The Luo Question: A Kenyan Problem that Refuses to Go Away

I remember feeling like a non-Kenyan for the first time in my life on that dark night Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the re-elected president, a decision that has since been nullified in a historic Supreme Court ruling. The court found the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the body charged with conducting elections, guilty of committing what it termed “illegalities and irregularities” that tainted the entire electoral process.
I recall clambering onto the roof of our apartment building, transfixed by the turn of events, painfully watching the twinkling stars, listening to Jubilee Alliance Party’s frenzied supporters screaming and beating drums and yelling – it was like the chasing away of nyawawa among my Luo folk. I picked up my phone and called a few of my friends, to calm my anguish at the wickedness of democracy.
Like a lot of African countries, elections are turning into charades. Elections are conducted as a mere formality to create a semblance of democratic progress. While significant gains have been achieved since African countries attained independence more than 50 years ago – like the shift from manual transmission of votes (which was usually marred with stuffing malpractices) to technology-driven transmission, a lot remains to be done. The vexing matter of free, fair, and credible elections remains the greatest challenge since it’s a matter of public opinion and not the prerogative of institutions per se. Another setback that complicates the democratization process is when political elites advocate for ethnic hegemony, as witnessed with the Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance beginning to entrench itself as a national norm.
According to the CIA World Fact Book as of July 2017, Kenya has a population of 47.6 million people with Asian-Indians recently getting official recognition. This scenario implies that in our quest for the nation-state ideal, other communities deserve a chance at the highest office to evoke a sense of political equality. Nobody should fool us that the institution of the presidency is ‘neutral’ when it comes to the distribution of resources. Our history is replete with shocking accounts of how Jomo Kenyatta, a celebrated nationalist, turned the presidency into a personal turf only beholden to his Kikuyu community. And that’s what brings me to the emotive issue of the Luo question that remains a constant talking point in the country.
The announcement of Kenyatta’s re-election as president in the 2017 General elections by the IEBC chair Wafula Chebukati triggered an avalanche of mixed feelings across Kenya. Kenyatta “won” by 54.27 percent against Odinga’s 44.74 percent of all the votes cast.  It is crucial to understand the “win” was an increase from the 50.51 percent for Kenyatta in 2013. In a functioning democracy, if indeed the win was valid, that should have heralded mostly positively feelings and emotions. But ng’o. It was not. Kisumu, a bastion of opposition politics since the Jomo Kenyatta-Oginga Odinga fallout in 1966, and the soul of the Luo people, was swiftly cordoned by the state machinery – as is the custom to preempt protests.
The kind of bloodletting that followed in the name of “law and order” and safeguarding property was not something out of the blue for those who understand the historical victimization of the Luo. Since independence, the victimhood of the Luo community has been cleverly distorted as an act of their own making. A section of the Kikuyu community whose elites have suppressed the Luo through economic stagnation and marginalization now want young Luo men and women to explain why they are still economically impoverished and anti-state and anti-police. They are asked to explain why their fellow community members are anti-development when the rest of Kenyans have accepted and moved on after the announcement of the presidential results.
The public reaction following reports that the police were murdering Luos – I call it murder, for that is what it has been – was that of further dehumanization and demonization of the Luo body. In other words, the life of a Luo is something the state can easily dispense with (at the pull of a trigger) because Luos have been persistently stereotyped as being ‘rowdy, violent, anti-government, anti-police, idle…etc., etc.
But the deliberate failure by the state led by the presidency is the refusal to allow the Luos and other communities to express their frustrations – of systemic victimization and exclusion for questioning the government of the day.  Tolerating such an act has the potential of opening a Pandora’s Box. And none from the past Kalenjin and Kikuyu-led governments would consent to actions amounting to “confessions” from any of those ethnic groups that continue to be sidelined from the political center.
However, the Luo question has been compounded by the gradual buying of the falsehood by other equally ostracized communities. This came into sharp focus when the state agents were killing Luos in informal settlements and other perceived National Super Alliance (NASA) strongholds. I would say it was a pointer of a lost chance to understand that the continued persecution of any dissenting ethnic community is just a sinister scheme to suppress peripheral voices and banish them away into political wilderness. And that is common sense. When the state has subdued voices that demand accountability and transparency in terms of good governance and proper management of the economy, then, surely, we are sliding into a farce.
A farce is when economic development is constantly parroted even at the expense of the underlying politics that influence economic policies. A good example is the historical injustices inflicted against such suffering communities who are forbidden from questioning the reasons for their continued suffering. Questioning attracts state terror as wenye wanakula nyama tukimeza mate cheer on.
A glimpse into volume three of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation (TJRC) Commission Report titled National Unity, Healing and Reconciliation reveals explicitly what needs to be done. Among other pertinent issues that are highlighted include the need for formal recognition and right to identity for such communities. Others are violations of right to development which the Luo and other historically excluded communities have experienced firsthand since independence, but subsequent regimes turn around to accuse them of imagining those tales.
Lastly, for the country to enjoy unity and reconciliation, the report further recommends that:
The President issues an official, public and unconditional apology to minority and indigenous communities in Kenya for the State’s systematic discrimination against these groups and communities. This should be done within six months of the issuance of the report.
Now one understands why the Jubilee Alliance is averse to the full implementation of the report. The Deputy President, William Ruto echoed the stand two months ago while addressing Kilifi residents on a campaign trail:
Our opponent says the solution to [the] land problem is to rely on the TJRC report where each community will be questioned. I’m asking you Kilifi residents, if we resort to this path, will we divide Kenyans or not?
By posing that rhetorical question, Ruto is cleverly insinuating to the marginalized communities to avoid raising historical grievances. Now, as we hold our breaths waiting for a fresh presidential election as ordered by the Supreme Court, we can only hope the incoming government will promote inclusivity for all Kenyans so that we can soar higher again.
About the Writer:
Amol Awuor is a trained high school teacher practising journalism. He is a former editorial intern with The Standard newspaper.