On Friday, President Uhuru Kenyatta summoned a leaders’ caucus from his Mt Kenya region at the Sagana State Lodge in Nyeri. The caucus has a larger political context than just a natal instinct to go local.
Ahead of major democratic elections, democratic revolutions in pivotal states in the Horn of Africa region are running against the headwinds of rising ethnic nationalism.
In Ethiopia, ethnic nationalism threatens to tear the country apart. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who received a Nobel prize weeks ago, is facing protests from the very same ethnic Oromo activists who put him in power in April 2018. In Kenya, Kenyatta is facing an ethnic-based rebellion from a group of populist politicians from his Jubilee Party and Mount Kenya region. Locally known as Tangatanga, it is the face of the new intra-ethnic rebellion anchored on the larger discourse of clash of parochial nationalism. A mixed bag of genuine rebels, charlatans and political entrepreneurs seeking money and power without a larger vision, it signifies a perfect divide-and-conquer strategy in Kenyan politics.
The Mount Kenya leaders’ caucus is Kenyatta’s systematic response to nip the localised intra-ethnic rebellion allied to larger ethnic coalitions within his party. Kenyatta is also preparing the region for larger and inclusive national dialogue or plebiscite that is set to fundamentally change Kenya’s political landscape.
The caucus, attended by governors, senators, MPs, MCAs, county commissioners and representatives of various sectors, is part of Kenyatta’s wider strategy to re-engineer far-reaching dialogue on the future of Kenya on the basis of a plebiscite backed by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, but vehemently opposed by Deputy President William Ruto.
Kenyatta’s speech made a fundamental point: History matters. Old Kenya was forged on the anvil of anti-colonial nationalism, but modern Kenya is in the throes of smouldering ethnic nationalism. As such, driving Kenyatta’s response to Tangatanga rebellion are the bitter lessons learnt from the 2008 violence. The caucus signifies the new spirit of Africa, the new efforts by African nations to heal their own wounds inspired by the mantra of “African Solutions to African problems”.
Kenyatta was part of the Serena process that ended the 2008 post-election violence and created space for far-reaching reforms. After the 2017 double elections, Kenyatta brokered a “handshake” with the opposition side to restore peace and seek lasting unity and stability based on an inclusive model.
Aware of the challenge of brokering a three-way Gema–Kalenjin-Luo handshake, he avoided the 2008-2013 style of “power sharing”. Instead, he ingeniously tapped into Kenya’s regional influence and the expanding opportunities in the Pan-African space to balance the power and interests of Kenya’s rival elites. He deployed Raila into the African Union as the agency’s Special Envoy on Infrastructure and Raila’s running mate, Kalonzo Musyoka, to IGAD as Special Envoy on South Sudan Conflict.
On the road to the 2022 election, Kenya is caught up in an ideological clash of two visions of power within Kenyatta’s Jubilee party. On the one extreme are those who wanted him to use state power to crush Odinga as a final solution to the ODM challenge. On the other end are those calling for inclusive dialogue within the window provided by the Constitution for plebiscites or referendums to find a lasting solution to ethnic exclusion and polarisation. Kenyatta has decidedly chosen the path of dialogue. He entered into a handshake with the opposition and is now preparing the country for a galvanising national debate on the future of the country around the findings of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). But the GEMA-Kalenjin détente that won Kenyatta the 2013 and 2017 elections has given way to profound unease and suspicion. Critics in Jubilee posit that the handshake has let Odinga off the hook, emboldened and given him another chance to fight for the 2022 election, this time against Ruto.
But the reality is that it has given a new lease of life to an entrenched political feud between Ruto and Raila. Recently dramatised by the Kibra by-election, this feud, which started in 2007 as a battle for the soul of the Rift Valley and for ODM leaders ahead of the 2007 election, which Ruto lost, is shaping and mines the road to 2022.
The realisation that the handshake and Kalenjin-Kikuyu unity in Jubilee is no longer a final solution to Raila and the Luo has pushed the Kalenjin elite back to the drawing board. At their core, they oppose BBI and any new social contract which stands on the way to power for Ruto.
In Sagana, Uhuru spoke of BBI as the best chance and sharpest tool to a united Kenya and to clean its fledgling capitalism of corruption. Ruto’s strategists are riding on Gabrielle Lynch’s idea of the “failure of dynasticism” and the rise of the ODM Wave in the Rift Valley that enabled him to replace Daniel Moi as the Kalenjin kingpin.
Ruto has supported the Tangatanga squad as a divide-and-conquer strategy in the Mount Kenya region. They are his paratroopers in the apocalyptic war between the hustlers and dynasties in 2022. This is part of the larger effort to end dynasticism in the region, replace the “Kenyatta dynasty”, control and dominate the Kalenjin-Kikuyu diarchy that has ruled Kenya since 2013.
Anti-dynasticism is pushing Kenyatta to a lame duck presidency and reshaping Mt Kenya as a client region for Ruto’s Kalenjin elite. “Why do you want to bury me while I am still alive”, Kenyatta asked in Sagana, pointing at the Tangatanga.
The gist of Kenyatta’s message in Sagana was that the future of Kenya does not lie in a clash of ethnic groups and zero-sum victories. As Kenyatta moves to drain its swamps by addressing economic grievances after Sagana, the writing is on the wall for Tangatanga.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and current CEO of Africa Policy Institute.