Ahead of the 2022 elections, Kenya is in the throes of a new scramble for Mount Kenya communities akin to the global surge of foreign interests in Africa.
Like the new scramble for Africa (see the Economist, March 2019: 9), the new rush for Mount Kenya aims to carve a sphere of influence as part of a larger scheme to control State power and resources.
The new scramble targets the Gema nation, a political community comprising of what the British liked lampooning as the “Mau Mau tribes” (the Gikuyu, Embu, Meru and Mbeere). Discernibly, four scrambles have shaped the future of power in one of Africa’s pivotal States.
The first occurred in late 1962, ahead of the 1963 election that ushered Kenya to independence from Britain. It was a scramble for the soul of ‘Mau Mau tribes’ and for Jomo Kenyatta—giving rise to the slogan ‘Uhuru na Kenyatta’.
1963 was a battle between two multi-ethnic coalitions: the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) camp led mainly by Luo (Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya) and Gema elite against the Kenya National Democratic Union (Kadu) led by the éminence grise of the Kalenjin (Daniel Moi), Miji Kenda (Ronald Ngala) and Luhya (Masinde Muliro) communities. Kanu won, ushering in a short-lived Luo-Kikuyu détente.
The second scramble was a battle of wits in the protracted ‘Kenyatta Succession’ (1966-1978). It involved the Kalenjin (Moi), the Kamba (Paul Ngei) and Luo (Mboya/Odinga). Moi won, taking power after Kenyatta’s death in 1978.
The third scramble in 2002 was even more dramatic. Kanu (the Kalenjin) lost to the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), an omnibus multi-ethnic coalition of Luo (Raila Odinga), Luhya (Wamalwa Kijana) and Kamba (Kalonzo Musyoka and Charity Ngilu). This 2002 surge had a déjà vu ring to it as both coalitions settled for a Kikuyu flag-bearer, Uhuru Kenyatta (Kanu) against Mwai Kibaki (Narc). The Mboya-Odinga “Uhuru na Kenyatta” chant in the 1960s had familiar echoes in Raila Odinga’s “Kibaki Tosha” clarion call.
The fourth scramble ahead of the 2022 polls is triggered by two factors: Uhuru Kenyatta’s imminent retirement and huge vote in his home turf. The new scramble, therefore, reflects two trajectories: the scramble for the Kenyatta persona and for the soul of the Gema people. But there are some pushing for the continuity of Kikuyu power: a “third term” or the creation of an executive premier for a Gema scion.
So far, Deputy President Dr William Ruto is the front-runner in the new scramble. Between March 2018 and March 2019, Ruto made no less than 29 political forays into the Mount Kenya region. This amounts to 62 per cent of total political visits to the region compared to Raila Odinga’s six (13 per cent), Gideon Moi’s nine (9 per cent), Kalonzo Musyoka’s four (8 per cent) or Musalia Mudavadi’s four (8 per cent). Ruto’s visits targeted Murang’a (37 per cent), Kiambu (27 per cent), Meru/Tharaka-Nithi (18 per cent) and Nyeri (18 per cent).
These political forays are aligned to his three-pronged game plan. One is the ‘development-as-politics’ strategy. A key strand of this strategy involves unveiling and claiming credit for multi-billion government projects.
However, this approach has recently suffered a setback following the appointment of Dr Fred Matiang’i as chair of the National Development Implementation and Communication Cabinet Committee. The ‘development-as-politics’ strategy also involves huge contributions in fund-raisers and financial support to regional political allies. This demands a massive war chest, drawing the attention of anti-corruption troopers.
Two is a subtle campaign to call in “debts”, particularly Ruto’s and Kalenjin’s support to Uhuru and the Gema nation in 2013 and 2017. But extremists are ruining the game. In a trending tweet, one Dennis Kiptoo Mutai asked Kenyans to be prepared for another 2007/08 post-election violence if Uhuru does not support Ruto’s presidential bid in 2022!
As for now, Ruto is the favourite in the Mount Kenya grassroots. But his campaign has come against serious headwinds. Many of his regional allies are seen as political neophytes, with little or no clout and widely seen as beneficiaries of Jubilee’s flawed primaries in 2017. Alleging that they were rigged out of power, regional heavy-weights are now on the prowl to “cut him to size”.
However, the game may radically change if Ruto decides to reciprocate the deal that Uhuru and the Gema nation gave to him and the Kalenjin nation in 2013, including the deputy presidency and an inordinately high share of government positions.
However, the historic handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga, largely inspired by a quest for national unity and inclusion, has cast a dark cloud over the future of the Kalenjin-Kikuyu diarchy.
Indeed, the handshake has sparked a “new scramble for Kenyatta” and the Gema nation.
Odinga is riding the crest of a robust war on corruption while, arguably, working to dismantle Jubilee to give way to a new Narc-like rainbow coalition to steer reforms ahead of 2022.
It appears that the ensuing political order arising from the Odinga-Kenyatta détente is more likely to benefit more either Kalonzo Musyoka, Gideon Moi or Musalia Mudavadi than Dr Ruto.
But 2022 also presents two wild cards. One is Dr Fred Matiang'i, who, from a bureaucratic sense, is the third in command after the January 22, 2019 elevation to chairperson of the powerful Cabinet committee.
The other is Raphael Tuju, who, as the secretary-general of the ruling party, a Cabinet minister without portfolio and now an Odinga ally, is in a political sense the third most powerful Jubilee leader.
Response to the new scramble, increasingly cast as a straight class fight pitting the scions of ‘hustlers’ and those of ‘dynasties’ has badly divided the power elite of the Gema nation, trapped in manouvres to make financial gains and schemes to be deputy presidents. The future of power in the region looks uncertain.
Prof Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute.