Party hygiene the sure-fire path to national unity

Monday July 06 2020

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and opposition leader Raila Odinga during the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative report in Nairobi on November 27, 2019. PHOTO | TONY KARUMBA | AFP


In democratic systems, the governing party or coalition rules alongside an officially recognised opposition, which continuously checks the government. If those in power and the opposition counterparts go to bed together, then the government remains unchecked, to the detriment of citizens.

Arguably, from March 2018 to the present, Kenya is veering towards a de facto one party state, unless we consider the Amani Coalition, Ford-Kenya and William Ruto’s Jubilee B as the symbolic or de-facto opposition.

Notably, the March 2018 hand-shake was driven by a desire to restore peace, which had been ruptured by two contested 2017 presidential elections.

At the dawn of independence, the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), through Tom Mboya, managed to secure a merger with the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kanu). Kanu’s nemesis had been formed by a union of disparate regional parties whose key leaders included Ronald Ngala, Daniel Moi and Masinde Muliro, who facilitated the negotiated dissolution of their party in 1964.


 Kadu did not hide its DNA of ethnic-based politics. Its initial objective was to protect the interests of minority ethnic groups and white settlers. Kanu itself was perceived by Kadu as the protector of the interests of the dominant Kikuyu and Luo.


From independence, the leaders of the nascent political parties were ethnic barons. From the Kanu side were the political giants Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramongi Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya.

For Kanu to achieve de-facto one party status in 1964, Paul Ngei’s African Peoples’ Party (APP) was disbanded in September 1963 after its elected members crossed the floor to join the ruling party.

The Baluhya Political Union was deregistered in March 1965. The Coast Peoples’ Party did not manage an elected position in the 1963 elections and therefore it became moribund. The Nyanza Province African Union similarly slipped into oblivion.

The British colonial government had outlawed the formation of national parties in 1955 after banning the Kenya African Union (Kau) in 1953. Hence the seed of tribally inclined political parties was deliberately sown by the colonial government as a divide-and-rule strategy.

Even Kanu, as I have argued, was formed as a union of ethnic groups and leaders from the major cultural groups in Kenya. Paradoxically, the Kenyans who supported Kanu at independence were from different ethnic groups, races, faiths, labour movement and so on. They sought belonging in a national political outfit.


Kenya enjoyed another fitful stint of multiparty politics between 1966-1969, with the formation of the Kenya Peoples’ Union (KPU) under Oginga Odinga, who was vilified by the ruling party as a socialist and pro-East agent. His desire to form a pro-people, ideology-based party was nipped in the bud.

A constitutional amendment forced those who had defected from Kanu to KPU to face an election in June 1966. On October 29, 1969, Oginga was placed under house arrest and KPU banned the following day.

If Kanu and KPU had co-existed and the regional structure and the independence devolution preserved, the history of Kenya would have been markedly different. Multi-partism and equitable development would most probably have taken root.

 The third cycle of multi-party politics was ushered in 1991 after the repeal of section 2A of the constitution, which had decreed that Kenya would be a one-party state.

The post-1991 multi-party political parties were again largely based on ethnicity. Between 1992 and 1997, some 23 parties were formed. During the 1997-2002 period, the number rose to 51 and in 2002–2007, some 149 parties were registered and, in 2008, they rocketed to 168.

From 1991 to the present, multi-party democracy has had the opportunity to flower. However, the original opposition Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), which was formed in May 1991 under Oginga Odinga, splintered into Ford Kenya, Kenneth Matiba’s Ford Asili and later Ford People. Mwai Kibaki had formed his independent Democratic Party. In 1995, Raila Odinga joined the National Development Party after resigning from Ford-Kenya.

The joint opposition, which was ethnically fragmented, scored the majority of the 1992 and 1997 elections, but Moi’s Kanu carried the trophy.


Between 1964 and 1966, Kanu was the single ruling party. From 1969 to 1982, after the KPU ban, Kenya became a de-facto one-party state. Both Kenyatta and Moi entrenched Kanu, although they ruled through patronage and the provincial administration. This led Martin Shikuku to allege that Kanu was dead, a remark that earned him detention without trial.

In 1982, the constitution was changed to make Kenya a one-party state by law. This political reality continued up to 1991. Politics was still organised around ethnic groups.

I have argued before that the opportunities to develop plural politics in Kenya were presented by the independence party Kanu and KPU; Ford; Narc; Cord; Nasa; ODM and Jubilee Party.

 But because these seemingly national platforms ultimately degenerated into ethnic coalitions devoid of visionary and ideology-based politics, the promise of genuine pluralism was thereby aborted.

I raised the caution that the country is regressing into one-party politics.

ODM cannot be in opposition and at the same time be in cooperation with the ruling Jubilee A.

Under normal circumstances, Jubilee A, ODM, Wiper and Kanu would now be in a government of national unity to pave the way for real parliamentary opposition parties to take over the oversight mantle.

Current political parties must embrace political hygiene so that their politics is not simply driven by self-interest in the guise of protection of ethnic communities.

National, ideology-based parties must emerge. This is one sure way of guaranteeing real national unity.

The writer is the governor of Makueni County