Courting the Kikuyu: Kenyan politicians split biggest voting bloc

Kenya’s largest ethnic group has accounted for three of its four presidents and will be key in deciding the next.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta with opposition leader Raila Odinga
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) and Raila Odinga [Tony Karumba/AFP]

Nairobi, Kenya – Since Kenya secured independence from British colonialists in 1963 after a drawn-out conflict, three things have been certain in the East African country: death, taxes and the Kikuyus voting mostly as one united force in every presidential election.

Until now.

This Tuesday, as 22 million registered voters decide who becomes the fifth president of the country, there is a division among the Kikuyus, the largest voting bloc in the country by virtue of being the country’s 47 officially recognized ethnic groups.

Often referred to as the Mount Kenya area, the bloc is indisputably the region that swings the presidency to either former prime minister Raila Odinga or deputy president William Ruto, the two leading candidates to be successor to incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta.

Since independence in 1963, the Kikuyus have occupied a significant sphere of influence in most sectors of the country, especially in the economy and politics.

Even in culture, the country’s best-known writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, frequently regarded as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, is Kikuyu and writes primarily in the language. Wangari Maathai, the activist who in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is Kikuyu too.

The group accounts for approximately a fifth of the country’s population and have accounted for three of the country’s four presidents so far. The only exception has been Daniel Arap Moi of Kalenjin ethnicity (the third largest ethnicity) who was president from 1978 to 2002.

With no Kikuyu at the top of the ballot of a major political party on Tuesday, the election has also been framed more as class warfare between the rich and the poor by Kenya Kwanza, the nationalist movement spearheaded by Ruto.

But analysts say ethnicity is still a key factor in determining voting patterns and that the Kikuyu vote remains relevant today as always, even though it has been relegated from top spot in the news.

“At least three of the deputy presidential candidates are Kikuyus, so the Kikuyus still play a major role in the elections,” Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, political analyst and executive director of Siasa Place, a nonprofit working in political engagement of Kenya”s youth, told Al Jazeera. “It may not be openly tribal, but tribe still plays a role in our politics. It may just not as toxic as it could be or normally can be.”

“The strategy is to set one candidate under the coalition, we’ll have more chances collecting enough people to push this candidate in,” she said. “This has still brought ethnicity to the fore because it makes people view their candidate from which tribe they belong to, where they are standing and how strong that voting bloc is, would they have influence.”

Ethnic rivalries

Ruto and Odinga who are respectively ethnic Kalenjin and Luo, the country’s third and fourth largest ethnicity, have selected running mates from the Mount Kenya region, in order to capture the votes – an electoral necessity to stand a chance.

Odinga, who is contesting for the fifth time, has picked Martha Karua, seen as having a hardline anti-corruption stance, for running mate. The former justice minister to ex-president Mwai Kibaki, is also Kukuyu.

They have been boosted by the presence of president Kenyatta who has been on the campaign trail with Odinga, as allies at rallies of the Azimio la Umoja coalition.

Ruto’s choice to rally the Kikuyu vote is Rigathi Gachagua, a current parliamentarian who also has the gift of the gab like the deputy president and thus the ability to woo fellow Kikuyu kinsmen.

This has put the Kikuyu, who have historically had issues with the Luos and Kalenjins since the days of Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president, in the tight place of having to pick a lesser evil, analysts say.

In 2007, Odinga controversially lost to then-president Mwai Kibaki, also Kikuyu, in an election that many Kenyans still believe was rigged in favour of the latter getting a second five-year term.

That triggered an episode of bloodletting on a grand scale, with more than 1,100 people were killed and another 650,000 displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.

Tensions between Kikuyus and Luos also continued in the 2013 and 2017 elections after Odinga lost to the younger Kenyatta. But the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities also clashed in 2007 after the election, reportedly on the directives of the younger Kenyatta and Ruto who were at the time backing Kibaki and Odinga respectively.

That led to Kenyatta and Ruto being charged – and subsequently acquitted – by the International Criminal Court and going on to win the 2013 and 2017 elections hand in hand, as a team.

But Odinga and Kenyatta have since mended fences, with the incumbent president making a spectacular volte-face in 2018 to back his former nemesis, an event known as “the handshake” in Kenya’s sociopolitical lexicon.

And that pushed Ruto out of the establishment and let veteran opposition man Odinga into the space the former vacated.

All of this has led to lingering distrust among the Kikuyus, as many are reluctant to follow the Kenyattas’ entreaties to back Odinga given the rancourous history between both families.

The elder Kenyatta was elected president in 1963 alongside Odinga’s father Jaramogi, who was his deputy but the duo fell apart as the former reportedly rescinded an unofficial agreement to let the latter succeed him.

And there is also the sense that Kikuyus remember the president asking them to vote Ruto after him, before dramatically switching to ask them to ditch him and vote Odinga instead. Politicians from the area claim the people have been abandoned since “the handshake”.

Kimani Ichungwa, MP for Kikuyu constituency railed against the president at an August 6 rally. “You have [sent] us into an economic trench. It is only you, your family, and that of Odinga and that of Moi are the only ones who are out.”

Polls and propaganda

An opinion poll by research agency Tifa puts Ruto in the driving seat in Mount Kenya with 66 percent in his favour compared to Odinga’s 27 percent. National polls disagree, with the latter polling 46.7 percent to the former’s 44.4 percent.

If that translates to reality, it could force a second round of elections as either man needs more than 50 percent outright to be declared winner.

Unsurprisingly, the deputy president chose to stage his final rally on August 6 in Kikuyuland, specifically in Kirigiti, historically strategic to the Kenyan liberation struggle and post-independence politics.

At the rally, politician after politician took the stage to speak in Swahili or Kikuyu about being rescued by him, from “the current economic mess”.

“We will get ourselves out of the trench, with God on our side under Ruto’s leadership,” Ichungwa said.

Even among the Odinga’s supporters in the region, there is the sense that many are ‘Rutonated’, said Elizabeth Thuiya, a bishop from the president’s hometown of Gatundu, who is leading a pack of clergy to campaign for the former prime minister.

But they are optimistic about prevailing on Tuesday and say the Kenya Kwanza movement is inciting people to violence and insulting the president.

“You can’t tell people that Uhuru is going to kill you”, said Thuiya. “That is incitement. That is how violence starts. it is not true…it is propaganda.”

Like many residents of the capital Nairobi, an Odinga stronghold, Ali Kader, a Kenyan Somali is adamant that the former prime minister will win, whether or not he captures a significant chunk of the Kikuyu vote.

“Baba (Odinga’s nickname) has been winning all these years without Kikuyus but these people stole his mandate,” the taxi driver told Al Jazeera. “Now that he has a little of that, victory is sealed.”

Source: Al Jazeera