The period immediately following the 9th August general elections in Kenya was a rude awakening for many. In any contest where there’s only one winner, and so there the contrasting feelings of jubilation and disappointment are no surprise. What would shock a keen observer is the visceral negative reaction shock amongst a section of the supporters of the Azimio la Umoja side. The reaction went beyond disappointment; it was grief that quickly deteriorated into recriminations against any individual or group perceived not to have ‘given their all’ in support of Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga’s candidature.
This is Mr. Odinga’s fifth stab at the presidency, so the spectre of disappointing results is not totally new to his supporters, particularly those over 40 years old. Disappointment and even certain levels of anger have been de rigueur in past elections, but the inexplicable grief and recriminations have been unique to 2022. One unique feature of this year’s elections is that the narrative has portrayed those perceived not to have supported Raila not as competitors or rivals, but as evil saboteurs.
The result was a barrage of vitriolic abuse directed at Kikuyu people on social media, much of it written in Dholuo, which few Kikuyus can read or understand. We certainly hope that the Azimio running mate Martha Karua was somehow shielded from it because a significant proportion of the diatribe is sexist as well. However, those who are shocked and wondering just what happened in 2022 are deluded, because the question is guided by their powers of perception (or lack thereof) rather than by the sequence and consequence of events.
Faith in “The System”
The primitive and flawed history of our electoral structures certainly don’t provide any reason to believe otherwise. However, Kenya is also a nation founded on the dishonesty of colonialists, so we Kenyans still struggle to internalize the truths of political history, including those we have lived through and witnessed. The Luo nation is no exception to this rule, despite boasting several renowned historians and political scientists. The Luo nation has long lived with the well-founded belief that they (through the person of Raila Odinga) have been victims of electoral malpractice in the past.
When the much-vaunted ‘handshake’ between the Rt. Hon Odinga and former President Uhuru Kenyatta took place in 2018, the Luo nation greeted it with unbridled joy at the prospect that ‘one of us’ would finally ascend to the highest office in the land. It was almost comical to see the jubilation that greeted the symbolic launch of Kisumu port where Mr. Odinga was flown to Kisumu in a Kenya Defence Forces aircraft, a very potent (and deliberate) subliminal message, which they tried to actualize through the legally ill-advised “Building Bridges Initiative” (BBI).
In a conversation on the Maisha Kazini YouTube channel, we discussed at length how this project (which failed) was an attempt to entrench feudalism in our formal government structures. In a startling show of cognitive dissonance, the people who had fought so long for democracy and electoral justice mentally crowned Uhuru Kenyatta as a ‘King’ whose reign was ending and had magnanimously designated their leader as the crown prince. ODM leaders, notably Dr. Oburu Odinga crowed about the Uhuru’s endorsement and about the support of “the system” being a sure path to State House for Raila Odinga.
Sadly, this dissonance was so convincing that the people believed them, culminating in a toxic mix of relatively lackluster campaigns, while followers remained inexplicably assured of victory. The people who had steadfastly cast their votes for generations and fought for justice somehow discarded that legacy and internalized the belief that victory would be delivered by a combination of expected injustice and support from the alleged erstwhile perpetrators thereof. A mind-boggling conundrum by any measure.
It would be difficult for any mortal to derive reason from such a bizarre far-flung psychosocial situation, hence the extreme bitterness at the absence of a unanimous support for Mr. Odinga from Kikuyu voters (the decision of other Kenyan voters is not on the table). The Odinga supporters saw the failure of certain areas of Kikuyu land to support Odinga as a betrayal, and rather than recognize the significant number of votes that accrued from the Mt. Kenya region up from virtually nothing in 2017.
How can we explain this avalanche of opprobrium?
This reaction betrays the logic of the whiteness that is rooted in the coloniality of power in Kenya. Underlying the offence was the perception amongst the Luo proletariat that their Kikuyu counterparts had the temerity to reject the Luo liege, even after Odinga’s pact with his Kikuyu peer. Lack of attention to history blinded Odinga’s supporters, both in Luoland and the larger Kenyan intellectual class, to the fact that the Kikuyu proletariat did not view the handshake in the same way as the Luo voters did, nor did they relate to Uhuru the way the Luo did to Raila.
This oversight blinded them to the reality of the Mt. Kenya’s region’s rejection of Uhuru’s political machinations, as opposed to the rejection of Mr. Odinga himself. It was far from automatic that the Kikuyu would blindly follow Uhuru into the handshake. Mt. Kenya has had a fractured relationship with the Kenyattas from the very beginning. At independence, Jomo Kenyatta suppressed Mau Mau history and left Mau Mau veterans landless. Twice before, Uhuru Kenyatta had been rejected at the ballot by the Mt Kenya region: in 1997 when he contested as MP for Gatundu, and in 2002 when he contested to presidency. The rise of Uhuru’s acceptance in Mt Kenya was linked to the trauma of the violence against the Kikuyus in the Rift Valley following the botched elections of 2007, a violence which many Kikuyus attribute to Raila Odinga himself, since the violence stopped when Raila shook hands with Kibaki.
It was this trauma, and Raila’s perceived or actual responsibility in it, that Uhuru exploited in 2013 when he hired a British PR firm which rode on the ICC indictments to present Uhuru as an anti-imperialist freedom fighter. It was not tribal adoration that got Uhuru president, that is if he even won the vote. It was trauma, money and gas lighting by a heavy bureaucratic and intellectual artillery that later included the manipulation of social media by Cambridge Analytica.
The second issue that was overlooked was the anger of the Mt. Kenya region at the collapse of the economy. In his hubris, Uhuru failed to realize that huge infrastructural investments would not pacify ordinary people whose businesses were suffering as the Kenyatta empire grew. The milk industry, for example, is a case in point, where the Kenyatta family dominance in the milk industry was seen as the reason for the drop in the prices ordinary farmers were fetching for their milk. By the time Uhuru and Raila were proposing BBI, people in central Kenya, especially the youth, were saying they did not care for more power-sharing deals when they were not able to earn a living.
Coloniality and ethnicity
The failure to notice the cracks in the deal, due to casual attempt to merge political views of Mt. Kenya and Nyanza region, is linked to the fact that coloniality and whiteness manifested in completely different ways in the two regions. In Kikuyu land, coloniality was imposed through extreme violence, leading to the familiar stories of a society riven between the Mau Mau resistance and colonial collaboration. The Kikuyu have memories in form of living survivors and the trauma of the victims.
By contrast, coloniality in the greater Nyanza region, which included the Luhya regions of the northern Lake Victoria shores, was imposed by co-option through government bureaucracy, colonial education and conversion to Christianity. In Nyanza, there was no conventional rebellion warfare, and the only contact with the rebellion was in the person of the detainees imprisoned at Mageta island. And so coloniality was experienced as psychological more than material. The Africans who became the ‘whites’ were those who became educators, administrators, colonial apparatchiks and clergy. Their descendants still occupy high political offices and are much-admired personalities, such as outgoing governor Cornel Rasanga and Dr. Patrick Amoth of the Chief Amoth Owira family; Prof Peter Anyang Nyongo and the late Prof. Aggrey Nyong’o of the Canon Hesbon Nyong’o family; and the numerous political and business players across both Kenya and Uganda who are descendants of Canon Jeremiah Musungu Awori. Many songs praise men as ‘chal gi mzungu’. Many non-Luos may hear Luos refer to each other as ‘Odiero’ and think it is a very common name, but it is actually an honorific that means ‘white man.’
The only aberration in this historical link was brought about by the fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi and the consequent odium faced by the Odingas. This brought in the suffering narrative as an additional ingredient into Luo nobility. Up to the elections, the answer to any questions on Odinga’s leadership qualities invariably included references to how much he has suffered or sacrificed. With the passage of time and the monumental legal changes in Kenya, however, individual suffering was becoming a less “accessible” qualification, which placed Mr. Odinga on something of a pedestal. Others therefore could only seek distinction through the competence with which they served him and the conspicuous manner in which they displayed this service or consumed the proceeds thereof. Philosophy scholar Joe Kobuthi recently identified this as a form of masculinity that is defined by conspicuous consumption, belying the casual humorous term ‘ujaluo’ used by less erudite people to describe it.
By contrast, whiteness in central Kenya was mostly defined by collaboration against the rebellion. The reward in Mt Kenya for collaboration was entry into government, and access to government contracts and title deeds as a way of climbing the social ladder. In central Kenya, people who pursue school education do not enjoy the same clout that is enjoyed by people with access to wealth. A prominent example was Prof Wangari Maathai who won the 2004 Nobel Prize but lost her parliamentary seat in the 2007 elections. Her international accolades did not win her a free pass to parliament.
Within this matrix, it was difficult to notice major forewarnings that the Odinga bargain was likely to collapse. In January 2021, news broke surrounding a leaked letter allegedly from then Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata to president Kenyatta, which warned that BBI was deeply unpopular in Kikuyu areas. During this time, Babu Ayindo prophetically penned this tweet that escaped attention: “@RailaOdinga, I am prepared to believe that Sen. Irungu Kang’ata deliberately misaddressed that letter. Ja’kom, that letter is yours. Please read what the letter is saying and, more importantly, what the letter is saying without saying.”
Many observers will have noticed the lyrical sob stories that were circulating on social media following the initial announcement of the results, treating Mr. Odinga’s apparent loss like some kind of Greek tragedy. Those familiar with the strong African traditions surrounding death will be uncomfortable with the reference to a living person in language and tone more appropriate for mourning at a wake. It is an unexpected manifestation of ethnic chauvinism, because the personal grief stems from the belief that there was some kind of “queue” for leadership and the “white” Luo candidate was the next in line, having been ‘anointed’ by the sitting president. The usurping of this coronation by a ‘black’ candidate with no known lineage is anathema to all feudalists, including the oppressed vassals.
Such hubris was largely facilitated by Kenyan intellectuals in media, education and cultural spaces, who failed to do the work of unpacking political relationships beyond the usual narrative of tribal quirks. Yet underlying these tribal mathematics was the matrix with which the colonialists ascribed certain vocations to certain ethnic groups to protect colonial interests. For instance, because the colonial interests and African resistance in central Kenya centered on land, the British concocted an elaborate scheme called the Swynnerton plan, where the route to social mobility was joining government to help suppress the resistance, and after independence, getting access to government contracts through feudal networks.
This difference would also explain why the British and Americans would look at Jaramogi as a “communist” when Jaromogi’s flirting with the communist block was more about strategic political muscle against the US-supported Jomo Kenyatta, rather than a reflection of Jaramogi’s economic thinking. Jaramogi’s entrance into politics was on the back of the colonial restrictions on African trading and financial credit in Kisumu. He was therefore more of an indigenous capitalist than a communist. With his lack of direct experience with the land conflicts and colonial violence in central Kenya, it is also understandable that Jaramogi was adamant about the release of Jomo Kenyatta as a condition for independence discussions, while other Kikuyu politicians were more willing to negotiate with the British on their own while Jomo was in jail. After independence, it was Jaramogi who joined forces with Bildad Kaggia in advocating for fundamental land reforms that would give land to Mau Mau veterans, while the Kikuyu politicians – led by Jomo Kenyatta himself – enriched themselves in their newfound status as the new black settlers.
However, this collaboration failed to address the economic logic of the colonial Kenyan state, and the way it was intertwined with ethnic stereotypes. As such, the stereotypes of Kikuyu strength as that of business while Luo strength as that of academics, and similar prejudices about other Kenyan ethnic groups, continued to dominate Kenyan political life. In Kikuyu land, the Kenyatta family would stoke ethnic bigotry to claim unique rights of Kikuyus, and would use ritual, such as the cutting of Field Marshal Muthoni’s hair by Uhuru’s mother, Mrs. Ngina Kenyatta, as a spiritual tool to enforce Kikuyu compliance.
Other ethnic groups outside the two main protagonists are relegated to the stereotypes of witchcraft, docility, cultural stagnation and even terrorism, and rarely do Kenyans interrogate what these stereotypes mean politically. Often, the effect is reduced to that of numbers, but nobody questions why prominent national politicians like Kivutha Kibwana and Ekuru Aukot are often ridiculed for aspiring for the presidency. In many areas in Kenya, people cannot aspire for any office because they are denied identity cards in the name of not belonging one of the 45 or 46 tribes.
This election has therefore been a watershed moment, where the less obvious and more psychological implications of coloniality have been exposed, now that the legal and administrative hurdles associated with elections are decreasing in importance. This psychological dimension of coloniality was hidden from Kenyan politics through the use of ethnicity as a zero-sum narrative to explain Kenyan political life. The Kenyan intellectual class, especially in the media and the education system, covered up this decadence by rebranding tribal parochialism as the irredeemable nature of Africans, and by making hollow calls for Enlightenment style human rights. They therefore had no conceptual framework with which to understand the dynamic nature of Kenya’s politics and the importance of class and economics, especially since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution.
Hubris got us here. Not only the hubris of our nobles who felt entitled to choose leaders for us from amongst themselves, but also from the scholars who have excelled in law, history and political science, but choose to serve the nobles rather than apply the knowledge to our human conditions in situ. When our elite acquire journalistic and academic expertise which does not address what ails us, then we are stuck with “competents” as opposed to educated people. From now on, let us normalize ignoring any purported “expert” who cannot unpack this watershed moment for us. That failure should suggest to us that the “expert” is either part of the mess, or not courageous enough to help our nation move on from it. That’s the definition of deadwood, which can only slow down the growth of our society.