RIVALS: Parties’ fierce battle for Kenya’s soul


By Alfred Anangwe


Anyway, Kenya’s history has been immensely shaped by fierce rivalry between and among political parties. Some parties have survived much longer than others. What the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) is going through, and which threatens to split it up, has been experienced by others in the past.



Failure by the colonial government to allow nationwide political organizations led to formation of ethnic-based outfits. The first two parties with a near national face were the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU).

KANU accommodated primarily the two largest ethnic groups in the country, Kikuyu and Luo. KADU was a coalition of mostly minority ethnic groups.

KANU won the first independence General Election in 1963 but was forced to form government under the pro-KADU federal constitution. KANU grudgingly accepted the federal constitution because failure to do so would have delayed Independence.

With KANU’s Jomo Kenyatta in power, a scheme to revert to a unitary-state was mooted. Unfortunately, constitutional amendments were not easy to undertake because KANU lacked the requisite numbers in Parliment. However, it would later swallow KADU MPs via political rewards. This gave KANU the muscle to carry through constitutional amendments.

The amendments centralized power and the control of national resources. Unfortunately party politics diminished as the president’s power expanded.

Kenyatta era

Kenyatta wanted to remain unrivalled. He thus eliminated Opposition political parties through various strategies. Firstly, he encouraged political dissent within KANU rather than through various political parties – as long as it did not lead to splinter groups. No wonder he dissolved KADU. Indeed, he encouraged political and ideological differences to take place within KANU. As a result, factions emerged in KANU.

Initially there were three groups. One was a cross-ethnic coalition that championed the interests of the landless, peasants, and low-skilled workers (the radical/populist group). The other was a cross-ethnic coalition that sought to expand opportunities for large-scale farming (the conservative group). The last less cohesive group was made up of former KADU members interested in agricultural policies that benefited larger farming operations but limited free exchange of land between residents of different regions.

Kenyatta allowed existence of these three KANU factions, perhaps to make all Kenyans feel they had a stake in the government. He was able to put these KANU factions under control courtesy of his immense State powers and vast resources. He secured political support among the stronger groups by ensuring that they benefited from State appointments and swathes of free land.

In spite of this, the radical group was the most threatening because it espoused communist policies attractive to the peasants – who formed a majority of the population. It was difficult to influence this group through political rewards.

Kenyatta chose to deal with this group first.

The opportunity availed itself in 1965 when his vice, Oginga Odinga, and Bildad Kaggia, with financing from the Communist bloc countries, laid the groundwork for Lumumba Institute to train KANU leaders. The duo sought to use the institute to amass power and influence. The institution’s students pledged to defeat Kenyatta’s Sessional Paper Number 10 on the Application of Planning to African Socialism.

The conservative coalition within KANU, with Kenyatta’s blessing, moved to place the Lumumba Institute under control of the Ministry of Education. After a parliamentary vote to that effect, the Institute died out. Odinga decamped Kanu and formed his own Kenya People’s Union (KPU). KPU gave Kenyatta nightmares.

A KANU conference was convened in Limuru in 1966 to discuss party reorganization, but key agenda was to tame KPU. There was a change in the electoral rules which required that those defecting seek fresh mandate through a by-election. He would use this to throw out radicals out of Parliament.

As a result, the conservative wing within KANU emerged strong. Its members were very strong because they controlled the Cabinet and enjoyed vast wealth. This group got stronger after the assassination of Tom Mboya, their greatest threat, in 1969.

The conservative group was nicknamed the Kiambu Mafia because its leaders came mainly from Kiambu and had strong kinship with the president. However, the exit of Oginga-Kaggia group and the assassination of Mboya did little to end radicalism within KANU.

A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) appeared to generate further radicalism in 1972.

It showed that the gap between the rich and poor had widened a great deal since Independence. This report was widely debated in parliament. It emerged that the conservative KANU group was benefiting more from the Kenyatta administration at the expense of the rest. MPs Charles Rubia, J.M. Kariuki, Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney decried the growing inequality. This group attracted support from the majority of Kenyans who were poor, unemployed and landless.

The group, led by J.M. Kariuki, also came up with the Ol Kalou Declaration which among other things demanded KANU primaries in an effort to deny the Kiambu/conservative KANU group the ability to choose candidates. The new radicals even claimed that KANU was dead.

The conservatives feared the radicals were contemplating a new political party. Led by Defense Minister James Gichuru and the Central Province KANU chairman James Samuel Njiru, they came out fighting. At a KANU meeting in J.M. Kariuki’s homeground, an MP introduced Gichuru with the words: “The party is much alive and we all know it. Perhaps those who suggest that the party is dead are not politically alive.” Njiru boasted that “just as KANU had managed to crush other parties such as KADU, APP (the African People’s Party), and KPU, so it would crush any other party these people may be trying to form.”

Kenyatta’s message to the group was clear: “Let me inform you that the Government is watching these developments with both eyes and when the time comes these individuals will be picked up one by one”. So popular, among MPs was the populist group.

Kenyatta later used various strategies to humble the radicals.

J.M. Kariuki was assassinated while Martin Shikuku and Seroney were bundled into detention for stating in parliament that “KANU was dead”. The brutal use of force cowed many.

However, Kenyatta’s death in 1978 and Moi’s ascendancy to power rejuvenated factionalism within KANU.

Moi era

Moi approach to political party matters resembled and sometime differed from Kenyatta’s. Unfortunately for Moi, the economy was not good to enable him purchase political patronage as much as he would have wanted. Unlike Kenyatta who had wealthy Kikuyu politicians around him and vast national resources, Moi’s Kalenjin elite had limited control over the private economy then in the hands of foreigners, Indians, and Kikuyus. The situation was even worsened by economic recession from the mid-1980s onward.

Thus, Moi had to do much more. Moi administration and the party began to trade functions. By 1989, half of MPs occupied Cabinet positions. The distinction between the personnel attached to the State House and those attached to the management of the KANU party eroded in practice. The middle- and lower-level KANU officers and politicians lost most of their role in national policy making. The party became dependent upon the provincial administration for members’ recruitment.

Beginning in the early 1980s, party branches became Intelligence-gathering centres. KANU created youth wings and disciplinary committees that took over functions – such as security – normally performed by the Provincial administration.

Yet this did little to tame anti-Moi forces. The failed military coup of 1982 and Mwakenya tested Moi’s resilience. In response, he strengthened KANU by making Kenya a one-party state. He thus was able to crack down on his rivals, among them powerful Minister Charles Njonjo who would later be expelled from the ruling party.

The elections which followed after 1982 saw many powerful politicians rigged out.

Rigging reached the climax in 1988 when KANU adopted the controversial Mlolongo (queue) voting system. It is against this background that politicians like Kenneth Matiba resigned from the cabinet to join those clamouring for multi-party democracy. The strong anti-Moi campaign drew politicians, the clergy, scholars and the international community.

Moi eventually regime yielded to political pluralism in 1991.

Multi party era

The change to multiparty politics also dictated that the president’s term in office was limited to two terms of five years each. KANU remained in power for the two terms. Several reasons explain this. Firstly, the old constitution, with its excess presidential powers, was still in place. This tilted the political playing ground in favour of KANU and Moi. Secondly, Moi decided to zone the country into ethnic blocs.

He promoted ethic divisions because the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) had united several Kikuyu, Luo, and Luhya communities thus threatening KANU’s hold on power. Unfortunately, FORD fractured. Odinga and Matiba each fled with a piece of the original FORD.

Odinga’s FORD-Kenya represented primarily the Luo but with allies in one section of the Luhya and the Coast. Matiba’s FORD-Asili came to represent the Kikuyu, and got support in Nairobi and Nakuru, and a section of Luhya as well.

To make things worse, Moi’s former vice president, Mwai Kibaki, announced the formation of the Democratic Party (DP), effectively splitting the potential Kikuyu vote between himself and Matiba. Essentially the elections held in 1992 and 1997 took place with KANU competing against three major Opposition parties.

However, the gerrymandering of electoral districts, continuous state harassment of the Opposition, and electoral violence allowed Moi and KANU to win. In spite of this, Moi took home a paltry 36 percent of the vote cast.

Odinga’s death and Matiba’s exit from active politics (on grounds of ill health) split the two FORDs. A majority of Luo followed Odinga’s son, Raila, into the National Democratic Party (NDP) but the rest of the support ended up in FORD-Kenya, then headed by Kijana Michael Wamalwa. Matiba’s Kikuyu supporters landed in Kibaki’s DP but not all of them.

Several new parties emerged, the most significant of which came to be the Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by several Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o and its presidential hopeful Charity Ngilu. This split in Opposition ranks favoured Moi, and he won the 1997 general elections with a better margin compared to the previous election. However, the Opposition entered the new Parliament with a bigger share of the seats but far more divided than in the previous Parliament.

After the 1997 elections, Moi continued playing his ethnic card by merging KANU and the NDP. Raila and several key NDP legislators were absorbed into Moi’s Cabinet. This further weakened the Opposition. However, lack of internal party democracy led to the failure of Moi’s planned succession.

Instead of allowing political competition within KANU, Moi handpicked Uhuru Kenyatta to succeed him. Raila, who harboured presidential ambitions, was forced to decamp KANU ahead of the 2002 general elections.

Exit KANU, enter NARC

The Opposition won the 2002 general elections for two reasons. Firstly, the Constitution did not allow Moi to vie. Secondly, Moi stood behind Uhuru Kenyatta as his preferred candidate. This was seen as Moi strategy to continue his influence and, possibly, cover up his past misdeeds. The Opposition branded Uhuru a Moi’s project. Thirdly, the Opposition entered into a pre-election merger before the 2002 general elections that saw Mwai Kibai chosen as the presidential candidate.

NARC snatched power from KANU but it only lasted 5 years in power because of two main reasons. One, NARC dampened the hopes that Kenyans had bestowed in it by failing to realize a new Constitution within 100 days in power. Secondly, Kibaki trashed a pre-election Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that had proposed Raila for the position of prime minister. It is this MoU that had given birth to the NARC. The MoU had provided a power-sharing arrangement.

Failure to honor election pledges and MoU galvanized an anti-Kibaki movement that came to be known as Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).


Anti-Kibaki feelings among Kenyans led to mass rejection of a draft constitution his government had presented at the 2005 Referendum. Those who campaigned against the referendum were Kibaki’s former allies in NARC including Raila. This anti-Kibaki camp got a boost from the civil society.

The referendum gave birth to Orange Democratic Movement because the “orange” symbol was used to denote those who opposed the draft constitution.

ODM took in all those who voted against the constitution. It attracted a large constituency. Six out of eight regions voted against the new constitution in the 2005 referendum. The referendum left President Kibaki, his region and his cabinet isolated. Consequently, NARC was left with so small a constituency of supporters that Kibaki had to form and join a new party for the 2007 elections. The Party of National Unity (PNU) was formed close to the 2007 elections.

Unfortunately, ODM suffered a setback when it splintered into ODM-Kenya (ODM-K) led by Kalonzo Musyoka and ODM that remained with Raila.

Dispute over Kibaki’s win culminated into unprecedented violence. Kibaki’s PNU would later rush to form a coalition with ODM-K but this only served to heighten the post-election violence. Nonetheless, Kofi Annan brokered a power-sharing agreement between ODM and PNU/ODM-K that ended the slaughter and enabled Kibaki and Raila to form into a grand coalition with the latter becoming the Prime Minister.

Yet the violence forced Kenyans to overhaul the constitution. The new constitution, promulgated in 2010, led to election and political party reforms. Among the electoral reforms proposed was that a president can only win over half of the votes cast. Before the 2013 elections, opinion polls had shown that none of the most popular political parties and their respective party presidential candidates commanded half support of the country. This prompted many political parties to enter into pre-election mergers.


The new supreme law has forced political parties to get into coalitions if they have to win half of Kenya. In the 2013 elections, Wiper (former ODM-K), ODM and Ford Kenya formed the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD Coalition) while United Republican Party (URP) and The National Alliance (TNA) joined to form Jubilee Coalition. These coalitions are founded on binding memorandum of understanding as provided for by the Political Parties Act. Breach of MoUs can lead to their disqualification.

ODM is the strongest party in the Cord Coalition while TNA commands the Jubilee coalition. Both parties are facing internal squabbles. Their members want accountability and transparency in the way they are run.



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