Kenya’s political turmoil is a tale of fathers and sons

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The two men were political allies.

But they had a falling out over the direction of newly independent Kenya — especially over land and power — and became bitter adversaries.

Now their sons are fighting a modern adaptation of the same battle as they vie to lead the country, pushing one of Africa’s youngest and most vibrant democracies to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

“History is not exactly repeating itself,” says Maina Kiai, a human rights lawyer in Kenya, describing the eerie political parallels between past and present, “but it certainly is rhyming.”

Politically, Kenya is deeply — and evenly — divided between Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, and his long-time political rival, Raila Odinga. In last year’s election, Kenyatta won slightly more than half the votes, and Odinga slightly less. Those results were tossed out in a historic decision by the Supreme Court, which cited widespread irregularities.

The court ordered a do-over of the polling, which Kenyatta won. But Odinga has not accepted the result, and even inaugurated himself as the “people’s president” in January.

In recent weeks, supporters on both sides have hardened their claims that their man is the only legitimate leader.

Odinga’s followers threaten to secede from the country if his main demands — dialogue and a path to new elections this year — are not met. Kenyatta’s followers say the opposition leader committed treason by staging his mock inauguration to undercut the legitimacy of the real one.

It didn’t start out like this.

Jomo Kenyatta, the father of the current president, was a Kenyan freedom fighter, the living embodiment of African nationalism, and, therefore, the British colonial government’s most hated man. He spent the last decade of Kenya’s colonial rule in prison.

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the father of Raila Odinga, negotiated independence with the British. The colonial rulers wanted Odinga to lead the new Kenya, but Odinga had other ideas: He demanded Kenyatta’s freedom — and his appointment as Kenya’s first head of state.

“Kenyatta would not have been released, and he wouldn’t have been made prime minister, if it hadn’t been for Odinga’s backing,” says Daniel Branch, a professor of history at the University of Warwick and an expert on post-colonial Kenyan politics. “The two men always admired each other.”

Willy Mutunga, who was chief justice of the Supreme Court from 2011 to 2016, believes Odinga was motivated by more than mere admiration. “I think he genuinely believed that the country was going to be better off with somebody who had become a legend,” he says.

And so, in 1964, when Kenya became a republic, Jomo Kenyatta became its president, and Jaramogi Odinga vice-president.

Not long after, though, things fell apart.

The elder Kenyatta became a pro-Western capitalist, entrenching the wealth of his family and his ethnic community from his presidential perch. The elder Odinga advocated sharing state resources — especially the land the British settlers would leave behind — among Kenya’s many ethnic communities.

“There was a dramatic departure between Odinga’s father and Kenyatta’s father,” says John Githongo, a long-time civil rights activist and a former federal civil servant. “In a sense, that old fight is ongoing now.”

That fight was, and remains, partly about land, and partly about power.

Kenyatta wanted to sell the British settler lands to Kenyans of means, and to concentrate political power in the presidency.

Odinga wanted to redistribute land among those marginalised by the colonial government, and to have a decentralized power system that would allow neglected regions more autonomy and a share of the state coffers.

These differences ultimately undermined the founding fathers’ alliance. In the end, Kenyatta set up a buyback scheme, which meant the land “went more or less to the political elites,” says Odenda Lumumba, the chief executive officer of the Kenya Land Alliance, a national land rights group based in Nanyuki. “The political elites, to protect themselves, attracted their ethnic tribes around them.”

Kenyatta brokered land deals that benefited his fellow Kikuyus, and his own family. His government blocked repeated efforts by Parliament to limit land ownership, and his family amassed vast tracts of land, tea and coffee plantations, and stakes in ruby mines, among other riches, according to a 1978 dossier that the C.I.A. declassified last year.

In 1966, Odinga split with Kenyatta and started a new political party. It was banned three years later, and Odinga was jailed for more than a year.

After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, his handpicked successor, Daniel arap Moi, banned other political parties, largely to keep Odinga out of politics.

His government also cracked down on dissent, harassing and jailing opposition figures and democracy advocates, censoring the press, cancelling the passports of perceived “enemies” of his government — all moves the younger Kenyatta has reinstated, in these last weeks, as he battles with the younger Odinga.

By the time Kenya held its first competitive election in 2002, political leadership had passed from Kenya’s founding fathers to their sons. Moi, who had run the country for 24 years, had groomed Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, and Raila Odinga picked up his father’s fight after he died in 1994.

In that election, Odinga’s party won, and Mwai Kibaki became president. But by 2013, Kenyatta defeated Odinga in a presidential election. Now he has won re-election — twice.

It can feel, some here say, more like a family dynasty than a democracy.

“Kenyatta is the fourth president of Kenya,” says Mutunga. “He is also the son of the first president, the political protégé of the second president, and the godson of the third president.”

Many here say Kenyatta’s interests look similar to his father’s.

“Uhuru Kenyatta represents, in some respects, the continuation of an old order,” avers Githongo. “And Odinga has always represented a change from that.”

Kenyatta’s family’s land holdings have ballooned, to an estimated half-million hectares, or about 10 per cent of the country, and corruption in his administration is rife. His first administration decentralised some of power shored up in Nairobi, but complaints about the financial support for Kenya’s new counties are widespread.

Many say budgets are slow to come, or never appear. Concerns about the central government’s fiscal responsibility became so bad last year that the United States suspended $21 million (Sh2.1 billion) in aid to the Ministry of Health, citing corruption and poor accounting.

Odinga’s central political argument today is that over generations, many Kenyans have been left by circumstances — their geographic location, their ethnic groups, their landlessness — on the outside of power. He speaks often of marginalization and disenfranchisement, of economic grievances and historical injustices, code words that tap into decades’ worth of disappointments and frustrations first articulated by his father.

“What has always happened is the instrumentalisation of grievance,” notes Patrick Gathara, a political analyst in Nairobi. “People know they’re being treated unfairly, but politicians put a veneer. They substitute their problems for the people’s problems.” ^ (NYT)

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