By: John Githongo
An Arab friend once told me in reference to the perpetual struggle with Israel that, “We shall fight until the last Egyptian!” Egypt remains the most populous Arab country and most central to the politics of the Middle East in many ways…
WAITING FOR ODINGA
I remember showing up for a ‘change-the-constitution’ rally in the mid-1990s at Uhuru Park only to find it had not started. I ended up hanging around with a pack of local and international journalists under a tree waiting for things to start. The police had already shown up in force.
There were the beginnings of a crowd albeit dispersed into small groups chatting. The question everyone was asking was whether and when Raila Odinga would show up. If he failed too then it was implicit the event would not lift off. For it was Raila who galvanised the crowds; it was he who showed up with throngs of young mainly Luo men willing to be on the frontline once the tear gas started being lobbed about.
Only Kenneth Matiba was able to mobilise youth (mainly Gikuyu for his part) in a similar way that got under the skin of the Moi administration. In those days, these loyal troops were essential to any self-respecting attempt at a demonstration.
Once they showed up and ‘Tinga’ or Matiba arrived ,the show was on the road. It meant the journalists would have something to report and nice action-packed photographs and stories about Kenyans’ struggle for a new katiba would be beamed across the planet.
Since the 1960s when Raila’s father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga fell out with then President Kenyatta, the political competition between these two families and their respective supporters (especially those from their tribes) formed the beating heart of the most tectonic political contest that has rocked Kenya’s politics. Odinga, who recently accepted defeat in the just concluded polls to Uhuru Kenyatta, was the controversial centre of gravity of Kenyan politics. He made the bold moves that shaped much of opposition politics.
The controversy was also partly fed by an instinctive political restlessness, razor-sharp intuition and, among other things, his alleged role in the attempted coup of 1982 that saw him returned to detention and from which he emerged eventually as the most detained politician in Kenyan history. He decamped from Ford and formed the NDP.
He then took the NDP into a cooperation agreement with Kanu (then the mortal enemy of all ‘reformers’ and oppositionists) causing howls of outrage that reverberated across the country for months. In 2002, as the first Project Uhuru was rolled out by the then retiring Moi, it was Odinga’s “Kibaki tosha!” endorsement while dumping Kanu that united the opposition and routed the ruling party after 24 years. Again, it was effective because it was an accepted political fact that Odinga brought with him a solid Luo voting bloc. It also helped that at that moment, Kibaki was not seen so much as a Gikuyu candidate but the leader of a coalition that could crush Kanu.
This article is not an ode to Odinga. He is a man of many flaws and strengths alike that shall doubtlessly be dissected in detail over the coming months.
Rather, I have been speaking to friends in past weeks and as the results of the elections sink in and narrative of ‘we must forget and move on’ is rolled relentlessly out, the place of the Luo in our tribalised politics remains the subject of particular fascination to me.
Though the nuances are many, it is clear that when one looks back at the past five decades, the highly politicised Luo community (Kenya’s fourth largest), and its leaders, have come to occupy a disproportionate space in our political story; punching way above their tribal numeric weight or commercial strength.
As a result their politicians have been unevenly assassinated, detained, jailed and harassed since the mid 1960s. Luo academics too have borne the brunt of state efforts to manage what Kenyans think politically.
In every sphere of life, the post-colonial State in Kenya has been perceived to apply an aggressive political and economic containment strategy with regard to that community’s leadership.
Ironically, Barack Hussein Obama Snr, father of the current American President, suffered his greatest trauma as a result of this. He never really recovered.
THE LUO AS THE INFANTRY OF KENYA’S DEMOCRACY
For in our politics tribe trumps everything else. Our patronage-based political economy gives us a big man who carries his tribe around in his pocket as a voting bloc that allows him to negotiate with other tribal kingpins for a place at the table.
For a long time it has held our political imagination hostage and it often carries the aspirations of a community plus the promise of patronage, security and access to justice.
It is politically incorrect to admit: there is a powerful perception, fostering a deep collective resentment and sense of victimhood among the Luo, because they have been at the forefront of Kenya’s most important democratic struggles since independence regardless of opinions regarding their leader – hostile or otherwise. There is therefore the feeling among their elite especially that they as a community have served as the infantry in the struggle for the freedoms Kenya now enjoys. The reward for this has too often been seen as denigration, mistrust, betrayal and violence (both soft and hard) meted out against their leaders for 50 years.
Thus the narrative: if you are struggling for freedoms, send out the Luo grunts ready to face the state, they’ll be outspoken and courageous in battle but the ‘victory’ has always been ‘stolen’ from them.
The stereotypical counter argument is that their leaders, Raila Odinga in particular, is not a safe pair of hands in which to place the nation’s fate.
His supporters are too noisy, too violent, too reckless, given to bombast and an abhorrence of pragmatism. It was perhaps thus that media stations rushed their top journalists to Kisumu during primaries that preceded the election, the election itself and then after the Supreme Court ruling.
I’m not trying to romanticise anything here. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the Luo elite would not have behaved exactly as Kibaki’s Mt Kenya mafia had the ascended to power.
THE COLLATERAL LUO
When the Supreme Court released its judgement with regard to the disputed March 4 election at the end of last month, skirmishes between the police and Mr Odinga’s disappointed and disbelieving supporters broke out.
What has struck me is that killing young Luo men has become normalised now. This is much in the same way we always expect steady violence in Northern Kenya.
Like the IDPs languishing in IDP camps within our own country, it is almost as if these citizens are no longer Kenyan. A similar fate befell many young Gikuyu men accused of belonging to Mungiki in 2007. There is a pattern here. It was best articulated by leading young Kisumu lawyer, Issac Okero when giving evidence to the Waki Commission in August 2008:
“There is a perception that where there is need to contain demonstrations, the use of lethal force is an option that rapidly comes to fore and that is very very worrying and speaking as a resident of Kisumu, my own experience is that in the 16 years that I have been here, every occasion on which there has been demonstrations particularly in the election years, there has been the deployment of live rounds which has resulted in the deaths of residents of Kisumu and that is a very, very unfortunate statistic.”
A colleague who recently returned from the Western part of Kenya was emphatic that the ‘peace’ that’s holding thus far is fragile. In several areas, he told me, Gikuyu traders are facing a silent boycott.
This is apparently being reciprocated in parts of Central Province and Nairobi. “Many people here don’t yet believe Uhuru is President. They are dazed like a football player suffering a concussion”, another colleague explained, “and the issue is not only that their candidate
Odinga lost the election its that they believe the poll was stolen ‘by the Gikuyu’ once again. So everywhere you hear people saying there no reason to vote ever again as the process will be rigged and no one has confidence in the Supreme Court any more.”
As head of state, Uhuru faces a daunting nation building and reconciliation exercise. He won’t be able to securitize this existential disconnect across the entire nation bang it over the head and kill it.
And if he is wise he’ll have to start among the Luo and be prepared to work extremely hard at it for the fury there is unmitigated. He demonstrated this political wit by attending a funeral there last weekend. No piddling committee will resolve things though, leadership is the key in a situation where half the electorate doubt or outright reject his legitimacy and their worst stereotypes about Gikuyus have seemingly been borne out by the facts.
There is a Coastal saying, “Corner a cat, start to beat it and it can even kill you.” We need to face up to the fact that in many respects, Kenya is a country at war with itself.
This is not yet with machetes but with words and deeds too often added to by a crass triumphalism on the part of some Jubilee supporters who don’t seem to realize that those they mock have ran out of institutional problem solving options as far as political disputes go.
However, I believe that currently, devolution and counties gives many people hope. In typical contradictory Kenyan fashion, devolution is supported not only because it promises people in the countryside their ‘turn to eat’, it is also viewed as a tool to ‘put the Gikuyus in their place’