When he announced his intent to run for President in this year‘s General Election, Nyamira Senator Okong‘o Mong‘are said he wanted to end “the disruptive dynastic politics“ of the Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga families.
Like Senator Mong‘are, many other Kenyans – those who support either of the two families and those who don‘t – see the forthcoming elections as a continuation of political competition between the Kenyatta and Odinga families.
Currently starring in this five-decade drama are the leading scions of the families. There is President Uhuru Kenyatta starring for the Kenyatta dynasty and CORD leader, Raila Odinga, for the Jaramogi dynasty. Also starring is a host of friends and relatives on both sides of the duel. Their Kikuyu and Luo tribesmen and women also come in tow, as do affiliated franchise holding tribes.
It is an atrocious dynastic duel that has taken many guises and permutations over time, with now this dynasty or its proxy on top and then the other family, or its alternate. Their “frenemic” relationship that has seen them work together for a while, only to acrimoniously part company again. At the dawn of independence, the elder Kenyatta and Jaramogi were the best of friends. They even donned the same trademark beaded Luo cap and carried identical Gikuyu fly whisks. Then, one day, they parted in a huff.
President Uhuru, too, has had his crony moments with the younger Odinga and separated just as swiftly, amid mutual exchanges of angry words. In March 2002, they were enjoined in what was then touted as the New Kanu. Uhuru was one of the four deputy vice chairs of the party, while Raila was the secretary general. All looked rosy and cozy, until the poisoned chalice that was the Uhuru for President Project threw them apart, later that year. They would come together again in 2005 to campaign against President Kibaki‘s Kilifi Draft Constitution in a caustic referendum that profiled the country across ethnic divides.
Uhuru was the odd man out in what was seen as an anti-Mt Kenya conglomerate against what was called the (Amos) Wako Constitution. Uhuru and Raila hung together in triumph against President Kibaki for a while. They even formed and registered a new political outfit, the Orange Democratic Movement. Then ominous clouds began gathering above them and their party. They could not agree on whether they should dissolve their old parties or make them corporate members of the new party. Uhuru bolted – once again amidst angry exchanges between him and Raila, with William Ruto as Raila‘s most able deputy combatant against Uhuru.
Uhuru‘s departure from ODM in 2006 was, however, only continuation of old dynastic business by a new generation of players. At the start of it all, Jaramogi laid the stage for the ascendancy of the Kenyatta Dynasty. The departing British colonial authorities and their principals, back in Westminster, were uneasy about Mzee Kenyatta, following his forays into Russia and his meddling with Prof Bronislaw Malinowski; a dalliance that culminated in the publishing of the anthropological portrait of the Kikuyu cosmology in the volume titled Facing Mt Kenya. It was feared that Kenyatta‘s links with Eastern Europe might open the door to socialism in Kenya and East Africa. This would set back the American global campaign against socialism. The Cold War (1945 – 1990) spared nobody. NATO closely watched leaders in newly independent African states in the 1950s to the 1970s. There was need to determine their ideological leaning. Those thought to be pro socialism were destabilised. Some were removed. Others were killed.
Leftists who had not yet ascended to power should be locked out altogether. It was under this philosophy that Britain was keen that Kenya should go to independence without Kenyatta, who was then in detention. They asked Jaramogi to form the Madaraka Government. However, romantic idealist that he was, Odinga refused. He called, instead, for Kenyatta‘s release. You hear his shrill voice on archival tape recordings saying, “Kenyatta is our second god. There will be no independence without Kenyatta.”
Such is the irony of dynastic history in Kenya. Charles Hornsby, David Throup and other historians document that there were enough political leaders – including from Kenyatta‘s Kikuyu tribe – who urged Odinga to form government with himself as the first Prime Minister. But he firmly refused. Their thinking was that if the release of Jomo was important, the new African government could release him. However, Jaramogi wanted things done the other way round. Release Jomo first. Go to independence with Jomo as the undisputed Kenyan leader.
Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter
Things fall apart
Odinga got things his way and the rest has been a story of struggle between him and those he helped to ascend to power. Things began going wrong between Odinga and Kenyatta when, in Odinga‘s view, Kenyatta and those around him began betraying the ideals and objectives of independence. The romantic idealist in Odinga was at work again. Now he dreamt of a country in which wealth would be redistributed among the people. It was Not Yet Uhuru, he wrote in a book.
He had in mind a welfare state. The government would focus on the welfare of the citizens – providing free education, healthcare and a load of social freebies. Jomo and those around him seemed more concerned about creating an exclusive nouvelle riche African class. Their focus was to transfer to this class the benefits that a small European colonial class had previously enjoyed. In this they had a youthful and more than competent schemer and ideologue called Thomas Joseph Mboya.
Putting together his oratorical skills and the instruments of State, Mboya had by 1966 helped Kenyatta to make Odinga a marginal player in Kenyan politics. The man who had once hosted Kenyatta and other luminaries on his green lawns in up market Nairobi in June 1963 could now only peep into the political arena through loopholes in the walls.
The dynastic marginalisation of Jaramogi benefited a lot from his being cast as a „power hungry“ and „self seeking“ politician. This profile was particularly marketed among the Kikuyu. Odinga was no longer hailed as the man who had developed the mantra “No Uhuru without Kenyatta.“ Now he was a „greedy man out to grab power by whatever means.” The big irony of it all was that he was in fact fighting for land rights for the Kikuyu peasantry. He was shocked at the greed with which the new Kikuyu elite was marginalising its own poor and taking over hundreds of thousands of acres of land that had until only recently been in the hands of European settlers. In this, he had faithful allies in Bildad Kaggia and Kung‘u Karumba, both Kikuyu leaders who had been jailed with Kenyatta.
Kenyatta and his close Kiambu circle cast Kaggia and Karumba as friends of the enemy. Kaggia would be pushed to the fringes of extreme penury and indigence, to the very end of his days. He died the perfect portrait of a frustrated poor man. But even this was after Kenyatta had detained him following the disruptive activities that came in the wake of the Mboya assassination of July 1969 and Odinga-led protests against Kenyatta in Kisumu later in the year. Karumba disappeared into an unknown world, over 40 years ago. He has never been seen, or heard of, again. To borrow the words of David Goldsworthy, Karumba is the one man Kenya truly wanted to forget.
Dynasties not a Kenyan preserve
As Raila and Uhuru continue to carry the mantles of their family dynasties, it is instructive that dynastic rule is not the preserve of Kenya. One of the most blatant dynasties in Africa has been the Tubman and Tolbert Dynasty in Liberia. Of course, like all other dynastic leaders, the Kenyattas and Odingas surround themselves with family members and select cronies. Yet this pales out dismally before the Americo-Liberian dynasties of the 1920s to the ‚80s in Liberia. At the height of its most ambitious dynastic shamelessness, the list of who was who in William Tolbert‘s government in Liberia read like a register of the Tolbert family at the time – either by birth or marriage. They occupied virtually every key position in administration, money banking and finance, public procurement, audit, transport and communications and most significantly in the disciplined forces and security.
Traditionally, the world has been ruled by dynasties. The fundamental shift in the New World has been migration from monarchical dynasties to disguised pseudo-democratic dynasties. In the olden days, such dynasties as the Byzantium ruled much of the Western world, as we know it today. Also significant in later times was the Austrian House of the Habsburg, whose presence straddled Europe and indeed continues to be felt today in what is left of European constitutional monarchies. In Africa, the Ptolemy Dynasty ruled as the pharaohs of Egypt for over 300 years, ending with the fall of the glamorous Queen Cleopatra VII at the hands of Augustus Caesar whom we read of in The Bible (Luke 2:1).
Leadership of the Philippines has been a contest between three dynastic families. Ferdinand Marcos ruled from 1965 to 1986, when a popular uprising swept away his empire of graft. Corazon Aquino, widow to Marcos‘ slain nemesis Benigno Aquino, became president. Subsequently, power has oscillated within the Ramos, Estrada and Aquino families. In Haiti, Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) ruled the country with ruthlessness akin to his father‘s (Papa Doc). He ascended to power at age 19, after his father‘s death, in 1971. He would ride the country through a ruthless 15 years of personal rule, until 1986 – when a popular uprising hounded him into exile in France.
Back home in Africa, the Gnasingbe Etienne Eyadema Dynasty has ruled Togo since 1963, when General Eyadema overthrew and killed the country‘s popular president, Silvanus Olympio, in Africa‘s first coup de tat after independence. After dumping Olympio‘s body at the doorstep of the American Embassy in Lome, Eyadema installed a puppet regime under one Nicolas Grunitzky. He removed Grunitzky in 1967 to take full charge until 2005, when he died. His son Faure took over – again after a window dressing a brief 25-day stint by a certain Bonifoh Abass. The Eyademas have been close family friends of the Kenyan State. Faure Gnasingbe was one of the luminaries who attended Kenya‘s 53rd Jamhuri celebrations, last month. Paralleling the Eyademas are the Bongos of Gabon. Omar Bongo ruled for 42 years and – at his death – the baton passed on to his son Ondima Bongo, also a close friend to the Kenyatta Dynasty.
Other African dynasties have ruled in Botswana, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Equatorial Guinea. In Kenya, the possibility of a Moi Dynasty is not to be ruled out, as offspring of the second president‘s family have remained politically active. The possibility of a Kibaki Dynasty is also something to watch. For now, however, the Moi and Kibaki presidencies have in a sense been regencies of the Kenyatta Dynasty.
Not an African aberration
Republican dynasties also abound in western democracies, but with a modicum of decorum and common decency. In the United States, the prestigious Adams family produced the second and firth presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Other family members have served in other key positions in government.
The Bush Dynasty has also produced two presidents and, last year, tried to produce a third one. The Clinton Dynasty is alive and well, as is the Kennedy Dynasty.
Love them or hate them, political dynasties have always ruled the world and will continue to do so. While they reign, the critical thing to remember is Thomas Paine‘s counsel that government, even in its best sense, is a necessary evil. As dynasties will continue to rule, citizens have a duty to rein them in and to diminish their sharp excesses.