The ethnic rivalry that holds Kenya hostage
Election cycles tend to bring Kikuyu-Luo rivalry to the surface, but it is always bubbling and shaping Kenya as a political society. The past four presidential elections have been primarily a Kikuyu-Luo competition. The two men at the centre of the past three, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, are the sons of the country’s leaders at independence.
The partnership between their fathers not only united the country for a short while, but it also set the stage for the current mess. While there are tens of other communities within Kenya’s borders, this particular interaction is significant because it is as damaging today as it was half a century ago.
In the discussions triggered by the doctor’s ordeal in 2017, younger Kenyans tried to understand why these two communities are so opposed to each other. Each answer comes off as incomplete, especially because ethnic groups are not homogeneous. In the 2002 election, for example, where both leading candidates were Kikuyu, the main issues in Central Region were a river and a dubious prophecy.
Trauma and opportunity
It is unlikely the Kikuyu and Luo communities had ever interacted before 1901. The ‘Lunatic Express’ railway and its resultant urbanisation solved this, but the resulting interaction quickly emphasised cultural differences. One letter from 1900 describes the Kikuyu as “quickly discovering the value of the rupee”, while a document from the 1930s describes the Luo as “strong, arrogant and intelligent”. At the epicentre of the rivalry, even today, are what a human rights organisation called “the politics of the foreskin”. Since the Luo do not include the act of circumcision in their initiation rites, the Kikuyu and other related communities do not see their male leaders as ‘men enough to lead’. This might have been a small matter if it did not permeate into social interactions, affecting how people choose spouses and business partners.
In the 1930s, a small but significant event took place in the middle of a football match in Kenya’s first secondary school, Alliance High School. A fight between two students quickly escalated into a school-wide brawl that lasted two days. It only ended when 34 students left in protest – all of them Luo. The fight had begun because a Luo student kicked a Kamba colleague. It would be insignificant if this school, situated in central Kenya, did not produce many of the elite who took over state power in the 1960s.
From this crucible of ethnic identities and the removal of Kikuyus from urban centres in the 1950s emerged both trauma and opportunity. Kikuyu elites, many of whom were safely away from the fighting and suffering, bolstered their position by claiming to have lent a hand in the freedom struggle. They built upon the trauma that the community suffered from a genocidal colonial government and quickly weaponised it.
On the Luo side, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga quickly rose to power. Both he and his main rival, Tom Mboya, realised the political power they desired was dependent on first strengthening ethnic identities even further.
The larger dynamic of Kenya’s politics places mainly three communities in the ring: the Kikuyu, the Luo, and the Kalenjin. Political power and opposition have revolved around these three, with alliances built with other communities to bolster ‘the tyranny of numbers’. While Kenya’s current leadership is Kikuyu-Kalenjin, the opposition is Luo-Kamba and Luhya. It is almost as if, to some extent, 2017 is 1966.
That was the year Jaramogi Odinga finally quit the ruling party to form his own. It was also the year the onslaught on Odinga and his supporters began in earnest. It escalated over the following four years.
Jomo Kenyatta changed electoral and national security laws – with much the same speed that his son did in the aftermath of the August 2017 elections – to force members of Odinga’s new party to seek reelection. Kenyatta also deployed the state machinery against Odinga and his supporters. This was successful everywhere except in Nyanza, Odinga’s primary support base.
Rivalry has defined Kenyan politics
If Kenya’s politics were a game of musical chairs, the Luo would be the community whose luck long ran out. Some analysts point to Jaramogi Odinga’s socialist leanings as the reason for his downfall, but it was land that broke his relationship with Kenyatta. While having Odinga in the Kenya African National Union gave Kenyatta the support he needed to navigate the murky road to independence, other players were seen as more important. For example, Daniel arap Moi could keep his support base quiet about the restoration of ‘tribal lands.’ Although Moi was from a small tribe called the Tugen, he had slowly built his position as the gatekeeper to the Rift Valley. With Moi in the ruling party’s power circles, Kenyatta’s acquisitive allies could comfortably acquire settler lands without the concern that the Kikuyu, who had been displaced to the Rift Valley, would return.
The use of state power to whittle down Odinga’s power as the leader of the Luo alienated his supporters. This was worsened by a particularly tumultuous year in 1969, which brought a massacre, assassinations and detentions.
Over the decades, this Luo-Kikuyu rivalry has come to define Kenyan politics. In the current discussions on secession, draft maps carve out perceived spheres of influence. While the conflict is embodied by Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, they are merely figureheads in a difference now so deeply rooted as to make its examination, and solution, difficult. Odinga is the face of the opposition, and his politics of Odingaism, inherited and perfected from his father, are loathed in central Kenya. Kenyatta is the face of an oppressive government, also inherited and perfected from his father, and is loathed in Nyanza and the coastal regions.
On the face of it, the main issue is state power, which means access to resources. The Luo have been denied access by several governments. The Kikuyu feel they have a legitimate, if not divine, claim to state power, and see the Luo as envious of it. Devolution is already providing a counter-balance to both positions. But it is likely that this rivalry will continue to define the political scene a while longer, hiding under it the real problems that bedevil Kenya’s nearly 50 million people.
This article first appeared in the December/January 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine