Kenyan elections may reopen old tribal wounds

Fears of a return to Kikuyu domination haunt many voters in the first multi-party poll since 1963, reports Mark Huband

The Guardian, 4 December 1992


KENYAN political leaders risk reviving ethnic differences in their battle for votes on December 29 in the country’s first multi-party elections since independence in 1963.

Attempts to either overcome or exploit the tribal nature of politics now characterise the four main parties. Their internal alliances, and the tribal origins of their leaders, have become the real issue under scrutiny by the 8 million electors. This has become clearest in areas dominated by the most numerous tribe, the Kikuyu, which forms 21 per cent of the population.

The battle for the 1.6 million votes in the Kikuyu-dominated Central Province will determine the fortunes of the three main opposition parties and have a decisive affect on the outcome of the elections.

Two opposition parties – Kenneth Matiba’s Ford-Asili (Ford-A) and Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party (DP) – are led by Kikuyus. Paul Muite, vice-chairman and vice-presidential candidate of Ford-Kenya (Ford-K), the opposition party with the best prospects, is also a Kikuyu. He was pressed to create his own party earlier this year when President Daniel arap Moi’s ruling Kenya African National Union (Kanu) lifted a ban on multi-party politics.

But to avoid the accusation that he was merely seeking the Kikuyu vote, Mr Muite remained with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Ford-K. However, Kikuyu domination of the senior positions among opposition parties has left the tribe’s voters confused about who to vote for. Mr Matiba, a former cabinet minister, has been accused of being unfit to be president since he suffered a stroke while imprisoned during the battle for political reform. He returned from hospital treatment in London in May, well after other opponents of the Moi regime had replaced him as the leading reformer.

Mr Kibaki, a former vice-president, who was demoted to a ministerial post in 1988, is regarded as having missed an opportunity to become a strong opponent of Kanu by accepting his demotion. He did not quit the government until this year. Now the DP is regarded by other tribes as dominated by Kikuyu heavyweights whose return to power is reviving fears of the Kikuyu domination of power experienced under Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta,

Memories of Kenyatta and his failure to establish a tribally balanced government haunt Kenya’s non-Kikuyu voters. “A lot of people feel that it is too soon to have another Kikuyu president. But in Central Province you can’t criticise Matiba and Kibaki because they are Kikuyu,” Mr Muite says of the opponents, whom he sees as unlikely to win outright but who will split the Kikuyu vote and could deprive Ford-K of victory.

Confusion within the Kikuyu tribe is made more complicated by the tribal make-up of Ford-K and cultural differences between its constituent tribes. Mr Odinga, Kenya’s veteran opposition leader since he split with Kanu in 1966, is from the country’s second largest tribe, the Luo.

“I could never vote for Odinga because he’s not circumcised, so I won’t vote for Muite because he is with him,” said one Kikuyu man at a church service attended by Mr Muite last Sunday in the Kikuyu constituency outside Nairobi, where he is expected to win a seat.

The view is widespread. Apart from his lack of political experience, Mr Muite’s union with Mr Odinga is also expected to encourage Kikuyus to vote for Mr Matiba’s Ford-A or the DP, which are regarded by some as more likely to guard Kikuyu interests.

The attempt at a Kikuyu-Luo alliance in Ford-K may also backfire on Mr Odinga. While Mr Muite says he decided to stand because he wanted to break the tribal political mould, he acknowledges that Luos may not want to vote for the ageing Mr Odinga because of the possibility that he, as a Kikuyu, may become president if the Ford-K chairman died in office.

With the Kikuyu vote split three ways, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that any of the four main parties will secure an overall majority. Winning presidential candidates have to secure at least 25 per cent of the vote in five of the eight provinces to avoid a run-off. The most likely outcome is that a free and fair vote will lead to a coalition in which either a Kikuyu or a Luo should be president.

One observer said: “Kibaki as president without any Luos is like Moi as president without any Kikuyus. The Kikuyus were unfair to Moi during the Kenyatta era because he was from the small Kalenjin tribe, and he saw Kikuyu plots everywhere. But if the president is from a big tribe it means he doesn’t have to spend all his time trying to retain the small tribes’ support in order to survive.”

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