Since independence, Kenya’s political scene has been defined by the real and perceived socio-political conflict between the Luo and Kikuyu communities, to a large extent. These differences started with the Kenyatta/Jaramogi political rivalry, but they have gone down at least two generations, to be embodied in the challenges of the Coalition Government of President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga.
My first encounter with the Kikuyu/Luo divide was in 2008 during our first inter-ethnic discussion forum. Young primarily middle-class Kenyans drawn from the Luo, Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities had been convened to discuss the effect that tribalism has on Kenya’s nation-hood, in light of the Post Election Violence, and I had been asked to moderate the morning session of the first day of discussions.
I started by asking participants to introduce themselves and give a little background of who they are. The participants would then stand up and do so. We then got to this massive Luo guy who without moving from his seat, said; ‘Normally I would stand up, but I will not stand up for a Kikuyu.” I would love to say he was joking; but he was not. This was just but a beginning and despite the fact that the Kalenjin/Kikuyu conflict had been the one where lives had been lost, the Luo/Kikuyu issues drove most of the discussions in all subsequent forums.
At some point participants nearly came to blows when a Luo emotionally asserted that Kikuyu governments deliberately marginalized Nyanza such that roads were non-existent, only for a Kikuyu to retort ‘you Luos need to understand that roads are meant to lead somewhere!
Fortunately our group had the opportunity of discussing these issues to the end; to the point where we realised that a lot of what we ‘knew’ of each other was based not on facts, but on perceptions, myths and stereotypes that did not hold when put under careful scrutiny. The result was that today, the big Luo guy is one of my closest friends, as are many of the other Kenyans from different communities and race that I met in what ended up being over 20 forums.
However the Luo/Kikuyu is still with us nationally, to the extent that I am convinced that this is what is driving the ongoing ‘peace’ rallies by Uhuru, Ruto and their friends. Jomo Kenyatta’s son is trying to tap into this very powerful though very negative force, to build his and his allies’ political bases, as they counter the ICC charges. What this group is doing can only be termed as breeding negative energy back into our national, regional and local political competitions, despite the fact that most of us actually want to co-exist.
However last week, as Uhuru and Co attended yet another rally, and the President and Prime Minister were in Kisumu opening the upgraded Kisumu airport, something happened that gave me reason to smile. On the sidelines of this event the Luo Council of Elders invited President Kibaki to become a Luo Elder; an invitation that Kibaki accepted.
In Kenya it is common for political leaders from one community to be installed as elders of another community. However it is always done by leaders who want a particular community’s votes. Kibaki does not need the Luo (or any other community) to vote for him, anymore. It was therefore not necessary to install Kibaki as president as he is retiring from office. In fact, I am convinced it was done deliberately, as a counter to what Uhuru and team are doing.
There are those who will continue to milk the Luo/Kikuyu divide for personal interests. The far it generates especially amongst the Kikuyus is an easy strategy towards deterring them from supporting a Raila presidential bid. This strategy is built on the theme that the Luo view Kikuyus as having benefitted disproportionately from the Central government, and therefore if Raila were to become President the first thing he would do under ‘equitable re-distribution of resources’ would be to forcefully reverse any such benefits the Kikuyu have.
Kibaki has done what he can in his circumstances, by ensuring that Nyanza has certain economic flagship projects to counter the perception that a Kikuyu-led government will marginalize the region. Raila, as Kibaki’s opposite number on the Luo/Kikuyu issue, has taken upon himself the task of explaining to the Kikuyus, even as he talks to other communities, that no-one, irrespective of tribe or race or religion, will suffer loss of life or property under his watch. He is also promising in his government, all Kenyans will benefit.
Siasa Mpya demands we continuously challenge whatever threatens to split us as Kenyans. All Kenyans, especially those directly affected by the Luo/Kikuyu divide, must step up and slay this dragon. We must choose to do the unusual; take the road less travelled; do that which is harder. We must also see the human beyond the ethnic tag and accept that our cultural differences do not take away from our humanity. Kibaki did it, when he sat on a three-legged stool.
Wambugu is the Executive Director, Change Associates Trust