Why the Meru and Embu have never been Gema
- Outsiders: But even the Meru elite knew then, as they do today, that they weren’t Gema insiders
In warfare, psychology is critical. That’s why boxer “Iron” Mike Tyson usually knocked out his opponents before he threw the first punch.
He psyched them out. Tribal warfare isn’t different. Gema has perfected the script. It purports to usurp the agency of every breathing and living Kikuyu, Meru and Embu person. Except it can’t.
But that doesn’t matter. The key words are “purport” and “usurp”. Gema was a clever project of tribal hegemony cooked up by conniving Kiambu-Kikuyu political-business elites. Truth be told – they scared the daylights out of other Kenyans.
There’s only one minor problem. The Meru and Embu didn’t get the memo. Like mannequins, they were mere escorts, dummy passengers used to pad numbers.
Records show that Gema was registered by former Attorney- General Charles Njonjo in 1971. History says he did so at the instruction of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
Gema’s originators were former Foreign minister Njoroge Mungai, the hawkish Kihika Kimani, the late Njenga Karume, Mzee Kenyatta’s nephew Ngengi Muigai, and State minister Mbiyu Koinange – Mzee’s “kitchen Cabinet”.
But Gema was mooted way before 1971. Lore has it that it was even to include the Akamba, for whom the “A” in Gema was supposedly reserved.
But it’s said that the late Mulu Mutisya and the combative Paul Ngei balked, preferred to silo themselves in the New Akamba Union (Nau).
Imagine the psychological propaganda value of all “four cousins” together – Kikuyu, Kamba, Meru, and Embu.
What’s my point? In politics, you want to create the impression of a juggernaut, even when you are a small tractor. Strike fear in the “enemy”.
There’s nothing more important than numbers. That’s why politicians care deeply about the size of rallies. “Mammoth” is the magic word.
The original Gema ideologues understood this point better than their opponents. They knew that by claiming the Kikuyu, the single largest group, and then augmenting it with the Meru and the Embu, was great visual optics.
Except that the Meru, and to some extent the Embu, have many important differences with the Kikuyu. So do the Kamba, although culturally and linguistically there’s unarguable cousinage.
Some of the differences are stark – very stark.
For example, the Meru can’t understand, nor speak, Kikuyu. It’s that simple. The two communities are virtual linguistic strangers. Don’t get me wrong.
Linguistically, the Kikuyu, Meru, Embu, and Kamba languages have the same logic and share virtually the same root words.
But that’s no consolation for the untrained ear. For example, the Kikamba equivalent for the Kikuyu “Wanjiku” is “Wanziku”. Or the Kikuyu “Mucii” for “home” is the Kikamba “musyi”.
Used in spoken language, the two words are as foreign as French is to Japanese. But this didn’t prevent Gema hegemonists from creating a political community out of the groups. They understood the value of “bundling” groups for elite political gain.
Which brings me to the presence of the Meru in Gema. Let me be clear – the Meru, as a people, were never in Gema.
But former Meru supremo, the late Jackson “Harvester” Angaine, purported to bring the Meru into Gema. One might even say he “harvested” the Meru for Gema. He singlehandedly tried to yoke the Meru to the Kikuyu elite.
There was little or no public dissent. You didn’t dissent when Mzee was alive. Those who did met uncertain fates. That’s why the Meru elite went along with the Gema “thing”.
But even the Meru elite knew then, as they do today, that they weren’t Gema insiders. But they were happy to accept the benefits that came with the association.
Today, Energy minister Kiraitu Murungi is Meru’s “Jackson Angaine”. Mr Murungi seems to have no qualms about auctioning “his people” to the Kikuyu Gema elite.
As Education assistant minister Kilemi Mwiria has eloquently argued, Gema exists to foster the political supremacy of one of the groups, the Kikuyu, over the other two.
Dr Mwiria, the consummate intellectual, has pointedly asked: “When will Kikuyu politicians support a Meru or Embu counterpart for the presidency?” I think the answer may be never.
That’s partly why Meru MPs Gitobu Imanyara, Mithika Linturi, Mburi Muiru, Ntoitha Mithiaru, and Dr Mwiria have defied Mr Murungi.
They refuse to be used like mules to advance Kikuyu hegemony. Thank goodness one can defy self-anointed tribal kingpins these days.
This brings me to the Embu. Of the Gema three, the Embu are the most insignificant group. They are the “rump” of the group. It doesn’t matter that assistant minister Cecily Mbarire has become the biggest Embu Gema supporter.
She’s trying – in vain – to carry on the legacy of the late Jeremiah Nyagah, the patriarch who dragged the Embu into Gema. It’s true that politically the numbers of the Embu are less significant than the Meru.
Nevertheless, they are a catch for Kikuyu tribal hegemonists. They are supposed to be more loyal to the Kikuyu than the Meru. But Embu is very cosmopolitan. It’s a melting pot for all the “cousins” – Kikuyu, especially the Kamba, and the Meru.
I meant to demystify the view that Gema represents the Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu peoples. It doesn’t, and never has. It doesn’t even represent their elites. So, it’s hubris – and utter hogwash – for any politician to claim that Gema speaks for the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu.
Equally preposterous is the claim by Gema that those groups can, or have, endorsed a single presidential candidate. Gichugu MP Martha Karua is right – tribalists mustn’t be allowed to impose tribal “leaders” on Kenyans.
Every citizen must be treated as an individual, not a member of an unthinking tribal herd.
Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of the KHRC.