Kenya’s politics has really been the story of two dynasties – the Kenyattas and the Odingas. Daniel arap Moi, the country’s second president, may have had the longest reign – 24 years, and the third president, Mwai Kibaki was in charge between 2002–2013, but in terms of the country’s psyche, it has always been a clash between the Kenyatta and Odinga dynasties. The late Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga dominated the Kenyan political space even before independence.
Both were charismatic leaders of their own people – Kenyatta of the Kikuyu and Odinga of the second-largest ethnic group, the Luo. Both had worked hard and fearlessly to empower their people and shield them as much as they could from the abuses of the British colonial system and both were regarded as near deities by their people. Both were nationalists and attracted the support of other powerful leaders in Kenya in the fight for independence.
The Kikuyu people, it can be argued, suffered the most in pre-colonial times as it was their land in central Kenya that had been appropriated by colonial settlers and many had been made homeless and reduced to working for a pittance on farms situated on lands they once owned. It was the Kikuyu who formed themselves into armed rebels, the Mau Mau, and took on the might of the colonial army and police force in the late 1950s.
They were branded terrorists and hunted down in their forest hideaways. Whole villages, suspected of harbouring or supporting them, were herded into concentration camps where they were beaten, tortured, humiliated and hung en masse.
But the Mau Mau were only one aspect of the opposition to colonial rule. Politically, the entire nation, and all the ethnic groupings, including some Asians, fought the system through a variety of means, using the power of the trade unions and whatever legal redress they could find.
The west of the country near Lake Victoria, the Luo heartland and the Coast Province under the joint suzerainty of the Sultan of Zanzibar did not have the same settler problem as in the “White Highlands” mainly because the climate was unpleasant to the white settlers and it was not as conducive to cash crop farming as the central region.
Nevertheless, opposition to the colonial powers was widespread. Many Luo were recruited to do the backbreaking work in the ports and on the railways and also on sugar plantations.
Jomo Kenyatta, who had emerged as the de facto leader of the opposition to colonial rule, was accused of being a terrorist and a member of the banned Mau Mau movement. His trial is still used today by law students around the world as a laughable example of the miscarriage of justice.
He was found guilty and imprisoned for seven years before being sent into internal exile until 1961. He had formed the Kenya African Union, which continued to gain strength even while he was in prison, and subsequently became part of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu).
Oginga Odinga, who had been declared Ker, after a legendary Luo king, who lived 400 years previously, because of his work in uplifting the lot of the Luo, gave up his title to enter politics. His title had prohibited him from engaging in politics. He, with many Kenyan political stalwarts from across the ethnic groups and regions, campaigned forcefully and tirelessly for Kenyatta’s release.
Kenyatta was eventually let out of detention and it was Odinga who proclaimed that he would be the president of the country once independence was achieved. Kenya finally became independent in 1964, with Kenyatta as the president and Odinga as his vice president.
In his book “Suffering without Bitterness”, and his early pronouncements as national leader, Kenyatta said he bore no grudges against anyone and that everyone, including white settlers, businessmen and administrators who wished to do so, could remain in the country and help build the new Kenya.
The next 10 years saw an unprecedented boom. Farmers, many of them Kikuyu, organised themselves into saving cooperatives to buy out farms from settlers or modernise their holdings.
Banks and savings cooperatives mushroomed as exports of tea and coffee hit record highs. The entire cityscape of Nairobi seemed to change overnight. Freed from the strictures of colonialism, many African citizens turned into successful entrepreneurs and invested heavily in a variety of businesses and real estate. Some of the settlers who had decided to remain behind, or their children went into tourism, marketing Kenya as an unspoilt paradise with fabulous wildlife and natural features.
A string of outstanding Olympic victories by Kenyan athletes such as Kipchoge Keino and Naftali Temu put the country into the international spotlight. Kenya was regarded as an outstanding example of decolonisation and many people, within the country and also outside it, claimed credit. But under the surface, matters were not so rosy. The population was growing very rapidly and whatever services, in terms of education, health, housing and jobs the government could provide were inadequate. Many felt marginalised, among them the Luo and several of the smaller ethnic grouping.
The political honeymoon between Kenyatta and Odinga began to come under severe strain. Odinga’s political philosophy was tilted towards socialism and he looked towards China, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact for examples.
This was taking place at the height of the Cold War, with both the US-led West and the Russia-led Warsaw Part looking to spread their influence as widely as possible around the world. Odinga’s socialist leanings and tilt to the East earned him the wrath of the US, Britain and other Western countries. Kenyatta planted his flag firmly in the Western camp.
Something had to give. In his book, “Not yet Uhuru” (Kiswahili for freedom), Odinga said that for the majority, independence had not yet arrived and one master had been replaced by another. He resigned from the government, setting into motion one of the bitterest dynastic feuds in modern African history.
From that point on, he and later his son, Raila were subjected to a series of accusations, detentions, house arrests and bans from public speaking or organising.
Kenyatta promoted Daniel arap Moi to the vice presidency as a clear signal of whom he wanted to succeed him. Moi, from a relatively small ethnic group, was seen initially as perhaps the best choice for melding all the different groupings together.
Kenyatta died in 1978 and was succeeded by Moi, who was to remain in power for 24 years – years that many in Kenya describe as the “wasted decades” as gradually all political activity was quashed and the country turned into a one-party state.
The persecution of the Odingas did not end, however. Both father and son were implicated in a failed coup by a section of the army in which hundreds of soldiers and some civilians were killed.
Raila was detained without trial for six years. He was released in 1989, but less than one year later, was jailed again, this time with other multi-party activists like Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia.
He was released in 1991 and fled to Norway, citing assassination fears as his reason for doing so. With the return to multi-party politics, Raila returned and joined the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), then led by his father Oginga Odinga). What followed then was a bewildering series of alliances, mergers and the formation of new parties. At one stage, to general astonishment, Raila even threw in his lot with Moi, forming a new party, New Kanu in place of the by now despised Kanu.
This led to charges from some of his supporters as well as opponents that he was an opportunist “willing to sup with the Devil” in order to gain the presidency. He served as Minister for Energy in Moi’s last cabinet.
Meanwhile, during most of Moi’s presidency, the Kenyatta clan kept largely out of politics, preferring to build an extensive family empire. Then, almost out of the blue, Moi plucked Uhuru Kenyatta as his designated successor.
This led to a major walk-out by many of the most powerful politicians in the party as they felt that Kenyatta had little experience in government, let alone for becoming a national leader.
Kenyatta ran as Kanu’s candidate in the 2002 election against a resurgent Mwai Kibaki, whose campaign was masterminded by Raila Odinga. Kenyatta lost heavily and became leader of the opposition.
Odinga, despite campaigning strongly for Kibaki, was virtually ignored once Kibaki was in office. As a result of this “betrayal”, he left and formed a powerful coalition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).
In an astonishing game of musical chairs, it was Kenyatta who was now firmly backing Kibaki against Odinga in the 2007 elections. Kibaki managed a very narrow victory, which was disputed by the ODM.
Violence on an unprecedented scale for Kenya broke out in Nairobi and other towns, leading to the death of over a thousand and considerable burning of property and general looting.
Kenyatta was among several people indicted by the ICC for fanning the flames of the violence, but eventually the case collapsed. In the aftermath, a coalition government was formed with Raila as prime minister.
In the run-up to the 2013 election, Kenyatta, now the undisputed leader of a new coalition, Jubilee, took on Raila once again, who had formed an equally powerful counterforce, the Coalition For Reform and Democracy (CORD).
It was a close-fought election but eventually, and despite claims of foul play from Odinga, Kenyatta was declared the winner and asked to form the next government.
In terms of personality, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga could not be more different. Kenyatta, in his mid-fifties, is much younger than Raila, who is in his 70s. Kenyatta, one can say, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Son of Kenya’s first president, he was destined for success. He went to an exclusive school before going to the US to study at Amherst College. Raila came through the school of hard knocks. He was always the outsider trying to get in and he had to pay a price for his persistence.
Odinga studied mostly in Kenya before he too went abroad, but to Leipzig and also, East Berlin in the communist GDR. This formed the grounding of his sympathy for the Eastern bloc.
He also inherited his father’s admiration for Mao’s China and the efforts to remake the country through a peasant uprising. Thus, perhaps right from the beginning, both were set to clash over ideas and directions.
Kenyatta went into business and with his connections, became very successful very quickly. Raila also set up a company dealing with liquid gas, but he had to struggle much harder before it also took off. Kenyatta is one of the wealthiest men in Kenya; Odinga has always had to rely on raising funds, although he too is a man of ample means.
Kenyatta has an easy manner about him, often appearing in casual clothes; Odinga is much more formal, usually in tie and suits, although he too can adopt the common touch – at one stage when campaigning for Kibaki, he went about in a distinctive cowboy hat.
Raila has also had health problems – not helped in his earlier days by the amount of detentions and jail time he had to endure. The last election was probably his last chance to lead the country, while Kenyatta’s political career is still at its mid-point.
After all the close to 5 decades of twists and turns, all the plots and counter-plots, all the switching of horses, all the shows of loyalty and betrayal, all the intrigues and back-stabbing, Kenya’s politics still come once again to the battle of the dynasties: the main protagonists are the Kenyatta versus Odinga dynasties.
- Anver Versi is the award-winning former editor of African Business Magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in Accra, Ghana.