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BLACK, RED AND GREEN: The story behind the Kenyan flag

The history of Kenya’s flag reflects the messy tale of the country’s struggle for independence as well as the unresolved contradictions and disputes that continue to haunt the nation. By PATRICK GATHARA

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BLACK, RED AND GREEN: The story behind the Kenyan flag

Fifty-five years ago, on July 26, 1963, the national flag of the soon to be newly independent state of Kenya was unveiled. The standard was typical of the country that had created it – cobbled together by an elite but imbued with pretensions at unity and forging common cause with common folk.

In those heady days, as Kenya geared up to party, one could be forgiven for ignoring the tensions bubbling underneath. The country was in transition and the previous two years had been marked by political crisis, brinkmanship and even threats of war and secession. As described in 1964 by Guardian journalist Clyde Sanger and former official in the Kenyan colonial administration, John Nottingham, “During this period Kenya first experienced six weeks when neither [of the two major political parties, the Kenya African National Union or the Kenya African Democratic Union] would form a government and [Governor Patrick Renison] told visitors he was prepared to rule by decree; 10 months in which K.A.D.U., with backing from Michael Blundell’s New Kenya Party and Arvind Jamidar’s Kenya Indian Congress, carried on a minority government sustained by more than a dozen nominated members; and a year in which K.A.N.U. and K.A.D.U. uneasily joined in a coalition which was as full of frustrations as it was of intrigues. The politics of nation-building could not even begin until K.A.N.U. had fought and won a straight democratic election”.

Today, the messy story of Kenya’s struggle for independence has largely been swept under the symbolism of the flag, yet the contradictions and disputes that gave rise to it continue to haunt the nation as they were never fully resolved. The tale of the flag itself is a manifestation of these issues.

Symbolism

Historically, flags were linked to conflict. “The primordial rag dipped in the blood of a conquered enemy and lifted high on a stick – that wordless shout of victory and dominion – is a motif repeated millions of times in human existence,” wrote Whitney Smith in his book Flags Through the Ages and Across the World. Modern flags evolved out of the battle standards carried into war by ancient armies and “were almost certainly the invention of the ancient peoples of the Indian subcontinent or what is now China” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Today, the messy story of Kenya’s struggle for independence has largely been swept under the symbolism of the flag, yet the contradictions and disputes that gave rise to it continue to haunt the nation as they were never fully resolved. The tale of the flag itself is a manifestation of these issues.

In battle, flags were both symbolic and practical. They provided mobile rallying points for soldiers engaged in combat, could be used to signify victory or even, in plain white form, a truce or surrender. In the days before radio communications, they were also ways of communicating across vast distances, especially by sailors. In the modern age, they are still carry powerful symbolic significance. “Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride,” Marcus Garvey was reported to have declared in 1921.

On the African continent, almost all the current national flags were created in the years following the Second World War and in the run-up to the demise of colonialism. Many still bear hallmarks of that colonial past. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the ensigns of countries that had a common colonial past “bear strong family resemblances to one another”. It distinguishes two major categories: those former French colonies which “tend to have vertical tricolours and are generally green-yellow-red” and those of the Anglophone which “have horizontal tricolours and often include green, blue, black, and white.”

The colours

Kenya’s standard also carries this history. It can be traced directly to that of the Kenya African Union, which was founded in 1942 under the name Kenya African Study Union, with Harry Thuku as its president. The flag of the KAU (the word “Study” was dropped in 1946) adopted the Pan-African colours pioneered by Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League 25 years before – red, black and green, which respectively represented the blood that unites all people of Black African ancestry and which was shed for liberation; the race of black people as a nation; and the natural wealth of Africa. (It must be noted, though, that some have suggested that when Garvey proposed the colours, he meant the latter two to reflect sympathy for the “Reds of the world” as well as the Irish struggle for freedom.)

However, when originally introduced on September 3, 1951, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, KAU’s flag was only black and red with a central shield and arrow. The following year, the background was altered to three equal horizontal stripes of black, red and green with a white central emblem consisting of a shield and crossed spear and arrow, together with the initials “KAU”. At the time the black stood for the indigenous population, red for the common blood of all humanity, green symbolised the nation’s fertile land while the shield and weapons were a reminder that organised struggle was the basis for future self-government.

Jomo Kenyatta took over the presidency of KAU from James Gichuru in 1947. Five years later, as reported by Karari wa Njama, a Mau Mau veteran and alumnus of Alliance High School, in the book Mau Mau from Within, Kenyatta’s explanation of the significance of the KAU flag had changed. “What he said must mean that our fertile lands (green) could only be regained by the blood (red) of the African (black). That was it! The black was separated from the green by the red: The African could only get to his land through blood.”

Kenyatta was speaking in Nyeri as the Mau Mau uprising was gathering steam. Though billed as a KAU meeting, Karari says that “most of the organisers of the meeting were Mau Mau leaders and most of the crowd Mau Mau members.

“What he said must mean that our fertile lands (green) could only be regained by the blood (red) of the African (black). That was it! The black was separated from the green by the red: The African could only get to his land through blood.”

Yet Kenyatta himself had little to do with the Mau Mau. On the contrary, he consistently denied any involvement with them and is, in fact, reported – on the same day – as having distinguished the KAU from the uprising and having disavowed the use of violence. “He who calls us the Mau Mau is not truthful. We do not know this thing Mau Mau…K.A.U. is not a fighting union that uses fists and weapons. If any of you here think that force is good, I do not agree with you: remember the old saying that he who is hit with a rungu returns, but he who is hit with justice never comes back. I do not want people to accuse us falsely – that we steal and that we are Mau Mau.”

However, Karari’s recollection is important given that the red in the Kenyan flag would later be claimed to reflect “the blood that was shed in the fight for independence”.

By 1956, the Mau Mau revolt had been brutally quashed and gradually the restrictions on political organisation were eased. In 1960, the eight-year State of Emergency was lifted and the ban on colony-wide African political parties relaxed. KANU was founded on May 14 of that year and, as Charles Hornsby writes in his book Kenya: A History Since Independence, “its name, black, red and green flag and symbols were chosen as a direct successor to those of KAU”. At some point, the cockerel and battle axe were introduced as symbols of the party. A month later, on June 25, KADU was formed. John Kamau, an Associate Editor with the Daily Nation has written that the “Kanu and Kadu flags were similar in design. Both had three horizontal bands and two similar colours, black and green. The difference was only in the third colour, red for Kanu and white for Kadu.”

KANU was dominated by the large agricultural communities – the Kikuyu and Luo – while KADU represented smaller, mostly pastoral ones, which feared domination. KANU won the 1961 election but refused to form a government before Kenyatta, who had been detained in 1952, was released. KADU, after extracting some concessions from the British, which included building Kenyatta a house in Gatundu and moving him there, formed a minority government with its head, Ronald Ngala, as Leader of Government Business and later as Chief Minister.

Majimboism

It was only in September, after it had been in power for five months, that KADU begun to foster an issue that would come to define the conflict between the two parties. KADU espoused Majimbo, or regionalism, in opposition to KANU’s preference for a highly centralised post-independence state. KADU was egged on by the white colonial establishment to adopt this stand.

As explained by Sanger and Nottingham:

“Majimbo’s origins should be traced further back, to Federal Independence Party formed in 1954 by white farmers, who saw that political control would one day pass into African hands and wanted to seal off the ‘White Highlands’ from an African central government and save the great wealth of the Highlands for those considered had been solely responsible for developing it.

“Indeed, regionalism really goes much further back than this. Elspeth Huxley recalls that the F.I.P. was only proposing to ‘develop the “white island” idea … to carve out a small territory, about the size of Wales, comprising present areas of the Highlands. In this area they would exercise self-government; so would the Africans in other areas; and Kenya would become a federation of three or four smallish states, in only one of which would the colonists have political control. Here they would entrench themselves.’”

It is interesting that devolution, which is rooted in the Majimbo debates, has become a pillar of the 2010 constitution. Many Kenyans do not realise just how much current political debates are a reflection of much older, and not always innocent, proposals.

KANU, in opposition, was vociferously opposed to Majimbo, which it saw as entrenching tribalism. And by the second Lancaster House Constitutional Conference, which lasted from February to April 1962, both sides seemed, at least rhetorically, firmly entrenched in their positions.

It is interesting that devolution, which is rooted in the Majimbo debates, has become a pillar of the 2010 constitution. Many Kenyans do not realise just how much current political debates are a reflection of much older, and not always innocent, proposals.

But it was mostly for show. As Prof. Robert Manners wrote at the time, “The contesting parties are less divided by issues, programs, and even concepts of political structure than they are by competing personal ambitions.” He added that he had spoken to several within the KADU camp, including two front benchers, who told him that they were not really afraid of KANU domination but rather, were cynically hyping up fears for personal benefit. “In short, it is fairly certain that KADU’s leadership does not share the ‘tribal’ fears they have helped to arouse in their followers. They have employed some ancient anxieties and provoked a number of new ones with the apparently calculated intent of prolonging in some measure and for some time the freakish position of power with which they were endowed when KANU refused, in April 1961, to form a government.” Sound familiar?

Regardless, the outcome of the conference was a coalition government led by both Ngala, the Minister of State for Constitutional Affairs with special responsibility for administration, and Kenyatta, who had since been released and was now the Minister of State for Constitutional Affairs with special responsibility for economic planning and development. Each declared victory.

This “nusu mkate” government was a fractious affair from which Kenyatta’s Number Two in KANU had been excluded at the insistence of the Colonial Office. In his book, Not Yet Uhuru, Oginga Odinga speculated that “Governor Renison persuaded the Colonial office that my visits to Socialist countries made me unfit to take Cabinet office”. He was also aware of “behind-the-scenes discussions in London in which some Kanu men hinted that I would be unacceptable not only to Kadu but even to some groups in Kanu”.

Still, the coalition held till the elections in 1963, which KANU again won handily and this time they got to form the government, with Kenyatta as Prime Minister. In June, Kenya attained self-government and arrangements for independence began in earnest. Among the issues that would need to be settled was the question of a political union with neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. As late as July, the idea of an East African Federation was still being taken seriously.

East African Federation debate

A month before, on July 5, Kenyatta and his Ugandan and Tanganyikan counterparts, Milton Obote and Julius Nyerere, had issued the Declaration of Federation, in which they committed to establishing a political federation by the end of the year. This was another idea with a long history, pioneered by the white colonial settler establishment who, as far back as the 1920s, were ready to establish a federal capital in Nairobi in order to reduce the influence of London in the region.

The region was already tied together by a network of more than 40 different East African institutions covering areas such as research, social services, education/training and defence. As Nyerere had observed in March, “A federation of at least Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika should be comparatively easy to achieve. We already have a common market, and run many services through the Common Services Organisation…This is the nucleus from which a federation is the natural growth.”

When the issue came up for debate in the UK’s House of Lords on July 15, Francis Twining warned of the difficulties of federation since it involved the loss of sovereignty which “these new countries value … above all else. They jealously prize their status symbols, such as national flags and national anthems”.

And, as Nyerere himself would admit 34 years later, flags and other national symbols, rather than tools to rally unity, had become tools of personal aggrandisement and actually stood in the way of such unity. “Once you multiply national anthems, national flags and national passports, seats at the United Nations, and individuals entitled to 21 guns salute, not to speak of a host of ministers, prime ministers, and envoys, you have a whole army of powerful people with vested interests in keeping Africa balkanised.” Across the continent, attempts at political federation met quick deaths.

And, as Nyerere himself would admit 34 years later, flags and other national symbols, rather than tools to rally unity, had become tools of personal aggrandisement and actually stood in the way of such unity.

As Kenya moved towards independence, some within Kenyatta’s circle wanted to use the KANU flag as the national flag. This was not without precedent. As Tom Mboya, the brilliant young Justice and Constitutional minister, noted, “It is not without significance that our neighbours, Tanganyika and Uganda, both saw it fit to use the ruling party flag simply as a basis for the national flag.”

However, Mboya cautioned against simply adopting the KANU flag, warning that it would further polarise the country. He managed to convince Kenyatta, who formed a small committee chaired by Dawson Mwanyumba, the Minister for Works, Communication and Power, to come up with the national colours. Doing so was not difficult because he was not really looking for national colours but rather a political compromise everyone could live with. So he did the obvious thing and combined the colours of the KANU and KADU flag by introducing the white fimbriation. The flag retained and updated the elements of the KAU flag, such as the shield and spears. The KANU cockerel and axe were omitted from the flag but made it onto the coat of arms.

When the flag was shown to the cabinet, the meaning of the red colour matched what Karari had understood Kenyatta to say over a decade before. Rather than simply including KADU, the white fimbriation was said to symbolise a multiracial society but the cabinet changed it to “peace”, perhaps a sign that while racial minorities would be tolerated in the new Kenya, their integration was not necessarily on the agenda.

Talks of secession

But there were other issues related to minorities to be settled. In the northeast, the Somali population was in open revolt. A 1962 survey had found that 85 percent of Somalis preferred to join Somalia. However, in March 1963, Duncan Sandys, the Colonial Secretary, under pressure from Kenyan ministers, supported a Kenyan future for them. This sparked mass protests, an election boycott, calls for armed secession and attacks on government facilities. By November, the so-called Shifta war was raging, with audacious attacks by rebels armed and trained by Somalia.

In Nairobi, Mboya pushed an amendment to the National Flag, Emblems and Names Act to outlaw the display of flags purporting to represent Kenya or a part thereof. This was meant to stop the Somalis flying the Somalia flag in the Northern Frontier District. But it also had other targets.

At the third and final Lancaster House Constitutional Conference, held between late September and mid-October 1963, tensions were so high that KADU leaders Ngala and Daniel arap Moi, who had been elected President of the Rift Valley Region, threatened to secede from Kenya, with Moi releasing a partition map and threatening a unilateral declaration of independence. (Again, sound familiar?) There were even suspicions of an alliance with the Somalis in the NFD, which were fueled by a cable from Jean Seroney, at the London talks, to Moi: “Dishonourable betrayal of majimbo agreement by Britishers. Alert Kalenjin and region and Kadu to expect and prepare for worst. Partition and operation Somalia only hope.”

Mboya’s motion was thus not just aimed at the Somalis; the threats of secession by KADU regions had to be put down and one way was to deny them the right to fly flags purporting to represent an autonomous, or even independent, part of Kenya. Local councils, though, like the Nairobi City Council, were allowed to have their own flags.

There would be more drama surrounding the flag on independence day. The symbolism of lowering the Union Jack at midnight right before the Kenyan flag went up was profoundly discomfitting to the British. They determined that their flag would not be raised for the event after it had been lowered, as was customary, at 6pm. Kenyatta, who by now was their reliable lackey, was happy to go with it but when he presented the plan to the Cabinet, it was shot down, largely thanks to Mboya. So another plan was hatched with Arthur Horner, the former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works and then the head of the Independence Celebrations Directorate (the body charged with organising the event), who secretly ordered to put out the lights as the British standard came down and switch them back on as the Kenyan flag was raised. It was a ploy the Brits had pulled before, in both Uganda and Tanganyika.

On 30th July, just a few days after the national flag had been introduced, Kenyatta had given a ministerial statement on the independence day celebrations in which he bemoaned the people’s penchant to fly party flags wherever and whenever they desired, declaring it illegal. The national flag, he declared, would only be flown by “Cabinet Ministers and other authorised persons” and its reproduction, along with that of Kenyatta’s own portrait, would be strictly controlled. In this way, under the guise of honouring it, the flag was shielded from the masses and reserved for the glorification of the ruling elite. The flag, and the state it stood for, became the property of a few, not of all Kenyans.

After independence, this “protection” of the flag from the people, who were deemed too unclean to handle it, continued with frequent debates in Parliament about who could and who couldn’t fly it. Under Jomo Kenyatta’s successors, the law and the policy has remained largely unchallenged.

Reclaiming the flag

But the last two decades have seen the beginnings of a popular movement to claim the Kenyan flag. It has become ever more present in Kenyans’ lives – from activists like Njonjo Mue, who in 2004 scaled the walls of Parliament and ripped the flag off a cabinet minister’s car as a way of demonstrating the government’s loss of moral authority to govern, and who more recently has been charged with flying the flag on his own car, to the many Kenyans brandishing it during public rallies and sporting events (it even famously made an appearance at the World Cup) it seems that, as Kenyatta feared 55 years ago, “every Tom, Dick and Harry” is flying it. He must be turning in his mausoleum. Good.

After independence, this “protection” of the flag from the people, who were deemed too unclean to handle it, continued with frequent debates in Parliament about who could and who couldn’t fly it. Under Jomo Kenyatta’s successors, the law and the policy has remained largely unchallenged.

However, besides reclaiming the use of the flag, Kenyans need to also consider what it means today. If it is not to be a tool of personal aggrandisement or unthinking and enforced veneration of the state, then what should it be used for? Who or what does it represent?

In the years since independence, it has been a symbol, not of Kenyans and their struggles against oppression, but of Kenya and the power it continues to be wielded against them. The rituals associated with the flag and other symbols such as the national anthem, both reinforce and, paradoxically, disguise this. It is clear in the common statement that “Kenya is greater than any one of us” which at once distinguishes Kenya from Kenyans while also proclaiming the myth that the state is something more than a largely self-serving political arrangement between elites competing for power and prestige. Kenya, we are rather told, is a divinely-ordained an eternally established ordering of Kenyans to which we all owe allegiance and subservience. It recalls a time in my childhood when I was informed that suicide was illegal because it deprived the state of taxes, as if Kenyans were made for Kenya and not the other way around.

In the week where we mark the anniversary of Kenyatta’s “Tom, Dick and Harry” statement to the House of Representatives, perhaps we could all take some time to remember all the history – good and bad – that the flag represents, as well as reflect on what else it could stand for.

We can choose, and many are choosing, to reinterpret its design and colours to suit, not the ambitions and egos of politicians, but the realities and aspirations of ordinary Kenyans. As it did for Karari wa Njama all those years ago, it should today serve as a reminder of the need to continue the struggle to free ourselves from the existing colonially-inspired order – that despite 55 years of independence, the black is still separated from the green.

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

Features

The Original Sin: Land, Politics and the History of Ethnic Tensions in the Rift Valley

As the theatre of the politics of succession leading to 2022 plays out in the expansive Rift Valley region, the spectre of the ever-simmering land question looms large. By DAUTI KAHURA

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The Original Sin: Land, Politics, and the History of Ethnic Tensions in the Rift Valley

“Chitap koret,” this is my ancestral land, a Kalenjin from the Sabaot community, one of the nine ethnic dialects that make up the Kalenjin nation, said to me at the foothills of Mt Elgon, in Trans Nzoia County. Sabaots are a pastoralist community and just like the Maasai people, believe in keeping cattle – even the poorest Sabaot must have a cow or two. “Kalenjin believe North Rift especially belongs to them and nothing will change that,” said Kip, my Sabaot acquaintance.

“These people (the Kikuyus) will always be tenants on our land,” said Kip. “They are here temporarily. It doesn’t matter whether the land they occupy has been bought legally or not, was dished out, bought from one of us or any other person, whether it has a title or not. One day they must vacate this land.” Kip said mutual suspicion between the Kikuyus and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley will always abound. “Mark my words,” said Kip emphatically, “just like the Kikuyu don’t forget, we Kalenjin don’t forgive – we will revisit the issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley. We will soon show them who the true owners of the Rift Valley are.” It was an ominous threat.

Every time there is a shift in the political relations at the national level, between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites, every time these elites engage in a public spat, the Kalenjin people of the greater Rift Valley allude to foreigners among them who should be ejected. Every time the issue of foreigners arises in the Rift Valley region, the first targets are specifically the Kikuyu people, some of whom have lived in the Rift Valley region for the last 70 years.

Kip said mutual suspicion between the Kikuyus and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley will always abound. “Mark my words,” said Kip emphatically, “just like the Kikuyu don’t forget, we Kalenjin don’t forgive – we will revisit the issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley. We will soon show them who the true owners of the Rift Valley are.” It was an ominous threat.

The genesis of the land quagmire between the Kalenjin and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley region, traces back to the 1940s, which the British colonial government exacerbated by settling the Kikuyus in the area. An annual colonial write-up of 1957 reported, “In common with other Kalenjin people, however, there is everywhere else, dislike of the Kikuyu settlement being established in what is regarded as their district’s sphere of influence in Uasin Gishu”.

Yet, the colonial government had, by the turn of the 19th century, sowed the seeds of discord, when it pushed many of the ethnic communities into reserve lands and squatter camps, to create room for cash crop growing by the European settler farmers in the White Highlands. Central Kenya, Rift Valley and Coast Province were the major culprits in this settler land colonial project.

A pastoralist community, the Kalenjin, however struck an exceptional deal with the settler farmers: provide manual labour in the farms for exchange of grazing rights. But come the mid-1940s, this arrangement was destabilized, because the settler farmers needed more land for their cash crops. Why? World War (II) had ended in 1945 and Europe had decimated most of its agricultural lands for cash crop production. In addition, the Kalenjin people were expanding in population, even as their livestock grew in numbers. They too were demanding more land to graze their animals. This naturally created further tensions.

The first thing the colonial government did in reaction to this agitation by the Kalenjin was, to contain them in squatter camps and deny them grazing land. A warrior-like people, the Kalenjin refused to be squatters in the settler farms. So, in search of pastureland, they trekked off. This migration led them to central Rift Valley, Taita-Taveta and even in as far as Tanzania.

Every time there is a shift in the political relations at the national level, between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites, every time these elites engage in a public spat, the Kalenjin people of the greater Rift Valley allude to foreigners among them who should be ejected

To replace the departing Kalenjins, the colonial government brought in the Kikuyus from Central Kenya to work in the settler farms arguing that the agrarian, sedentary Kikuyus were hardworking and attuned to plant cultivation, unlike the “lazy” pastoralist Kalenjin.

By 1950s therefore, Kikuyu population in the Rift Valley had tremendously grown and this greatly upset the indigenous Kalenjin. This is around the time the Kalenjins started agitating for their land and viewing Kikuyus as strangers and intruders. Hence, the temporary halting of more “importation” of Kikuyus from Central Kenya to Rift Valley, according to colonial reports that quoted Mr P.H Brown, the Uasin Gishu District Commissioner (DC), who recommended the stop.

But, no sooner had Brown stopped further Kikuyu migration into the Rift, than his successor revoked the decree. Mr R.S Symes-Thompson pointed out that Kikuyus were central to agricultural success in the settler farms. It is an arrangement that Jomo Kenyatta inherited and perfected when he became first, the Prime Minister in 1963 and, later President in 1964.

When it became apparent that the British would have to relinquish its power in Kenya, they bought between one and three million acres of land to resettle the landless. They also put a caveat to land ownership: any Kenyan would own land anywhere in Kenya, regardless of their ancestral origins and ethnicity. Secondly, there was no free land. If anybody wanted to buy land, it would, henceforth be, on a willing-seller, willing-buyer. It is an arrangement that greatly favoured the Kikuyus and that Kenyatta took to heart and implemented it even better than the departing British. To date, these two decrees appear in the new promulgated 2010 constitution.

To this end, the British colonial government gave Kenyatta’s government 100 million sterling pounds under the Settlement Fund Trustees (SFT) to buy land for the squatters – many of who were Kikuyus. In 1969, fiery Nandi MP Jean Marie Seroney, convened a charged meeting to debate the land question in Rift Valley. The Nandi Hills Declaration was the aftermath of that meeting, which decreed all land in Nandi belonged to the local community, that would henceforth oppose any further acquisition and settlement of Kikuyus in the area.

Moi who was the Vice President and Minister for Home Affairs and was Seroney’s political nemesis, threw him into detention. The Kalenjins have always argued that even when they had money to buy their own land, the Kenyatta government opposed the move. They cite the example of the Makonge (sisal) Farm in Ziwa. The attempt to buy this land was thwarted by the state in 1976, leading to the arrest of Eldoret North MP, the controversial Chelagat Mutai. The farm, instead, was handed to a land buying company belonging to Kikuyus.

In Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics, published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press, Catherine Boone, ably tackles the intricate interconnectedness of supra local politics and land ownership in the volatile Rift Valley region.

“The statist land tenure regime (LTG) established in the Rift Valley farming districts by the colonial state was perpetuated and elaborated by the Kanu government after independence,” writes Boone. She says, the government bought the land from the departing European settlers, and allocated the land through settlement schemes to smallholder farmers between 1960–1975. “The rest of the land so acquired was transferred in the form of large estates to high ranking members of the Kenyatta regime entrenching their status as an economic, as well as a political elite.”

Burnt Forest area – which become infamous in December 2007, after some Kikuyu families were trapped in a Pentecostal church and that was set on fire, burning mostly women and their children below 10 years – “become a zone of mostly Kikuyu settlement schemes and was purchased by the state in 1965.” During the highly contested presidential 2007 election, the Opposition coalition led by Raila Odinga, running on an ODM ticket cried foul and accused the Mwai Kibaki led Party of National Union (PNU) of stealing the elections, provoking ethnic cleansing in Rift Valley, especially in areas that were heavily populated by Kikuyu. Burnt Forest became one of the notorious flashpoints of that ethnic warfare.

“Many settlers on the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia Districts schemes were Kikuyu who had previously been employed on European farms in these areas” points out Boone. “Under Kenyatta, the kanu government used its land powers to open the Rift to settlement by peoples and persons who were not recognized by the state as indigenous to these jurisdictions, and who did not claim ancestral or customary rights in these areas.” Boone adds, “Under colonial rule, these people were categorized into state-recognized ethnic groups (the Nandi, Kipsigis, Maasai, Tugen, Elgeyo, Samburu, Marakwet, Sabaot, Pokot Terik, Turkana and so on).”

Catherine Boone who is a professor of Government, International Development and Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), makes the point that even after these communities were pushed to the margins of their lands (presumably to create room for the sedentary communities such as the Kikuyu to engage in agricultural farming), the loss (of land) did not decrease, or become less onerous, overtime.

Conflicts over access to land in Kenya’s Rift Valley have marked all stages of Kenya’s national history and shaped each critical juncture, says Boone. “The colonial state expropriated much of what is now Rift Valley Province from the Maasai and other people indigenous to the Rift. The British proclaimed direct jurisdiction over what it designated as Crown Land in the Rift Valley in 1904.”

Boone argues in her book that “the farming districts of Kenya’s Rift Valley Province are some of the most productive and highly commercialized rural zones of sub-Saharan Africa. These districts – Nakuru, Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu and Nandi – are territories with high in-migration and high ethnic homogeneity and with settlement patterns and land allocation authored directly by the central state. It is also one of Africa’s worst conflict-ridden rural areas, with a long and bloody history of land-related struggles.”

Once Daniel arap Moi was in control of the state organs, after succeeding Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, “he used the central state’s land prerogative in Rift Valley to reward its own clients, who were encouraged by the regime to coalesce around ethnic identity, Kalenjin-ness that was centred on indigeneity (autochthony) in the Rift Valley,” notes Boone. “From 1986 on, government forestlands became caisse noire of patronage resources that were used to cement elite alliances and build political support for Moi among Kalenjin constituencies he needed as a mass power base.”

Hence, “evictions of Kenyatta-era forest squatters and the declassification of new forest land opened a land frontier that Moi used to settle thousands of Kalenjin families. Most Kikuyus were expelled from the Mau Forest in the 1980s, so that Kalenjins could move in. Many were allowed to settle south of Njoro.”

In the South Rift, largely composed of the Kipsigis, Kalenjin’s biggest dialect, a simmering anger of volcanic proportions is going on, brought about by the eviction of the Kipsigis people from the Mau Forest beginning 2018. Many were settled there, originally by President Moi in the early 1980s, soon after becoming the second president of Kenya, and for some as late as 15 years ago during the tenure of President Mwai Kibaki. The Kipsigis are now accusing the Deputy President William Ruto of ominous silence, as they are forcefully being kicked out and their property burned.

Daniel Burgei told me the Kipsigis helped marshal Kalenjin vote for Jubilee Party through Ruto, “now he is mum about the evictions. This is very troubling as we watch this whole spectacle in bewilderment. The Kipsigis have been practicing shamba system in the Mau Forest, where the soils are rich, do not need fertilizer and are good for cabbage, maize potatoes and tomato production. They also have been keeping livestock; cows, donkeys, goats and sheep.” Yet, in the process, they have hived huge chunks of the forest by cutting trees, hence destroying the natural environment, all in the name of giving way to farming, said Burgei.

Ruto, like Moi in the 1970s when he was Jomo Kenyatta’s VP is accused by a section of the Kalenjin people of keeping quiet in the face of the long-standing issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley region.

It is significant to note that “the name Kalenjin came into use as a group of designation in Kenya among World War (II) servicemen and ex-servicemen and students in the elite East Africa high schools in Nairobi and Kampala in the 1940s. “This ethnic consciousness of being Kalenjin was rooted in the native-stranger distinction. In very part, it was produced by the land tenure regime. The form of ethnic consciousness and mobilization that developed in Kenya was not the consciousness of all the people.

“When (former President Daniel arap) Moi led the efforts to amalgamate the political organization of the state-recognized tribes of the western Rift Valley in early 1960, he called the umbrella group the Kalenjin Political Association (KPA).” Boone adds that when the colonial government lifted the ban on indigenous politics, Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) took over the interests of KPA.

“By the time of the February 1962 Lancaster House constitutional negotiations, “the rifts between Kanu and Kadu were…deep and deeply felt…During the talks, Moi would repeat that the people of Kalenjin were prepared to fight and die for their land.” Boone reminds us all, that “Kalenjin first appeared as an official ethnicity on the Kenyan census in 1979, Moi’s first year as a president. Moi promoted Kalenjin identity in the 1980s and 1990s as an ethnic designation to transcend the narrower, older colonial-era identities of Nandi, Kipsigis, Elgeyo, Tugen, and so on.” These ethnic consciousness of being a Kalenjin, says Boone was driven by the sensitive land politics of the Rift.

This consciousness has had the effect of creating a peculiar “tribalism,” in the Rift Valley land politics “namely that in it was almost wholly a consciousness of being, either a Kikuyu or not-Kikuyu.”

If the 1960s and 1970s were decades of consolidation of the Kenyatta regime which sidelined those claiming ancestral land rights in the Rift Valley and “inserted” African settlers into Rift Valley farming districts, the 1980s and 1990s were a reversal of these settlements. Forced to accept plural politics in 1991, by the West, his erstwhile allies in the Cold War era, Moi mobilized the Rift Valley constituencies, “along an axis of competition that pitted indigenes of the Rift Valley against settlers who had been implanted by the Kenyatta regime.”

Boone observes that the Rift Valley politicians tapped into existing land-related tensions in which the central state was directly implicated as the author and enforcer of a contested distribution of land rights. “This conflict found direct expression in electoral politics at the national level. Political rhetoric that pervaded Nandi, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts dwelled on how land was lost to the Europeans was never recovered and how under Kenyatta ‘black colonialists’had been allowed to buy up land that rightfully should have belonged to indigenous communities.”

Prof Boone gives the example of Likia location, in Molo division, Nakuru District, “where most land belonged to Kikuyus in the early 1990s, local Kalenjin politicians reminded the people of the past ownership of the land and encouraged them to reclaim it.”

On January 10, 2019, a former Molo MP, Joseph Kiuna held a press conference in Likia area of Molo and reminded the Kalenjin that they had not forgotten what they had done to the Kikuyus in 2007/2008post-election violence (PEV). “All this time the Kikuyus have been pretending that they had forgotten and moved on,” said Kip. “We Kalenjin are very much aware they have not forgotten anything.” Even though thousands of Kikuyus were internally displaced – up to 600,000 people were dislocated from their homesteads in the greater Rift Valley during PEV, by the marauding Kalenjin warriors – many a Kikuyu nevertheless returned to Rift Valley. The allure of fertile soils, the armistice arrived at between Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta and a desire to go back to their lands, which they had occupied for many years, was greater than the ominous existential threat of a repeat “ethnic” attack on their farms.

And the Kikuyus have had big group farms ranging between 1000 and 3000 acres in Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu Counties. 35 kilometers from Kitale town are the better known Gitwamba and Munyaka Farms located at the foothills of Mt Elgon, bordering Mt Elgon Forest. Most of the Kikuyus who settled here were from Nyeri and its environs. Endowed with black alluvial soils, the farms are very fertile. Since settling there, decades ago, the Kikuyus have grown beans, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes amongst a host of other horticultural crops. Markets days in Iten, Kitale, Matunda, Moi’s Bridge and Soy are filled with fresh produce from these farms. As fate would have it, in Trans Nzoia, it is Gitwamba – which in Kikuyu language means a flat, rich plateau with fertile soils and Munyaka which means to be lucky – that were the first flashpoints of ethnic upheavals in 1991. They have remained so to date.

The 1991 ethnic clashes were instigated, organized and executed by Moi’s Kanu regime which suddenly felt under siege from the multi-party advocates. Hoping to tap into their age-old grievances of land ownership and aware he had kept mum as land in the Rift Valley was being parceled to Kikuyus and other communities, by the Kenyatta government in the 1970s, Moi allegedly encouraged the Kalenjins to “reclaim” their land from foreigners, in exchange for their support to further cement and consolidate his grip on state power. By foreigners, he meant the Kikuyu people.

The other Kikuyu farms in TransNzoia are: Wamuini Farm A, the 1,000 agricultural land near St Joseph High School on the Kitale-Ndalu Road. Wamuini Farm B, formerly Mabonde Farm that was called mabonde – Kiswahili for denes, because of its ridges and valleys. There is also Meru Farm bought in the early 1970s. It is near Kitale showground, adjacent to the posh Milimani Estate. The other big farms owned by Kikuyus are Kiirita, Makui and Weteithie Farms. Weteithie, which in Kikuyu means self-help. All these farms were bought through land-buying companies with loans from Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC). They include Mwihoko, which means hope in Kikuyu, Ngwataniro-Mutukanio, Nakuru District Ex-Freedom Fighters Organization (NDEFFO) and Nyakinyua, which was President Kenyatta’s favourite cultural dancing troupe made up of women.

The 1991 ethnic clashes were instigated, organized and executed by Moi’s Kanu regime which suddenly felt under siege from the multi-party advocates. Hoping to tap into their age-old grievances of land ownership and aware he had kept mum as land in the Rift Valley was being parceled to Kikuyus and other communities, by the Kenyatta government in the 1970s, Moi allegedly encouraged the Kalenjins to “reclaim” their land from foreigners, in exchange for their support to further cement and consolidate his grip on state power. By foreigners, he meant the Kikuyu people.

In Trans Nzoia, other Kikuyus acquired land through SFTs, formerly white farms, given ostensibly to “landless people” by Jomo Kenyatta government. In Uasin Gishu County which borders Trans Nzoia, there is a replica of Munyaka Farm, today referred to as Kimumu-Munyaka Farm, located on the Eldoret-Iten Road. The more famous Ya-Mumbi Farm is on the Eldoret-Kapsabet-Kisumu Road. Rukuini and Kondoo Farms are near Burnt Forest. Kimuri and Kiambaa Farms are not far from Eldoret town. Rukuini and Kondoo, just like Gitwamba and Munyaka in Kitale, have remained focal points of “ethnic wars” since 1991.

After the violent uproar that took place in Eldoret North following the controversial 2007 general election, many Kikuyus living in Uasin Gishu County, abandoned their farms in Turbo 30 km from Eldoret town and went to live in town, at Langas estate, the sprawling Kangemi-type ghetto located on the Eldoret-Kisumu highway, just after the Eldoret Polytechnic. Kangemi is a slum on Waiyaki Way, seven kilometres from Nairobi city centre. Stephen Kiplagat, who was born and bred in and whose family still lives in Langas told me that it is today estimated to be 85 per cent populated by Kikuyus. “My family is one of the very few Nandi families that still reside at Langas, the rest are Kikuyus.”

Five Nandi families originally owned Langas. Many of them started parcelling the land and selling it mostly to Kikuyus from the 1980s. Two factors drove this sale: the Kikuyu desire for a plot of land and the fact that they had ready cash to buy the land. With the money, the departing Kalenjin bought land in Kitale, Soy, Turbo and Ziwa so that they could engage in agricultural and livestock farming.

I went to school in Kitale in the 1980s, then it was a one-street settler town and that is where I first heard the phrase “revisiting the issue.” A prominent Kalenjin businessman, (he later become an influential politician in President Moi’s inner circle and today he is retired), said in my presence: “We’ve only leased the land to them (Kikuyus), they should be knowing that…we’ll soon revisit that issue.” When the push for multiparty elections in 1991, appeared inevitable, Moi’s monolithic Kanu one-party dictatorship relented to political pluralism, but not before igniting “ethnic” skirmishes in the Rift Valley.

Kip told me, “resources are becoming scarcer by the day in the Rift Valley region and our people would like the land issue in the Rift Valley region prioritized as a matter of national political discourse.”

The first wave of Kikuyu settlers in Trans Nzoia district first appeared as colonial civil service workers in the mid-1940s after the World War II. The next group showed up in the mid-1950s. These were Kikuyus running away from the Mau Mau insurgency and capture by the British colonial police. Many of them converted to Islam and assumed new identities. Indeed the first Kikuyus to settle in Kitale town were Hamisi Saidi and Hussein Ramadhan. They had taken up Islamic names and soon became petty traders in town.

Resources are becoming scarcer by the day in the Rift Valley region and our people would like the land issue in the Rift Valley region prioritized as a matter of national political discourse

Kigotho Njuguna, Mbugua Gachani, Danson Kangonga Mbugwa, John Muchuri, Wanguhu Githiomi (who hailed from Kijabe) and Peter Kinyanjui – one time Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) point man in Trans Nzoia) formed part of the earliest pioneers of Kikuyu settlers in Kitale. DP was an opposition party once led by Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya. The others were: Lawrence Waweru, Kirima Githaiga, David Kiberu, Waigi Mwangi (originally from Ngecha in Limuru) and Apollos Mwangi. All these men are dead and many of them hailed from Nyeri district.

As the theatre of the politics of succession leading to 2022, plays out in the expansive Rift Valley region, the spectre of the ever-simmering land question looms large. William Ruto, like his predecessor Moi, and not Seroney, finds himself in a dicey position of canvassing the entire Kalenjin vote, amid unsettled land ownership saga that remains an unresolved issue.

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The History Kenya Forgot: Untold World War II Stories

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II, in general, suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level. By OWAAHH

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The History Kenya Forgot: Untold World War II Stories

Before 2:30 pm on 12th February 1944, everything on SS Khedive Ismail was as normal as things aboard a troopship could be. In the music room on the upper decks, someone was playing the Warsaw Concerto on the grand piano. In the lower decks and the cargo hold, which had been converted into barracks mainly for the black soldiers, it was hot and humid. Both spaces would become death traps within a matter of seconds, and the grand piano, a weapon.

A lookout, probably bored out of his mind, noticed a periscope peeking from the water. He raised the alarm, alerting the gunners to the position of the Japanese submarine deftly charging towards SS Khedive Ismail. The troopship was on a routine mission to deliver troops, mainly East Africans, from Mombasa to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before their onward journey to Burma (now Myanmar). It was part of a convoy codenamed KR8, which had begun its journey from Kilindini port in Mombasa a week earlier.

The alarm was a little too late. Just as the gunners opened fire, the submarine fired four torpedoes. Two missed, but the other two found their target. The first struck the engine room. The second hit the boiler room. The troopship listed, and in less than two minutes, disappeared under the water. The other troopships and the destroyers in the convoy, codenamed KR8, barely had time to react or help. They fled to safety before two destroyers doubled back to face the Japanese submarine and to rescue survivors.

As the troopship sank, survivors clutched onto whatever they could get their hands on. The Japanese submarine, I-27, hid beneath them as the destroyers in the convoy doubled back and tried to hit it with depth charges, killing even more of the survivors. The submarine was eventually forced to surface, and one of the destroyers, Palladin, rammed into it. The hit breached the destroyer’s hull, forcing it to retreat and leave the work to the other destroyer in the convoy, the HMS Petard. The Petard’s torpedoes hit the submarine at 5:30pm, three hours after SS Khedive Ismail had sunk. The sub broke into two and sank with everyone on board.

Aboard the SS Khedive Ismail before the sinking had been 1, 511 people, 996 of whom were members of the 301st Field Regiment, East African Artillery. Only 215 people would make it out alive. The survivors were rescued once the submarine had been sank and moved on to Ceylon, where they got survival leave for two weeks before rejoining the war effort.

Of the 1, 296 people who died that day, only four of them were given a proper sea burial. The rest were left in the shark-infested waters, far from home and virtually forgotten.

***

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail is the subject of Brian J. Crabb’s 1997 book Passage to Destiny. In an email conversation, Crabb says his interest stems from his father, Percival Crabb, who “…was a fortunate survivor of the sinking, escaping through an open porthole with his leg still in plaster!”

In the book, Crabb includes an extensive appendix with all the names and ranks/roles of everyone, black and white, on board the doomed ship. The list of East Africans, mainly from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, takes up several pages. The troops are ranked by names, rank, and number. That’s all we know about Warrant Officers Alfani Ndagile, Kathuka Ndajo, Mua Kilonzi, Muema Ileli, Selemani Mzee, Shabani Mbaraku and Siligwi Mwita. The seven of them were the highest ranking enlisted men among the hundreds of East African troops who died that day. Most of the East African casualties were gunners.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.

When World War II began, there were only 2,900 men in the Kings African Rifles (KAR). The real threat of an Italian invasion from Ethiopia, and the entry of Japan into the war, drove the need for fast mobilisation.

Although the Great Depression (1929-1939) was a relatively prosperous time for Kenyan farmers, it gutted the settler economy and the colony’s budgets. Job opportunities in urban areas and farms dwindled, and crime levels in the former rose for a time. Combined with the crop failure of 1939, it meant that the best option for young men was to join the military. Any able-bodied man could enlist, although there had been restrictions as late as 1941 based on ethnicity. The Pioneer Corps, for example, were initially recruited from Western Kenya.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.

In his memoirs, Fan to Flame, John G Gatu, the future Reverend and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, writes that he joined the armed forces because he was unemployed. Gatu joined the Signal Corps and served in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Like Gatu, Waruhiu Itote (General China) joined the military because he was unemployed and “to escape the boredom”.

For some, the economic benefits were a result, not a motivation, of being recruited. Kenya’s first four-star general, Jackson Mulinge, accidentally found himself in the military after he chose the wrong day to go to Machakos to sell a chicken. A recruitment officer grabbed the teenager and conscripted him, marking the beginning of a journey that would see him climb up the ranks over the next three decades.

The contracts the new recruits signed stated that they would be discharged “after the cessation of hostilities”. Most of them were in their early 20s, still single, and because of the education policies at the time, barely literate, if at all. By the end of the war, in 1945, there were nearly 100,000 Kenyans in the military either as members of the Kings African Rifles or the Pioneer Corps, a successor of the Carrier Corps.

Being a soldier meant a steady income and other benefits, such as being exempt from excruciating hut and poll taxes. It also gave the soldiers a common martial identity as well as exposed them to unprecedented trauma and horrors that would also go largely undocumented.

In the heat of war, despite concerns from the settler community about everything from labour supply to the economic and security risks, thousands of Kenyans were trained, armed, and deployed to fight in Northern Kenya, North Africa, and Asia. They were all enlisted men, meaning they could never rise beyond the rank of Warrant Officer. That would be one of the challenges in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of independence two decades later.

Discipline was still enforced mainly with corporal punishment. Major infractions were punished with a kiboko, while cowardice was punished with execution. There were at least three incidents of retaliation, once when a sergeant shot and killed three officers, and then when two enlisted men were executed for shooting officers and wounding others with a grenade.

In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had. They had not only seen the perils of war but they had also been exposed to a new lifestyle, and had had a steady income and developed new habits. Gatu, in his book, offers that the war was the beginning of unparalleled drug use among the troops. Every week, the soldiers would be issued with matches, soap, and cigarettes.

But they were also liquid and most of them were still young, single and raring to go. Studies of the post-war period mention a rising discomfort with the power held by chiefs and elders, as well as inflation in the social scene as bride price was hiked.

In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had.

The money they had made could not last forever. Many of them applied for trade, shop and transport licences, only to be met by a racist bureaucracy that expected them to fall back to wage labour, primarily in agriculture. Some re-enlisted into the Kings African Rifles, while others struck out in new businesses. Others, like my grandfather, used the training they had obtained during the war to eke out a living as health officers and drivers.

A number of the former soldiers were involved in the political upheaval of the late 1940s and the 1950s, but not to as significant a level as one would imagine. Dedan Kimathi, the de facto leader of the Mau Mau, was only a soldier for a month in 1940 before he was dishonourably discharged for violence and drunkenness.

Some rejoined the KAR and other disciplined units, but a large number disappeared into the normalcy of reserve life.

What’s less acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of them from scattered memoirs and academic studies. Several memorials and cemeteries in major towns celebrate their lives and sacrifice, but very few black soldiers are named.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail was also problematic because of its magnitude; it was the single largest loss of East African troops, and third worst Allied mercantile shipping disaster of World War II. Publicizing it in the immediate aftermath would have affected recruitment and morale as the sinking of SS Mendi during World War I had done with South African troops.

What’s lesser acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of their experiences from scattered memoirs and academic studies.

Despite Kenya’s central role as the home of the East African force, the Eastern Fleet, and also as a war front with Italy, the war itself is merely a footnote in the events that followed in the next decade. Thousands of enlisted men who died for a cause they didn’t necessarily believe in remain mainly nameless and unacknowledged. The unit that suffered the heaviest losses, the 301st Field Regiment, had been formed just two years before and had already served in Madagascar. The only thing that remains in their memory is a plaque at the Nairobi War Cemetery. Few of the thousands of Kenyans who died on different fronts and missions are named, and their stories have all but disappeared. Even the wounds of war, such as the bombing of Malindi and the Italian excursion 100km into Kenya, are now mere footnotes in history.

It is a significant gap in our military history, and if the lacklustre coverage of our eight-year war in Somalia is anything to go by, a part of our national ethos.

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Game of Thrones: Will William Samoei Ruto Ascend to the Presidency in 2022?

As the battle of 2022 politics reaches its crescendo it seems that the Kenyatta II succession is unfolding in the mould of the Kenyatta I succession. Is history repeating itself? Will William Samoei Ruto, like Daniel arap Moi, ascend to the presidency? By AKOKO AKECH

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Game of Thrones: Will William Samoei Ruto Ascend to the Presidency in 2022?

David Murathe’s cameo appearance in the drama of the Kenyatta II debates seems to have provoked many questions about the Uhuru Kenyatta succession: Is the Kenyatta II succession unfolding in the mould of the Kenyatta I succession? Is history repeating itself? Will William Samoei Ruto, like Daniel arap Moi, ascend to the presidency, either in spite or because of opposition to his ambition by a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite? Does Ruto have a historic date with destiny, one that has all the marks of Moi’s tribulations, and complete with a happy ending? And what will Ruto do if the Kenyatta II courtiers were to force a crown of thorns on his head instead?

Intrigued by Murathe’s declaration of a multi-pronged war against William Ruto’s ascension to the presidency, one might be tempted to quickly dust off Joseph Karimi and Philip Ochieng’s 1980s’ potboiler, The Kenyatta Succession, which details the machinations of a cross-section of the Jomo Kenyatta era chauvinistic Gikuyu elite’s opposition to Moi’s ascension to the presidency.

Dusting off Karimi and Ochieng’s The Kenyatta Succession may be a good idea, despite the misgivings of both Bart Joseph Kibati and Professor Micheal Chege about the veracity of the existence of the Ngorokos as a stand-by assassination squad under the command of some of the then Nakuru-based powerful Gikuyu civil servants opposed to Moi becoming the second president of Kenya.

Still, the current presidential succession battle retains some of the complicated dynastic plots of the Kenyatta Succession: the heady State House courtiers’ cocktail of conspiracies, intrigues, jealousy, greed, ambition, betrayal, revenge, back-stabbing, murder, and the spectre of all-consuming political violence. Like Moi, Ruto is viewed by the ethnic chauvinists either as a temporary guest or a gatecrasher in the presidential succession party.

@HistoryKE, a history buff, who runs an online museum of Kenya’s colonial and post-independence history, posted some facts about the 1976 Change-the-Constitution movement’s rally in Nakuru. At this historic rally, some of the most rabid of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) ethnic chauvinists, MPs and cabinet ministers, such as Kihika Kimani, Njoroge Mungai, Njenga Karume and a few of their allies from other ethnic communities, held a historic rally to openly ratchet up their opposition against the then Vice President Moi’s constitutional ascension to power in the event of the death of Jomo Kenyatta, the then sitting president.

Still, the current presidential succession battle retains some of the complicated dynastic plots of the Kenyatta Succession: the heady State House courtiers’ cocktail of conspiracies, intrigues, jealousy, greed, ambition, betrayal, revenge, back-stabbing, murder, and the spectre of all-consuming political violence. Like Moi, Ruto is viewed by the ethnic chauvinists either as a temporary guest or a gatecrasher in the presidential succession party.

The tweets drew varied responses. One Kioko@Done_Dusted retorted, in part, “Give us a break with your Ruto obsessions subtly disguised as history…”, to which @HistoryKE responded, “Sir. Please re-read my article and stop seeing shadows behind every bush,” a response that seems rather evasive about @HistoryKE intentions. The tweet seemed to speak so eloquently to the present political debates, which had been provoked by Murathe’s no-holds-barred attack on Ruto, who was assumed to be the undisputed Jubilee Party’s flag-bearer for the next presidential election, and the successor to Uhuru Kenyatta.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the Kenyatta I and the Kenyatta II successions, especially after Murathe’s cameo appearance. On the surface, it looks like history is repeating itself. William Samoei Ruto, the Deputy President, a Kalenjin, the constitutional heir-apparent, and an ethnic outsider, who is presumably the undisputed presidential candidate of the Jubilee Party, is waiting in the wings, only a heartbeat away from the presidency, to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta (a scion of Jomo Kenyatta, a Mugikuyu), the sitting president.

Yet William Ruto, like Daniel arap Moi in the mid-1970s, now faces “a cabal of powerful” Kenyatta II Gikuyu elite who are also contemplating a constitutional change, among other measures, to stop him from becoming Kenya’s fifth president upon the end of Uhuru Kenyatta’s constitutionally-mandated two terms as the president of Kenya, barring any constitutional amendment.

Will William “the Czar of Sugoi” Ruto, as @JerotichSeii calls him – he of humble peasantry background, chicken-hawking-by-the-railway-crossing origins, and able hatchet man for various Kenyan political dynasties – having waited in the wings for ten years, finally turn the tables on his past masters, and alas, be ensconced in the bosom of Kenya’s state power, the presidency?

Looking at the Kenyatta II succession solely through Karimi and Ochieng’s book could block one’s view of the surprises and new elements in the Kenyatta II succession. The Kenyatta II succession has got the makings of a rollercoaster of a political drama, unfolding as a great Greek tragedy, with Ruto cast as the tragic hero who is tone deaf to the chorus of civil society human rights and democracy pleas.

The Kenyatta II succession might be couched as a democratic contest, complete with a referendum, but it will be anything but democratic; it will be a struggle, styled as constitutional and democratic, but lacking the substance of either. It’s a succession defined more by the character of the protagonist, chance, conspiracies, intrigues of a palace coup and the risk of political violence.

Moi’s lucky break

If Jomo Kenyatta’s second stroke in 1968, as Charles Hornsby tells us, had sent him into the mythical world of Weru wa Mukaaga, as the former Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, Duncan Ndegwa, recalls, then perhaps his ailing heart dictated the frequency and pace of the Kenyatta I succession. With hindsight, it seems, the Kenyatta I courtiers, with an ear to Kenyatta’s failing health, were in panic mode, which landed a bullet in Tom Mboya’s heart in 1969, and in J.M. Kariuki’s body in 1975, eliminating the most credible threats to their dream of succeeding Kenyatta. Only Daniel arap Moi, the constitutional heir-apparent, was left standing between them and the presidency by 1976.

But, as Daniel Kalinaki points out, the controversial visit of Dr. Christian Bernard, a leading apartheid era South African cardiologist, threw spanners into the works. His visit sent the elite Gikuyu chauvinists’ song of Change-the-Constitution chorus to a crescendo in 1976. Daniel Kalinaki writes that Dr. Bernard examined Jomo Kenyatta and returned a not-so-clean bill of health. At a dinner held in his honour, he told the Kenyatta I courtiers that “Mzee had two years, tops, to live.”

If Jomo Kenyatta’s second stroke in 1968, as Charles Hornsby tells us, had sent him into the mythical world of Weru wa Mukaaga, as the former Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, Duncan Ndegwa, recalls, then perhaps his ailing heart dictated the frequency and pace of the Kenyatta I succession. With hindsight, it seems, the Kenyatta I courtiers, with an ear to Kenyatta’s failing health, were in panic mode…

Stopping Moi’s ascension to the presidency then became even more urgent. But unlike the charming and charismatic Tom Mboya and J.M. Kariuki, Moi was lucky. Several times lucky. The Kenyatta I era Gikuyu courtiers were divided. Moi’s character flaws, too, worked in his favour. Where charm, flamboyance and charisma brought Mboya and J.M. squarely within the cross hairs of the regime’s assassins, colourlessness kept Moi safe. Moi was variously thought of as stoic, humble, naïve, uneducated, gullible, and overawed by the settlers, Jomo Kenyatta and state power generally. He was just “a passing cloud” while the State House courtiers searched for a worthy successor to the king.

However, they had underestimated Moi, who got the support of some of the most feared and effective members of Kenyatta’s kitchen cabinet, the unelected deep state civilian servant types, who were strategically placed in the security, provincial administration and the Attorney General’s office. His humble character earned him the sympathy of some of the most powerful men in Jomo Kenyatta’s kitchen cabinet, civil service, and cabinet, men such as Charles Njonjo, the Attorney General, Geoffrey Kariithi, the head of the civil service, Charles Nyachae, the Provincial Commissioner of Central Province, and Eluid Mahihu, the Provincial Commissioner of Coast Province, men who, perhaps, thought that they could take advantage of his presidency or easily overthrow him. These men were more than effective counterweights to their rabidly ethnic counterparts in Nakuru, who included James Mungai, Isaiah Mathenge, Arthur Nganga Njuguna Ndoro, George Karanu, and Kim Gatende, the men, who Bart Mugo tells us, had no respect for Moi, and “gave Moi sleepless nights” when he was the vice president. As Charles Hornsby points out, Moi was also lucky that Jomo Kenyatta died in his ally’s fiefdom, Eluid Mahihu’s Mombasa, and not Isaiah Mathenge’s Nakuru.

What’s more, the ailing president, who treasured large landholdings, having exported Central Kenya’s land crises mostly to the Rift Valley, seemed to have seen in Moi a worthy successor, a man who not only facilitated his government’s export of the Central Kenyan land problem to the Rift Valley against a strong regional opposition from his rivals, such as Jean Marie Seroney, but one who could also secure his legacy and landholdings – because Moi also had substantial landholdings.

Duncan Ndegwa says that Jomo Kenyatta, speaking in riddles, asked Kihika Kimani, a leading proponent of the 1976 Change-the-Constitution Movement, to think about a situation in which a dying man wants to pass on his herds of cattle. “Would he hand over his herd to a man who has his own or to a man who has none? This man you fear will, in fact, take care of the herd while minding his own. You want to hand over the stewardship of your land to a man who has no land? He will say, ‘Those lands owned by these people are too large. Let us give them away.’”

Ruto: Not quite Moi

However, Ruto, it seems, is everything but what Moi was at the height of the Kenyatta I succession. Unlike Moi, the legends, true or false, about Ruto’s rise within Kenya’s politics cast him as a megalomaniac, a ruthless, arrogant, condescending, diabolical, acquisitive, vindictive, and hardly ever magnanimous character in victory. Ask Reuben Chesire, the late former MP for Eldoret North, his onetime allies such as Raila Odinga or his namesake, Isaac, the former Governor of Bomet, and the whole lot of Mt Kenya leadership who lost the Jubilee 2017 nominations.

In victory, Ruto gloats. His lieutenants, like Adan Duale, gloat even more. Ruto’s angry disposition and penchant for mocking other leaders, gloating, and chest-thumping, can easily goad his nemesis into a strong coalition against his presidential bid, especially if he loses Uhuru’s support – just the kind of coalition David Murathe proposes.

If Ruto and Uhuru were joined at the hip by the International Criminal Court (ICC) dilemma (which is now water under the bridge), does the Kenyatta family’s recent acquisition spree and its consolidation of its economic hold on Kenya’s financial, media and dairy sectors be the glue that binds the two together? Can the Kenyatta family, which is now in the process of strengthening its political and economic stranglehold on Kenya, truly trust Ruto to be a good custodian of their most recent acquisitions? Does Ruto, a character who has variously been described as a wannabe king, vicious, vindictive, megalomaniac, and hardly magnanimous in victory, fit the bill of a good custodian of such wealth? Can he be trusted in this era of footloose international finance capital to not upset the apple cart? What does the trauma of the Moi presidency portend for his political ambition?

If Ruto and Uhuru were joined at the hip by the International Criminal Court (ICC) dilemma…does the Kenyatta family’s recent acquisition spree and its consolidation of its economic hold on Kenya’s financial, media and dairy sectors be the glue that binds the two together? Can the Kenyatta family, which is now in the process of strengthening its political and economic stranglehold on Kenya, truly trust Ruto to be a good custodian of their most recent acquisitions?

It’s hard to tell what type of deep state support Ruto enjoys. But in the dust-up between the pro-Ruto Tanga Tanga group and the anti-Ruto Kieleweke group, we got a glimpse of what a piqued Ruto might do and where sympathies for his presidency presently lie in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley. Unlike Moi, he did not turn the other cheek for the legendary James Mungai or Isaiah Mathenge’s political slap. He hit right back and hard through some of the most rabid Gikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic chauvinists, who are probably a retinue of elected politicians on weekly or monthly retainers, more driven by the convenience of cash rather than conviction.

In the Kenyatta I succession, Charles Njonjo, speaking in a Hobbesian dialect, astutely put an end to the debate by invoking the law on high treason: “It is a criminal offence for any person to encompass, imagine, devise or intend the death or disposition of the president.”

In contrast, the heads that bobbed out in defence of William Ruto, including elected leaders such as Moses Kuria, Kimani Ngunjiri, and Oscar Sudi, spewed out some of the ugliest, most nauseating, and inflammatory political rhetoric. (It is worth noting that not a single hawkers’ association chairperson came out in Ruto’s defence.)

Oscar Sudi, one of many intellectual Lilliputians in Ruto’s orbit, has admitted that Jubilee is a two-ethnic-group racket, with a few non-Kalenjin and non-Gikuyu tokens thrown in to lend the Jubilee elite a veneer of national inclusivity, the mythical face of Kenya. The anti-Uhuru rhetoric on the failure of the Jubilee government to develop Central Kenya energised Ruto’s base, but it also galvanised Central Kenya’s opposition to Ruto’s lieutenants. It saw the return of leaders like Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua into the fray.

Ruto’s patronage network in Central Kenya is thus being tested. It seems to rest with some of the vilest elected ethnic chauvinists of questionable political clout or those who can’t stand their ground. If Ruto’s sympathisers are the rent-weekly or rent-monthly political types, then Uhuru Kenyatta’s selective war on corruption, which Ruto’s legal adviser laments, and the termination of some of the lucrative contracts between companies owned by Ruto and the Government of Kenya, such as the Kenya police housing, could easily downgrade Ruto’s patronage capacity, that is, his ability to rent and resist.

The question remains on how State House courtiers will treat the Rift Valley question. Will they see it as a political problem or a security problem, or both? If push comes to shove, will Ruto, like Moi in the 1990s, drive a Faustian bargain: State power or slaughter and eviction and dispossession of non-Kalenjin farmhands, peasants and small traders, especially the Agikuyu in the Rift Valley? Will he, like Moi, rage, and rage, and extract his fair share of political and economic pound of flesh if he ascends to the presidency against all odds?

Or, in defeat, will he, like Raila Odinga, mourn, forgive, and find friendship at last? Does Ruto represent the sum of all the fears of the political dynasties in Kenya? What does the spoken and the unspoken trauma of the Moi presidency, especially among a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite, portend for Ruto’s presidency?

Pedigree and dynastic politics

Kenya’s dynastic politics of self-preservation might have renounced some unsavoury political tricks of the Kenyatta I succession, such as the assassination of political competitors, but it hasn’t renounced the advantages of evil, the dirty and devious tricks, of seizing state power, securing economic interests, and dynastic longevity. The Ngorokos may well be phantoms of Moi’s propaganda machinery, but since the days of James Mungai, presidential elections have greatly been defined by Kenya’s lack of effective democratic control of the security forces and strategic roles of militias.

Certainly, Ruto has a date with history. But his biggest stumbling block to the State House is neither the Gikuyu elite, who have reneged on the promise to coronate him as the fifth president of the Republic of Kenya, nor the sudden vapourisation of the much-touted Jubilee Party’s stellar development record in Central Kenya, which in the heat of the first round of the debates on the Kenyatta II succession, seems to vapourised, like ethanol, into thin air. Rather, Ruto is caught in the strong cross-currents of the political dynasties he’s excelled in manipulating and through which he has amassed a fortune and built a war chest while undermining democracy and human rights.

The biggest hurdle in Ruto’s race to State House, is, to say it pithily, in the words of the late Job Omino, the MP for Kisumu Town: “Dr. Ruto is all degree(s), no pedigree.” Historically, he’s not a biological son of any of the dynasties of Kenya’s politics, and he hasn’t any traction with the struggle for liberal or social democracy.

Ruto has neither the pedigree of Kenya’s dynastic politics nor the credibility and gravitas of those who participated in Kenya’s struggle for democracy, human rights and transitional justice. As David Ndii once pointed out, together with Uhuru Kenyatta, he missed the democratic lessons of the 1990s. He’s caught in the twirling currents of these political forces in a vortex of opposed political forces now shaping his destiny.

Yet he seems to think he can beat the dynasties in their game by faking an ordinary citizen’s credentials or feigning a new-found affection for the common mwananchi, posturing as their leader, and winning either the party ticket or the presidency without a credible, free, fair and democratic system in place. As @JuliuMmasi’s tweets suggest, Ruto has been an astute student and co-builder of the three leading Kenyan political dynasties: the Moi, the Odinga and the Kenyatta. But he now decries these dynasties as the stumbling block to his quest for presidency. If the Moi, Kenyatta and Odinga are dynasties, all defined by similarities and no differences, then charitably, Ruto can only be a stepson, or worse, a son who’s twice removed from the State House patrimony – not an heir-apparent, but an heir-presumptive who represents the sum of the worst fears of all these dynasties.

As a fresh graduate and a member of the venal youth movement, Youth for KANU (YK92), Ruto fought against multiparty political reforms in the 1990s. In 2002, as a minister in Moi’s government, he notably supported Moi’s bid to enthrone Uhuru Kenyatta as the third president of Kenya. In 2007, he reluctantly supported Raila Odinga’s bid for the presidency, bending more towards the pro-Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) regional political pressure in the Rift Valley than towards a confidence in Raila’s leadership. He promptly bolted out of ODM in the wake of the maize import scandal, and in 2010 led the NO-Campaign against the current constitution.

More recently, he’s firmly been in Uhuru Kenyatta’s corner in a joint desire to sabotage the ICC cases of crimes against humanity against them. He has run a mostly male-dominated and alternately Gikuyu or Kalenjin elite-led government, fighting against justice for the victims of the 2007/8 political violence, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) process, free, fair and credible elections, and rolling back Kenya’s nascent democratic gains in several sectors, especially security reforms.

Development as a substitute for democracy

Ruto might be regretting the political life he’s led. He’s been working at cross-purposes, and is not about to stop. With a religious zeal, he’s championed development as a perfect substitute for liberal democracy, thinking that personal prosperity, by hook or by crook, heavy investment in nation-wide patronage networks, and a strong identification with various “development” projects across the country will generate popular support for his candidature.

Yet the Jubilee government, unlike the Chinese or the Rwandan governments, is too undisciplined and corrupt to generate popular legitimacy out of the ability to deliver services. Instead, Jubilee’s development projects have mostly been conduits for kickbacks and procurement rackets, bleeding the public coffer dry, and generating windfalls for a few rather than real economic opportunities for the multitudes of unemployed youth. Some, like the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) have auctioned Kenya’s sovereignty, committed Kenyans to Beijing bondage, and, as the loan repayments kick in, effectively taken away Kenya’s ability to formulate a friendly tax and revenue policy for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

In his quest for the presidency, Ruto now postures as the representative of the ordinary suffering citizens, a self-styled “hustler” who lives precariously, mostly from hand to mouth, occasionally visiting a kiosk or stopping by the roadside for a cob of roasted maize to lend his presidential bid a common citizen’s touch.

Yet the Jubilee government, unlike the Chinese or the Rwandan governments, is too undisciplined and corrupt to generate popular legitimacy out of the ability to deliver services. Instead, Jubilee’s development projects have mostly been conduits for kickbacks and procurement rackets, bleeding the public coffer dry, and generating windfalls for a few rather than real economic opportunities for the multitudes of unemployed youth.

But Ruto has never had a stake in Kenya’s social/liberal democracy or human rights game. He’s never championed the common citizen’s cause or fought against power or income inequalities. Instead, he has an unrelenting and ruthless desire to pursue state power without compassion for the ordinary citizens. He told Rift Valley farmers to grow avocados instead of maize after a cartel bolted with the Kenya Cereals and Produce Board’s national maize kitty, leaving maize farmers in his own stronghold desolate. He’s reportedly built a palace worth Sh1 billion (US$10 million) in Sugoi, where he regularly entertains delegations of mostly self-seeking leaders of various ethnic groups and holds court. Like Daniel arap Moi, he wears evangelical Christianity on his sleeves, ostensibly investing in heaven through fund-raising and various donations to the clergy, perhaps to deodorise an ever-strong whiff of sleaze that swirls around him and his close associates.

Ruto knows in his bones the pain of losing or winning the Kenyan presidential elections. Unlike the ancient Olympics, in which only the Greeks – by blood and character and bound by a code of honour, “to respect just decisions, use no fraud or guile, to secure victory” – competed for a priceless branch of wild olive, Kenya’s competition for state power knows no ethical bounds. It’s not a patriots’ game, either, and the victor’s prize is the bottomless national and transnational material spoils: Eurobonds, capture and monopolistic control of key national markets, and Chinese business kickbacks. Loots, only for keeps, if you can hold onto state power.

If the Kenyatta I succession played out as the politics of a dynasty (because Kenya was then a de facto one-party state) then the Kenyatta II succession might also play out as the politics of dynasty, in spite of Kenya’s lauded democratic reforms, and because, since 2007, the incumbents have successfully subverted the popular democratic will of the people by executing electoral coup d’états.

In 2007, Ruto was in ODM, the team that lost. Subsequently, he joined the team that has won all the disputed presidential elections since 2013. He knows too well that all the winners of the presidential election since 2007 have won, in spite of the popular vote, and not because of it. The winners of these presidential elections have approached the election as a coup d’état: state power to be seized through a conspiracy to subvert popular will, the use of deception, and control and use of strategic levers of state power, especially the security organs, the electoral commission, and the courts.

If the Kenyatta I succession played out as the politics of a dynasty (because Kenya was then a de facto one-party state) then the Kenyatta II succession might also play out as the politics of dynasty, in spite of Kenya’s lauded democratic reforms, and because, since 2007, the incumbents have successfully subverted the popular democratic will of the people by executing electoral coup d’états.

In contrast, the losers of all the presidential elections since 2007 have approached the elections as an exercise in liberal democracy. They have campaigned hard, written good manifestos, mobilised aggrieved and disaffected voters and sometimes, gone to court to seek reprieve, where they have faced non-democratic forces.

Chickens coming home to roost

Ruto’s quest for the presidency is a bid to bring down Kenya’s political dynasties. He wants to be king, an insider of sorts, taking on the dynasties in their own terrain. But he will be taking on the dynasties like a tragic hero, a hero whose character flaws and tribulations in the hands of mentors-turned- tormentors are strikingly different from those of Raila Odinga and Daniel arap Moi. But he still might generate some sympathy in various constituencies, especially if, as Dauti Kahura shows, he can deftly lay blame for the failures of the Jubilee government on Uhuru Kenyatta. Still, he’ll have a hard time turning these sympathies into popular votes.

Ruto’s chickens, it seems, are coming home to roost. In the week when the Kenyatta II succession talks were crackling, two of his legal and political advisers, Korir Sing’oei, and Kipchumba Murkomen, took to a newspaper and television, respectively, to extol some aspects of liberal democracy. Sing’oei, once a human rights activist, had a year ago, in the wake of the Jubilee government’s violation of a Kenyan’s rights – when Miguna Miguna was illegally detained, abducted, exiled and stripped of his Kenyan citizenship – argued that the government had broken no law. Now he argues that the Director of Public Prosecution’s “gung-ho and gunslinger approach” to fighting corruption smacks of abuse of public office and that it is more a pursuit of political vendetta than of justice.

Kipchumba Murkomen, Jubilee Party’s Senate Majority leader, now sees a big democratic deficit in the ruling party. It has dawned on Murkomen that internal party democracy matters and that it is better to hold regular party or parliamentary group meetings than to wait for the occasional trumpet from State House to assemble for the latest presidential edict.

Both Sing’oei and Murkomen seem to have swiveled 180 degrees – from legitimising impunity to thinking about what should be the ethical limits of state power or good democratic practice. No prize for guessing why they’ve taken the sudden shift. Since the Jubilee government’s selective prosecution of the corrupt, the boot is firmly on the other foot, William Ruto’s. And they’ve rediscovered that some salutary aspects of liberal democracy are sorely missing in Kenya’s political context and contests.

It’s a belated but heartening rediscovery. It’s heartening because William Ruto’s camp seems to have woken up and smelt the Mt Kenya coffee: only a truly liberal democratic system can sufficiently guarantee anyone and everyone a fair shot at the presidency. But presently, the ethos of the competitors for Kenya’s state power is as far removed from the ethos of the ancient Greece’s Olympics as the Czar’s of Sugoi’s multi-billion seat of power is from State House.

In the battle between the Kenyatta, Odinga, Moi, and Mudavadi dynasties, Ruto might remain the eternal outsider. Without Daniel arap Moi’s good luck and the help of highly placed Mt Kenya movers and shakers who have successfully executed several electoral coup d’états (two bloody ones in 2007 and 2017, one bloodless one in 2013 and one abortive coup on 1 September 2017), it might be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Ruto to capture the highest political office in the land.

It will be extremely hard for Ruto to win an amoral dynastic political game, however big his election war chest is, if the contest for state power is largely defined by the dynasties’ control of state power and by a retrogressive political ethos – a political competition that brooks no internal dissident and eschews fair play in regional strongholds or at the national level, or both, and which is hell-bent on self-perpetuation.

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