Thrice in my life have I cast a vote for my favourite presidential candidate, Odinga II Amolo Odinga. Thrice in my life my vote has not counted, neither has my voice been heard.
The first time I voted was in 2007, then a tall, wiry lad, a freshman at the University of Nairobi. Victory was snatched from Odinga in the most callous way. When we slept, our presidential candidate was leading by more than a million votes. When we woke up, his closest rival, the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki had made a dazzling comeback that baffled all Kenyans. Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in at night, prompting widespread violence that killed 1,200 people and displaced 600,000.
Odinga II’s supporters were hurt and had to settle for a coalition government where they played second fiddle, with their leader constantly being ridiculed.
The second time I voted was in 2013. I had since graduated from campus, added some weight, and had just met my future wife. Odinga II was on the ballot. He mounted an average campaign and was beaten by a questionably razor-thin margin by Kenyatta II, Kenyatta (son of our founding president, henceforth referred as Kenyatta II in this piece). Odinga II (henceforth Odinga II), contested the results, calling the outcome a travesty on democracy. Taking into account the goodwill from the freshly adopted New Constitution, Odinga II chose to contest Kenyatta II’s victory in the Supreme Court. The case was curtly dismissed in the most contemptuous and condescending manner.
Odinga II’s supporters, who are drawn from all over the country, except Central Kenya and parts of Rift Valley, were hurt, and had to live with the pain of their ‘loss’. Kenyatta II’s supporters felt the victory was deserved and a product of the hard work of the young and dynamic duo.
At this point, I wished that Odinga II would retire, having given his all to the country. But he would reset the country to campaign mood, challenging the legality and neutrality of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) whose team was later disbanded. Then there was the Okoa Kenya Referendum bid with a set of more than ten demands to the government, demands including the dealing with the escalating cost of living, rejecting the government’s effort to bastardise the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, and the withdrawal of the Kenyan Military from Somalia. For the last four and half years, Odinga II has been part of our national psyche, a pain to others, an antidote to many. He exposed several corruption scandals, endearing him to the people massively in the build up to this year’s elections.
I still hoped that he would endorse someone else to run for the presidency and carry his legacy. But on April 27th, under the new juggernaut, National Super Alliance (NASA), teaming up with other veteran politicians, he was endorsed and my first reaction was Fuck This Shit. Deep within, I knew that there are certain forces that rule Kenya, forces who will never allow him a million miles near our State House. I had expected a godfather-like move where he gets out of the picture and then executes his plans and demolishes his political archenemies ala Don Corleone in Mario Puzo’s Godfather. But it was a forlorn hope.
He still was the man for the job. I had vowed never to vote again in my life, since elections had become meaningless; besides rigging allegations, those voted in with every hope that they would do the right thing like Dr. Evans Kidero had been so overwhelmingly mediocre that voting for the highly objectionable Mike Sonko sounded reasonable and justified. But people persuaded me to vote and I thought, one more time won’t kill.
So, on August 8, I endured three hours in a queue, voting machines having frozen, to vote, for the third time, for my favourite presidential candidate, Odinga II. At around 5. 10 p.m., at Plainsview Primary School in South B, I cast my ballot for Odinga II, against any hope that he could win.
He lost by 10 percentage points, a victory that he has contested, even though his reasons have not been satisfactory, shifting blame from one thing to the next and as things stand, NASA’s charges may be difficult to substantiate in a court of law.
Whether he has lost fairly or unfairly, it is the third time his avowed supporters are irredeemably hurt, nothing will ever console them.
Like most Kenyans, I sat indoors the week after the elections, following the proceedings at the Bomas of Kenya with unmitigated boredom. Kenyatta II had opened a lead from the word go, and as early as 7 p.m. on Tuesday, I knew it would be impossible for Odinga II to catch up with the soon-to-be-unpassable lead. Once Odinga II closed the lead to 10 points off Kenyatta II’s 54 percent, he would be stuck there for three days, perhaps psychologically preparing people for the inexorable Kenyatta win.
For many a NASA supporter, questions will always linger about how it happened. Jubilee and its affiliate parties have a majority in parliament and the Kenyan map is red in most parts, showing that Jubilee did make some inroads into NASA’s presumed zones. Still, many have cast their doubts about the outcome of places like Kisii. As an ethnic Kisii, I had presumed that NASA had control of 80+ percent of my kinsmen’s votes. However, credible research done in Nyamira prior to the election put Jubilee at 40 per cent and even though there was a sinking feeling when I heard it, I was not surprised. Still, there will always doubts that the figures may have been artificially adjusted upwards.
On Friday, the body language of some of the Jubilee luminaries was that of victory. Kenyatta II was leading by more than a million votes anyway. The country was ready for Kenyatta II to be declared winner, but they would wait until late night, 10 p.m. before he would be declared winner.
Many stations had four screens. NTV for instance, had screens beaming images from Bomas of Kenya, another screen trained on a handful of villagers in Gatundu, Kenyatta II’s ancestral home. Another screen was trained on jubilant people gathered in and around KICC, celebrating his imminent victory. Soon, another screen would focus on the celebrations in Eldoret.
In other parts of Kenya, stereotypically areas occupied by the Luo community like Kisumu, and the slums of Nairobi, the police were ready to meet any protesters with brutal force.
Earlier in the day, I had seen an NTV reporter wearing a helmet and a bullet-proof jacket, reporting about the anticipated demonstrations and the readiness of the police to contain the demonstration. This pissed me off a great deal.
I was perturbed by the framing going on. One part of the country was seen as violent, out to protest, loot, and destroy property at every opportunity. And another part was being victorious in a not so magnanimous way.
If you have read Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa you will understand how Whites developed the parts of Kenya that were useful to the British Empire. The Kikuyus, being Bantus, were farmers, occupying parts of what would later be called the White Highlands. The Whites developed the highlands more than any other place in Kenya. And upon independence, resources would be distributed to areas that were agriculturally productive areas, that means, mostly the part south of the equator. Areas that were productive received schools, hospitals and roads. Arid and semi-arid areas were left to their own devices and they were good ground for training military and reservists, local and foreign. The idiocy of this policy—ironically prepared by Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki, supposedly Kenya’s brightest minds at the time—is coming to haunt us as pastoralists raid the white-owned ranches in Laikipia and parts of Rift Valley in search of green pastures.
Another way resources were distributed depended on who was in power. Now, Kenya has had four presidents; three from one community—Kikuyu (of which two are father and son), and one from a different community—Kalenjin. The likely successor to Kenyatta II, his deputy William Ruto, comes from the Kalenjin community too. Should Kenyatta II and his deputy’s plan succeed, it means the two communities would have ruled Kenya’s 40-odd and disparate communities for a combined 70 years.
Now, those in power accumulate so much wealth through dubious means, and this wealth does not necessarily trickle down to the poor from the communities. Indeed, Central Kenya and Rift Valley have some of the poorest people in Kenya.
But there are certain invisible privileges that come with being in power, be it resource diversion to the ancestral homes of the government bosses or crony nepotism. I have seen certain bosses from my community divert roads, or electricity to their homesteads. I have seen military generals who employ young men and women into the police forces. While the young men and women are qualified for the jobs, the way they are employed means that some young man or woman in Northern Kenya has no equal opportunity to work for the government.
Longer stay in government means more nepotism, more corruption, and it empowers the same individuals to start to lord over other communities.
It is a flawed way of doing things, but it is not alien to Kenya or Africans. Power and politics is about resource sharing. Harold Laswell defined politics as who gets what, where and how.
We see the president dangling carrots and sticks. The Luo, one of the most marginalized and condemned communities in Kenya, have suffered some of the worst alienation and atrocities ever meted on a community for their political pursuits.
The fall out between our first president Kenyatta I and his deputy Odinga I, during the heady days of the cold war, would see Kenyatta gravitate to the right and Odinga to the left. Then the traumas began.
Mboya, even though one of the architects of the unbridled capitalism that would render Kenya one of the most unequal societies in Africa, was assassinated in 1969. When Jomo Kenyatta went to launch Russia Hospital in Kisumu, Luos protested against the assassinations of Tom Mboya and Argwings Kodhek. (The two might potentially have been presidents of Kenya had they lived). The presidential security detail shot dead at least ten people. The community never forgot. That trauma was stored.
Kenyatta would sideline the Luo for many years until he died. President Moi picked it on from where Kenyatta had left it and continued with the marginalization of the Luo. This got worse when Luo soldiers played a big part of the 1982 Coup, and many were sentenced to death.
In 1990, another prominent Luo, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Robert Ouko, was killed in the most grotesque, gruesome and ghoulish manner, sickening the community and the country even more.
Within the government, ever so decidedly so as to to condemn a community into permanent marginalization, the Luos were labeled as lifetime oppositionists. Their vocal and charged politics ensured that they stayed enemies of the state, prompting the then President, Daniel arap Moi to utter the unfortunate phrase, “siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya”. This became the government policy of dealing with people from opposition areas: ignore them until they come begging.
Odinga II’s dalliance with President Moi’s KANU party in the closing years of the last century did bring some relief for the Luo community to feel some government favours, even though it was short-lived. His big hand in the formation of the 2002 coalition government helped more Luos to get into government and some government goodies did trickle down, but it, too, was short lived.
The clamour for devolution began in earnest when Kibaki short-changed Odinga II and his colleagues, taking the government back to a cabal of Gikuyu Embu Meru Association (GEMA) power elite (used in its African sense of any powerful politician or monied individuals who greatly benefit from patronage, not any business acumen or discovery of something patentable and selling it to riches.)
Odinga II’s side won the 2005 constitutional referendum, trouncing the president’s side, and subsequently found himself kicked out of government. His dream for a more cohesive Kenya had been aborted. The referendum saw another top Luo scholar, Professor Crispin Odhiambo Mbai, then the architect of devolution and the trimming of the imperial presidency, killed. His assassination was believed to be a message to Odinga II, to stop his quest for a new constitution. Those who owned the country were opposed to the idea of sharing the national wealth in a more equitable way.
At around that time, Odinga II decided to run for the presidency, if it would help redistribute wealth better in the country as cronyism took center stage in Kibaki’s government. He also hoped that his presidency would help address the deep-seated problems that the country was facing at the time, so many historical injustices.
2007 came. He won, his victory was stolen. Violence ensued. More historical injustices were added to our continued assault on people’s liberties at the expense of the powerful and greed few.
2010 brought us the new constitution. Devolution was a good score from that constitution, thanks largely to Odinga II’s unrelenting pushing. It wasn’t perfect but was a work in progress to be improved upon. Devolution was beneficial to many places, even including Central Kenya, a region that ordinarily would have favoured the more centrist approach of governance that for long they believed favoured them, only that it favoured their elite, never the poorer subjects.
But devolution would not address some of the historical injustices, and the money given to some counties was paltry, counties that were literally still stuck in 1963. They had survived without even the noisome tokenism that government used to dish to marginalized communities in exchange for favours, mostly votes.
2013 elections were hotly contested, one side bringing together two suspected masterminds of the 2007 post-election violence. The two were soon cleared from the International Criminal Court due to lack of enhe….evidence. Indeed their victory, bringing together the two warring communities, did ‘address’ the 2007 electoral violence. But there are no guarantees that another bloody war will not ensue in the future. It can happen as soon as 2022, if any party reneges on the loose political memorandum the two communities enjoy.
Nevertheless, it did not address the stolen victory of 2007, and 2013 (Odinga II ‘S voters still believe the elections were fraudulent). And now that the 2017 results have been contested, it means we have four elections (2002, 2007, 2013 & 2017) that have not addressed the biggest problem Kenya is facing: exclusion.
Out of the 40-odd tribes, only two have been able to rule. The other 40 feel excluded from the national cake. Devolution is a recent phenomenon, an attempt to undo the 50 years of injustices.
You cannot fault the 40 communities that have rallied behind Odinga II in the last three elections. In 2007, Odinga II teamed up with William Ruto (Rift Valley), Najib Balala (Coast) Joe Nyagah (Central), and Musalia Mudavadi (Western). There was Kalonzo Musyoka before he separated from Odinga II’s group shortly before the election. Essentially it was an amalgamation of the largest tribes in Kenya, but there was the larger symbolism of including people from key regions in Kenya. Kibaki, his rival, in turn only turned to the leader of opposition, Kenyatta II (a fellow Kikuyu), to form a coalition. With the stolen victory, the forced coalition government was quite representative.
In 2013, Odinga teamed up with Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula who come from Eastern and Western provinces respectively, regions which span a large part of Kenya. Odinga II also had massive support from Nyanza, Coast, Easter, parts of Rift Valley and North Eastern and Western Kenya. Kenyatta II, his main rival, in turn only combined two voter-rich communities to be the bedrock of his TNA-URP coalition. They won and their government which many hoped would be inclusive proved to be the most exclusive club, a government that made things worse by the terrible economic management of the country that saw the cost of living rise, the living conditions deteriorate, doctors, teachers and nurses strike. (As I write this, the nurses are still on strike).
The historical tokenism, where a president visits a certain region that could vote for him to launch some real and some fictitious projects, reminiscent of the one-party rule days, became the norm.
Again, the distribution of resources was so biased, that one part (usually where the president hails from) got more, as we saw with the compensation of the IDPs. The president’s kinsmen were better compensated and sooner. Other IDPs were compensated as an afterthought, later and about 10 percent of what their counterparts in Central received.
This kind of distribution of the government resources is what makes the presidency so attractive and many communities gang against the two, if only this can correct the imbalance.
Now, again, NASA has lost. Odinga II’s voters’ yet again fear exclusion and retaliation from the government. With exclusion comes deprivation. It is the continued deprivation that takes people to the streets. And it is the flawed redistribution of resources that makes others think that the presidency is a price to win, hence their celebration when their man wins, and their rush to condemn the looting of property and the protests that follow every election.
This is where we are as a country. We have not solved any problems. We have only buried the deep-seated anger in a shallow grave. And just rubbed away the historical trauma ever so slightly.
Kenyatta II Kenyatta can bridge the differences after a fashion. But given the last five years, that will be foolish.
I have supported Raila Odinga thrice, hoping that his winning can help to psychologically satisfy other tribes in the symbolic defeat of the ruling elite responsible for the many ills that all Kenyans have suffered from because of their bad policies, corruption, nepotism, exclusion, ethnic supremacy (that ensures their subjects have a siege mentality and real and imagined fear that should they give power away they will be excluded. Some of the political parties’ utterances don’t help at all, like Kalonzo Musyoka gaffe on people from Mt Kenya having to lie low should NASA win, three days before elections).
With the exit of Odinga II and Kenyatta II in five years, it will be interesting to watch how the game will play, and the role the two communities will have. That begins as soon as Kenyatta II is sworn in.
About the Writer:
Silas Nyanchwani is a writer based in Nairobi. He writes on social affairs and lifestyle issues.