A house divided: Kenya’s political madhouse

A house divided: Kenya’s political madhouse

By Peter Wanyonyi

The social evolution of agricultural versus pastoralist societies has long been the subject of fascinating research in African anthropology. One theory attributes the relative ethnic characters of African societies to their traditional economies.

To wit: Agricultural societies relied mostly on crops for survival. When a farmer has planted crops, they take time to grow and be ready for harvesting. In the intervening period, any sort of tumult that results in the farmer being uprooted represents an existential threat, since the crops cannot simply be uprooted and moved elsewhere: the interloper takes them over, the farmer loses and might starve to death. Farming societies in Africa – and elsewhere – thus invested in various peaceful conflict-resolution mechanisms, including alliance-making, open deception, and the like. In such communities, society treasures peacemakers and dealmakers.

Pastoralist societies, conversely, have no such problems. When a community’s livelihood depends on herding livestock that can be driven from place to place easily, or on fishing – in which case the community can jump into their canoes and move to a new location in days – they have no incentive to invest in peaceful conflict-resolution mechanisms. In such communities, society treasures men of war, the warriors, and strong men, who impose their will on rival communities by force of arms.

In Kenya, the Bantu are traditionally farmers. The rest of the country, but particularly the Nilotes and Cushites, are herders and fishermen. And the conflicts in government today, and in Kenya in general, can be traced back to the differences in traditional economies between these groups. The Bantu, numerically far superior to the other groups, have in the Kikuyu a group that has tasted power, with no intention of relinquishing it. The Nilotic Kalenjin had power for a quarter of a century but, not being a settler community, did not know what to do with it beyond sporadic corruption and the occasional murder of annoying rivals.

Today, the Central Kenya Kikuyu heartland is the most developed region in Kenya, with the best infrastructure, the best-educated population on average, the easiest access to capital and its supporting financial accoutrements, and the country’s most important economic levers. The Kalenjin heartland that the late President Moi hailed from is, in contrast, a pitiable place. Starvation, unheard of in Central Kenya, stalks even Moi’s own Baringo hometown. This depressing dichotomy between the home districts of the communities that have produced Kenya’s four presidents is at the code of the tussles in the Legislature over revenue allocation and the politics of the Kenyatta succession.

It wasn’t too long ago that Kenyans could count on an opposition that, despite the depredations of the ruling clique, remained a steadfast vox populi denouncing the excesses of government impunity and the open theft of public resources that passed for governance in the country. Those days, tumultuous as they were, marked something of a zenith for our opposition – roles were clearly defined, the bad guys were well-known, the good guys were all in the opposition, and wananchi rallied around every opposition position on national policy, knowing that the hearts of our opposition leaders were in the right place – even if their actions and behaviour sometimes left a bit to be desired. Those days are long gone.

Open war

What was until recently a debate couched in such diplomatic and high-sounding terms as “equitable distribution of resources” and “development deficit” has long since boiled down to a naked struggle over taxpayer funds, as legislators tussle to promote the revenue-sharing agreement that gives their own counties the largest share of the national taxpayer cake.

The intricacies of why the Senate is at war with itself over revenue allocation have been flogged to death in the Kenyan media, and only the most basic summary of events is necessary here. The Constitution charges the Senate with the power to regulate most things that happen at County level, and one of these is deciding how much money the counties receive from the national purse. The Senate relies on several tools, the most important of which is an allocation formula that essentially provides the foundation of how much the counties will receive over the subsequent five years. We are at the point in the quinquennial formula-fixing cycle when the Senate must agree on the formula to guide our revenue-sharing for the next five years.

Open civil war has thus broken out in the Senate. Uhuru Kenyatta, already a lame duck serving his second and last term as president, has reneged on his political marriage with his deputy, William Ruto, and instead has teamed up with perennial presidential contender Raila Odinga in the much ballyhooed Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a two-tribe coalition that essentially promises Raila and “his people” – the Luo – easy access to state largesse in return for their political support shoring up Uhuru’s Kikuyu tribal base in opposition to Ruto’s Kalenjin base. The Kalenjin are numerically insignificant, but their strategic importance is thanks to the large number of Kikuyus living in the Rift Valley, in close proximity to the Kalenjin – who, when irked, are not averse to picking up bows and arrows to teach the Kikuyu some tribal manners. This potential for anti-Kikuyu violence in the Rift Valley is William Ruto’s main bargaining chip and is the reason Uhuru Kenyatta cannot afford to completely alienate Ruto.

And yet, that is exactly what the president is doing. DP Ruto, heretofore a patient number two waiting for his political reward – a stab at the presidency with the promised support of Uhuru – has found himself increasingly shoved aside as the Kikuyu elite around Uhuru Kenyatta prepare to renege on the Kenyatta-Ruto deal. It is no secret that this cabal will not countenance a Ruto presidency. After the lean years of the Moi dictatorship, and knowing the mega-monies that Kenya’s much-expanded economy has to offer those in the right places in power, the Kikuyu elite are loath to let go of the levers of power now – or, indeed, ever.

The strife in evidence in the Legislature, between the president and his deputy, between Ruto and Raila Odinga, and between their respective acolytes across the government, including within the revenue-allocation debates, is merely the symptoms of that underlying problem. Ruto cannot be allowed to succeed Uhuru, at least not if the Kikuyu elite have anything to do with it. Their latest play, the BBI, seeks to entice Raila Odinga with some pseudo-power and the promise of a constitutional change to hand him the presidency. Cleverly, though, the constitutional change would involve a hollowing-out of the presidency, turning it into a ceremonial role with no Executive power – which would be devolved to a powerful Prime Minister. And the person slated for that powerful premiership is none other than Uhuru Kenyatta. “Uhuru” goes the refrain among the Kikuyu elite, “is too young to retire”. What they mean by that is, “Executive political power must remain in Kikuyu hands.”

A low bar

This, then, is the basis of Kenya’s coming civil chaos. Ruto will not take his humiliation lying down. Although Uhuru has recruited some powerful Kalenjin voices into his camp – most notably his age mate Gideon Moi, Baringo Senator, and son of the late president – he seems to have reckoned without Ruto’s remarkable political nous and survival instincts. Most importantly, Ruto has been part of Uhuru’s political machinery since decamping from Raila’s ODM in the run-up to the 2013 General Election, and he knows where Jubilee’s political bodies are buried – where they get their money from, which Jubilee governor or MP steals what money from which parastatal, and who facilitated Jubilee’s election wins both in 2013 and 2017 – in which, curiously, Uhuru Kenyatta beat Raila Odinga both times – dubiously, some contend.

Raila Odinga’s role as the unwilling bridesmaid of Kenyan presidents is well-established. Although he has won at least one presidential election outright – it is common knowledge that his victory in the 2007 presidential election was stolen and handed to Kibaki – Raila has often proved too power-hungry for his own good. In early 2008, with Kenya burning and outside powers intent on forcing a recount at the least, or a rerun of the presidential election, both scenarios that would have seen Raila pronounced winner of the polls, Odinga unexpectedly agreed to give up his claim to having won and instead accepted the toothless position of prime minister under Kibaki, a position that was to see him frustrated and humiliated daily by Kibaki’s own Kikuyu inner circle. Indeed, it was this very humiliation that saw Ruto abandon the Raila coalition, seeing no point in backing a candidate that was seemingly ready to settle so quickly for so little after such a bitter struggle.

The low bar that Raila sets for his support is now in evidence again. Despite the noises made about the BBI, it is notable that Raila and his people have been handed mere tokens in their partnership with Uhuru. The big plum positions, with access to the biggest state monies, are still monopolised by Uhuru and his Kikuyu appointees, who dominate every position that has to do with revenue collection and management in government. The proposed constitutional change to hand the presidency to Raila is unlikely to happen, given how close the election is.

It follows, then, that Raila will almost invariably be short-changed – again. There are already palpable moves within the Kikuyu elite to groom former Gatanga MP Peter Kenneth as Uhuru’s successor, possibly with Gideon Moi as his running mate to sap Kalenjin anger and take advantage of the Mois’ extensive financial and political influence in the Rift Valley. This, while an interesting prospect, would be difficult to sell if Ruto was still politically relevant and able to argue his case from the role of Deputy President.
As Kenya gears up to the 2022 General Election, therefore, heightened tensions and political temperatures in the country – which always rise to crisis point at election time – will be accompanied by sporadic violence if Ruto and his advisors feel that they are under unacceptable pressure from the Raila-Uhuru coalition. But even as this happens, Raila too will come under pressure from his tribesmen to re-examine his coalition with Uhuru.

The third element

Will Uhuru’s Kikuyu minders seek to implicate Dr Ruto in one or the other scandal to neutralise him politically? That seems inevitable. And as the heat is turned up on Ruto and his people in parliament, the deputy president will quickly find out what Raila discovered long ago – that Bantu political groupings make for unreliable coalition partners. The Bantu farming mindset sees deception as an acceptable device to prolong an existing peace long enough for the crops to mature and be harvested. After that, all bets are off. Within Jubilee itself, the political centre long ago fell apart, and the two sides are now held together only by a mutual desire to continue looting Kenya until the election. But even in this, one side controls the legitimate tools of state violence, while the other can only resort to irregular but more devastating acts of violence against civilians of the wrong tribe. It is in this poisonous mix that one must now throw the third element in the mess: the judiciary.

The Judiciary under CJ David Maraga has become the de facto opposition, attempting to stand up to the Executive despite the structural difficulties of doing so.

Kenya’s Supreme Court won itself no friends in the Uhuru Kenyatta camp when it annulled the results of the 2017 presidential election and ordered a rerun. The enmity between the two continued after the Executive, on Uhuru’s re-run “win”, declared that the Judiciary was little more than a hotbed of judicial activists bent on legislating by stealth, and one which itself is steeped in corruption and ethnic jingoism. The situation is made worse by the BBI: because the opposition in Kenya is now quite literally in bed with the government, there is no opposition as such. The Judiciary, therefore, has become the de facto opposition in Kenya, attempting to stand up to the Executive despite the structural difficulties of doing so, for the judiciary can only communicate its positions in judgements that take time to deliver and are a poor – and, often, late – response to the latest Executive pronouncements from whatever roadside Uhuru happens to be at on a given day.

The Judiciary makes for a poor opposition though. In the end, the opposition to Uhuru’s government and his tribal clique will come from the traditional source of opposition to Bantu presidents in Kenya: a coalition of Nilotic communities. Raila will be short-changed politically and will, with months to the election, abandon the BBI deal and seek to paint himself as the spokesman of the poor and the downtrodden in Kenya. Ruto has already been side-lined by the powerful Kikuyu clique around Uhuru and will likely be under pressure from court cases alleging corruption and similar.

huru’s handpicked successor – who at this point looks like Peter Kenneth – will be shoring up Kikuyu financial and political muscle to mount a formidable presidential campaign. It will be left to the Nilotes and the few allies they can command – particularly the ever-divided Luyia and Cushite vote bases – to try to mount a challenge that could put paid to the Kikuyu attempt to hold onto the presidency. And this is where the spectre of Rift Valley violence gets real.

Anti-Bantu violence in the Rift Valley has been a feature of every multi-party election in Kenya since 1992. The Kikuyu have settled in the Rift Valley in vast numbers, as have the Luhya and the Kisii. These three Bantu groups are resented by the local Kalenjin for various reasons, chief among them the perception that the settlers are better-off than the locals, particularly in the fertile central and south Rift regions. The 2022 elections will be no exception. As Jubilee moves to defenestrate Ruto before 2022 so they can nominate a Kikuyu flag bearer in his stead, Ruto’s people will activate their Rift Valley cells, which can wage formidable tribal warfare. The resulting economic and security chaos will invariably result in calls for calm by the international community – as well as threats of reactivating charges from the International Criminal Court (ICC) “against both sides”, as the political parlance from the ICC always puts it.

These threats will be in vain. Kenya’s public coffers are a lucrative bounty whose rewards are well worth the risk of being prosecuted for instigating political violence. After 20 uninterrupted years of Kikuyu presidencies, the Kikuyu elite have gorged themselves on public funds and are bursting with ethnic pride and ruling-class arrogance. They will be unwilling to take the risk of losing any of that power and privilege, and will instead seek to corrupt, co-opt, and neutralise any opposition. Unfortunately for the Nilotes of Kenya, this will mean that, like 2007 and 2013 and 2017, Raila Odinga will mount a valiant but ultimately doomed quixotic campaign for the presidency yet again. It is not for him and his presidential hopes that we must weep, however. It is for the innocent lives that will be lost in the process of ensuring that neither Raila nor Ruto becomes president of Kenya. That, in the end, is the tragedy of this beautiful country.

— The author is an information systems professional.

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