Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

No Kenyatta conundrum

The inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta is a watershed in Kenya’s contemporary political scene, writes Gamal Nkrumah


No Kenyatta conundrum
No Kenyatta conundrum

As far as his supporters are concerned, Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential inauguration brought to a close a protracted electoral struggle that degenerated into farcical ethnic and tribal rivalry that threatened to create not just a civil war, but usher in political chaos in Kenya.

Deep social divisions have been revealed within this relatively rich Nile Valley nation, the wealthiest country per capita in East Africa. The spectacle of music and dance performances in the Kasarani Sports Stadium of Kenya’s capital Nairobi did nothing to quell the fury of the opposition led by Raila Odinga.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the region of current-day Kenya, but it was the British who left a lasting and indelible mark on the country. When the British colonial masters created the Kenya colony they deliberately pursued a policy of divide and rule, fomenting hatred among the various ethnic groups. When the Republic of Kenya gained independence in 1964, it inherited this troubled historical heritage which lasted to this day.

The two rival protagonists, Kenyatta and Odinga, reflected the acrimony between their respective fathers, Jomo Kenyatta (October 1891-22 August 1978), an ethnic Kikuyu and Ajuma Oginga Odinga (October 1911-20 January 1994) who was a Luo chieftain who became a prominent figure in Kenya’s struggle for independence. 

The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group, followed by the Luo people, the country’s second largest. The Kikuyu are a Bantu people, while the Luo are Nilotic. Kiswahili, a Bantu language with numerous Arabic and Persian loan words, became Kenya’s national language and lingua franca in Kenya and large swathes of East Africa.

The sultan of Oman in Arabia, Seyed Said (1807-1856) moved his capital to Zanzibar in neighbouring Tanzania. Omani Arab colonisation of the Kenyan coast brought the once independent Bantu city states, such as Mombasa, to an abrupt end. The Omani Empire was based on the ubiquitous slave trade but they also exported cloves and ivory. But this lucrative trade was in turn supplanted by the arrival of the British.

In 1895 the British government took over and claimed the interior of Kenya as far west as Lake Naivasha, the so-called “White Highlands” for Europeans, especially British war veterans. The Europeans engaged in large-scale coffee farming dependent on mostly Kikuyu labour who were indigenous to the Highlands, and ironically this subservient association of the Kikuyu with the European settlers eventually led to them leading the war of liberation better known as the Mau-Mau rebellion. The Luo were relegated to the far western backwaters on the shore of Lake Victoria. And, hence the seeds of the current Kenyan political crisis unfold.

Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled that the 26 October presidential elections met all the constitutional requirements, paving the way for Kenyatta to take the presidential oath of office again. Kenyatta was sworn in for a second term as Kenya’s president Tuesday. The opposition rejected the ruling, saying it was made “under duress”. Veteran opposition leader Odinga, who had boycotted the October rerun, incited his supporters to take to the streets in protest.

Meanwhile, motley African leaders attended the celebrations, including South Sudan’s Salva Kiir, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, all leaders of African nations bordering Kenya. But there was the curious attendance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a corroboration of the fact that Israel is still keenly interested in meddling in African affairs.

Netanyahu was the only high profile non-African leader to attend the inauguration.

The entire Kenyan scenario contrasts sharply with that of Zimbabwe’s current political crisis. The two countries share a history of European settler colonialism. Both nations fought a vicious war of liberation, the Mau Mau in Kenya and the Chimurenga in Zimbabwe. However, the similarities end there. Kenya has had a relatively smooth democratic experience. It is one of the few countries in Africa never to have experienced coup d’etats, albeit Zimbabwe never had a military takeover until very recently, and even so the Zimbabwean coup was more an intervention of army generals to stem the growing power and political ambition of the former first lady Grace Mugabe.

There was no such military intervention in Kenya. On the contrary, Kenya’s inauguration celebration, even amid low voter turnout and the dismissal by Odinga of Kenyatta’s “coronation”, marks some level of success in pursuit of democratic goals.

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