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Why Central Kenya’s anxiety is more than meets the eye

By XN Iraki | November 26th 2019

Central Kenya’s restlessness that was recently addressed by the president has historical, political, ideological and economic roots. The early encounter with mzungu meant better health, education and capitalism.

Lower mortality rate led to a population boom for this region which has five counties, Murang’a Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Nyandarua and Nyeri.

It’s another question why adjoining counties were invited to the meeting. Just as the population was rising, the mzungu snatched the land. It took Mau Mau war to get back that land.

By then, the population had grown and spilt over to the leeward side of the Aberdares into Rift Valley and following the railway line.

The Mzungu needed the natives to work on his farms as cheap labour. The mzungu farms provided the first resting place for men and women escaping the overcrowding in Central Kenya. This overcrowding led to family feuds over land, some which are still smouldering.

They will become worse with women allowed to inherit their fathers’ property. When Uhuru came, those who had left Central Kenya found new homes away from home in Rift Valley and beyond.

The government bought off mzungu and subdivided the land among the small scale farmers, former squatters or freedom fighters.

More farms were bought mostly through cooperatives, some a late as the 1980s. The new landowners did some good work in populating the land. History has placed a heavy burden on Central. Kenya natives left behind; the post-election violence made the burden bigger. 

Obvious successor

The restlessness in Central Kenya has something to do with “protecting” this Diaspora and its economic interests. The political cause of this restlessness is more intriguing.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s term is coming to an end without an obvious successor. The fear of losing national leadership stalks the region. Some suggest not naming a successor is a deliberate act to avoid becoming a lame duck, what he referred to as “being buried alive.”

The same scenario is witnessed in Nyanza too, where Raila Odinga has no obvious successor. Marketers should learn from politicians on how to prolong a product life cycle.
Lack of Uhuru’s obvious successor makes Central region feel politically orphaned. Some politicians see that vacuum and are exploiting it to the fullest.  A large number of voters without an “owner“ would attract any political entrepreneur. Some even fear that in 2022 this region will be pawned to the highest political bidder. The ideological cause of restlessness is more subtle.

The raison detre for the region’s dominance in Kenya’s political leadership is premised on their contribution to liberation war, read Mau Mau. The generation that adhered to this ideology and remembers the excesses of colonialism has aged or is gone. The region’s leaders need another justification to lead, more attuned to millennials and Generation Z. The last cause of restlessness is economic. The over-reliance on the cash system for this region means a break in an economic cycle like delay in paying suppliers affects it disproportionately.

There was always a safety valve for economic problems in this region - immigration out of the crowded region to other parts of the country.  With post-election violence (PEV), that slowed down.

With PEV, the region became inside looking, and its consequences thereof like alcoholism. Add the new law that allows sharing of the small pieces of land among daughters and sons and its economic precariousness is laid bare.

Agricultural backbone

The yawning socio-economic divide between the affluent and the poor which dates to colonial time is another source of concern in the Central region. The economic fortunes of this region have dwindled.

The agricultural backbone has been broken. Tea, coffee, pyrethrum and other cash crops are no longer cash crops. Food crops might matter more to feed the growing population. Never mind the census results show small households dominate the region.  The escape route from bad economic times had always been immigration to other regions or diaspora. I have attended a Kikuyu church service in Massachusetts and Alabama.

This immigration and small scale entrepreneurship could explain why intellectuals are disdained in this region. You are valued for your money, not ideas or big talk.

The bad economics in Central Kenyan has historical roots too.

The natives of this region can’t get as many public sector jobs as they used to-courtesy of the constitution and devolution.

Some suggest labelling natives of this region as untrustworthy works against their employment. Another escape root for this region was Nairobi, which is getting new political owners and investors.

The formalisation of Nairobi has also meant fewer opportunities for small scale entrepreneurs and public sector jobs. The restlessness in Central Kenya is real, built over the years and demands new thinking from politicians and natives. 

Should this region look inward or outwards for its solutions? And who will lead this region to economic and political Promised Land against a dysfunctional social background espoused by single parenthood and capitalism without a human face?

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi  

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