be the odd destruction during riots, but the planned targeting of individual property has never been a factor in all Luocentric protests. Certainly not the philosophy you expect from “slaves”.

I can confidently conclude that since successive regimes have marginalized and stigmatized the Luo as a whole community, voting together and sticking as one in times of trouble have become survival mechanisms. I am certain that greater equity in the distribution of the national cake, enhanced access to government jobs and a fairer electoral system may gradually wipe out the siege mentality that unites the Luo.

With that, we may begin to see several leaders emerge, when state fairness gives the community the luxury to toy with such political indulgences.

Before then, these birds of a feather will always flock together, and it is nothing to do with slavery. Just survival of the species.

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