Ethnic Politics in Kenya: A History South Sudan Should Learn From

By: Kuach Y. Tutkuay

May 15, 2013 (SSNA) — South Sudan as a young nation that has just attained her independent seems to be following a path once followed by Kenyans in their post independent politics. The author wants to bring this to the eyes of the citizens in order for them to avoid the pitfalls made by Kenyans. From the current Kenyan politic, South Sudan should learn how hurtful tribal politics is and how it can derail the process of nation building. As the saying goes, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” should Kenyan meat be a South Sudanese poison or South Sudanese meat a Kenyan poison. Let’s cast a quick glance at the Kenyan politic of ethnicity and juxtapose it to our own.

In Kenya, Kikuyu are the majority and they are the one possessing the riches of the nation. KANU was dominated by Kikuyu except for some few junior politicians among which include a young skilled secretary of the party Tom Mboya, a Luo by ethnicity who used all his talents in managing the party regardless of manipulation by the Kikuyu. In 1961 election, there was a split in KANU; those who felt oppressed left the party. Ronald Ngala, Masinde Muliro formed KADU, and James Gichuru remains the chairman of KANU. When Jomo Kenyatta was released from prison, James Gichuru handed over the chairmanship to his fellow tribe man. They campaigned for other Bantu and it became a Bantu against Nilotes. Oginga Odinga, R. Ngala and M. Muliro, regardless of the outline clear objectives of their party, agreed to join KANU again after defection for the sake of liberating the nation. Kenya came under one party KANU. This led to the attainment of independent in 1963. Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu man became the first President of the Republic of Kenya and Jaramongi Odinga Oginga, a Luo man was made the vice president, a tacit of equality manifested itself but feebly died down.

Once in power Kenyatta swerved from radical nationalism to conservative bourgeois politics. The plantations formerly owned by white settlers were broken up and given to farmers, with the Kikuyu the favored recipients, along with their allies the Embu and the Meru. By 1978 most of the country’s wealth and power was in the hands of the organization which grouped these three tribes: the Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association (GEMA), together comprising 30% of the population of Kenya. At the same time the Kikuyu, with Kenyatta’s support, spread beyond their traditional territorial homelands and repossessed lands "stolen by the whites" – even when these had previously belonged to other groups. The government of the United Kingdom donated billions of pounds to buy the land from the white settlers and redistribute it to the all Kenyans, but instead, Kenyatta distributed this land to Kikuyu and his closest friends.The other groups, a 70% majority, were outraged, setting up long-term ethnic animosities—the seed of tribalism was planted—and Kenyan began to develop tribal attitude and national oneness diminished.

The minority party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), representing a coalition of small tribes that had feared dominance by larger ones, dissolved itself voluntarily in 1964 and former members joined KANU. KANU was the only party 1964-1966 when a faction broke away as the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). It was led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a former vice president and Luo elder. KPU advocated a more "scientific" route to socialism—criticizing the slow progress in land redistribution and employment opportunities—as well as a realignment of foreign policy in favor of the Soviet Union. In June 1969 Tom Mboya, a Luo member of the government considered a potential successor to Kenyatta, was assassinated. Hostility between Kikuyu and Luo was heightened, and after riots broke out in Luo country KPU was banned by the Kenyatta’s government. The government used a variety of political and economic measures to harass the KPU and its prospective and actual members. KPU branches were unable to register, KPU meetings were prevented, and civil servants and politicians suffered severe economic and political consequences for joining the KPU. Kenya thereby became a one-party state under KANU.

Ignoring his suppression of the opposition and continued factionalism within KANU the imposition of one-party rule allowed Mzee ("Old Man") Kenyatta, who had led the country since independence, claimed he achieved "political stability." Underlying social tensions were evident, however. Kenya’s very rapid population growth rate and considerable rural to urban migration were in large part responsible for high unemployment and disorder in the cities. There also was much resentment by blacks at the privileged economic position in the country of Asians and Europeans.

At Kenyatta’s death (August 22, 1978), Vice President Daniel arap Moi became interim President. On October 14, Moi became President formally after he was elected head of KANU and designated its sole nominee. In June 1982, the National Assembly amended the constitution, making Kenya officially a one-party state. On August 1 members of the Kenyan Air Force launched an attempted coup, which was quickly suppressed by Loyalist forces led by the Army, the General Service Unit (GSU) — paramilitary wing of the police — and later the regular police, but not without civilian casualties.

The leadership of Daniel Arap Moi was embrace by all Kenyans with hope and high expectations that he will change the then existing ethnic politic but to their surprise, Moi introduce the what so called “Nyayo” a Swahili term meaning “foot step”. Moi stated clearly that he is going to follow the footsteps of Kenyatta which granted the expectation of the citizens futile. The grievances of the citizens remained so high but who dare response? In Arap Moi’s leadership, things remained the same. The 1992 assassination of Robert Ouko, a great Luo politician who was by then a minister for Foreign Affairs was another brutality witnessed by the luo under Moi’s leadership. This happened in 1992 election when Kenyatta was nearly depeated in the contest by his rival J.O. Oginga. Robert was a strong key politician in siding with Odinga.

What should south Sudan learn from this story?

South Sudan in it two-decades struggle had had a similar situation as to that of Kenya which I would not want to squeak any syllable about because all of us know it. The similarities are that the nation’s wealth, goes to, if not one, few tribes, the land is being grabbed from the weaker tribes by the powerful majority tribes who also hold high positions in the government, employment in all private sector has almost 50% going to one, or few tribes, the composition of the government is 45% by one tribe giving the other minor tribe 55% of the share in the ministerial positions. Companies and big businesses are owned by one tribe. Assassination is a custom here because we have also witnessed some few. I have been reading some comments on the internet which I purely regarded as hate speeches, these look like, “this tribe is brave” “this tribe is coward” “this tribe will never rule” “we are born to rule forever” “this tribe is weak” and so on. What do we understand about a nation if we are still citing these jeopardizing messages?  Did we not fought in the war all of us and did we not shed blood together? Remember no matter how big a tree is, it can’t be called a forest, likewise to our cases, no matter how big a tribe is, it will never be called a nation. Why are we so obese with tribalism?

Let me take this opportunity to advise those whose legs are swift to shed blood, your blood is awaiting too. As the Bible said, “those who kills with sword, with sword shall they be killed”.

The writer can be reached through [email protected]

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