Parallels of Uhuru and his father liver-juggling two pivotal voting blocs

President Jomo Kenyatta receiving two cheques from then-Vice President Mr. Oginga Odinga for famine relief at State House in 1965 [Courtesy]

This week President Uhuru Kenyatta tours Nyanza, which never voted for him in his two-term presidency, but is now central in his legacy and succession plans.

In contrast, it comes at a time he has lost traction with yet another key voter bloc – the North Rift – which helped him win his stay in office. Balancing between the two blocs posed a similar dilemma to Uhuru’s father, first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

From the beginning to the end of his 15-year presidency, Jomo Kenyatta had to play a balancing act between two of the main voter blocs, Nyanza and North Rift Valley, whose leaders were Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Daniel arap Moi. Kenyatta, though hailing from the most populous region of Mount Kenya, knew he needed at least the support of one – if not both – voter blocs to stake his claim in power as well as have a seamless succession. The relationship would be symbiotic because, similarly, the two separate blocs knew they needed support from Mount Kenya region.

For Kenyatta, winning trust and having tenable working relationship with either Jaramogi or Moi wasn’t a walk in the park. Both were strong-willed, hard-ambitious and not in any way easy nuts to crack. Moi had come from a humble beginning which hardened him enough to stand on his own and demand to be counted.

Though he would end up trusted deputy to Kenyatta, their early acquaintance was rocky and ridden with mutual mistrust. While Kenyatta believed in a centralist government, Moi at first was for majimbo. Kenyatta also saw Moi as a threat to settlement of the Mount Kenya diaspora in the Rift Valley.

When the idea to form KANU party was floated two years to independence, Moi was vehemently opposed to it. The Sunday Post newspaper of June 11, 1961 reported Moi telling a rally in Eldoret that “political organisations started at the top (read Kanu) didn’t flourish democratically” and that the right way was to “start at location and district level where moves towards dictatorship could be curbed at the source.”

Subsequently, on June 25, 1961, Moi as leader of a party called Kalenjin People Alliance (KPA) was among six other leaders of regional blocs who convened at Ngong township to announce formation of the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu) to rival Kanu, which they dismissed as “party for Mount Kenya and Luo Nyanza regions.” 

At the Ngong rally, Ronald Ngala was elected Kadu party leader, Moi the chair and Masinde Muliro deputy leader. A confidential report by the colonial secretary James Griffiths stamped PRO/CO 822/2910, described Moi as “showing little enthusiasm for political restraint”.

From the files of leader of the white settlers in Kenya, Sir Michael Blundell, at London’s Rhodes House, Moi and Ngala are reported to have walked out at every meeting called to unite Kanu and Kadu. The Sunday Post of September 3, 1962, reports Moi and Ngala threatening to disrupt a meeting called to draw regional boundaries if Trans Nzoia was removed from the Rift Valley and put in Western region.

In regard to the question of settlement in the Rift Valley, Moi is reported to have ominously told a rally in Kericho to “wait to hear” when he “blows the whistle”. After Kanu won the independence elections and formed government with Mzee Kenyatta as Prime Minister, the colonial Governor Malcolm MacDonald went out of the way to persuade Moi to work with Kenyatta.

Eventually, he succeeded and reported to the colonial secretary in London: “I have managed to bring together Moi and the Prime Minister (Kenyatta). Moi is easily the most important Kadu figure after Ngala and even including Ngala. As a result Moi now goes direct to Kenyatta with most of his regional or tribal troubles instead of coming to me and my then having to talk with  Kenyatta.”

Unlike Moi, Jaramogi and Kenyatta had hit it off as comrades in arms. In his biography Not Yet Uhuru, Jaramogi reckons he first met Kenyatta in 1948 and they became instant friends. But it was not until 1952 at the beginning of Mau Mau rebellion when Kenyatta returned to Kisumu that he persuaded Jaramogi, until then a successful businessman, to fully immerse into politics. Jaramogi not only did so but agreed to clandestinely commit personal resources to the cause of freedom.

Jaramogi, who joined the central committee of Kenya’s first national party and Kanu precursor, the Kenya African Union (KAU) writes that the underground movement which he partly funded “acquired guns through illegal purchases, stealing, and forceful seizures, and that ex-servicemen (from British army) gave instructions on use of the guns under the guises of dynamiting in abandoned quarries.

Later Jaramogi became chair of the association of then eight Africa members in the colonial parliament. Historian Keith Kyle describes Jaramogi to have been “pioneer capitalist and pioneer pro-communist” who became the go-between for elder Kenyatta then in jail and the emerging young African leaders.

President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House, Nairobi hosted elected Luo Nyanza leaders ahead of his development tour of the region [Courtesy]

Strangely, the young leaders chiefly Tom Mboya and Gikonyo Kiano were not enthusiastic to recognise Mzee Kenyatta as the supreme African leader and wanted to chart their own path. But Jaramogi would have none of it insisting that in or out of jail, Kenyatta remained head of the liberation movement.

Jaramogi would be the first to mention the name Kenyatta in the colonial Parliament which led to his ejection from the chamber. The white settler community in Kisumu punished him by boycotting his shop in the town leading to its closure. But Jaramogi remained defiant.

He was to tell the East African Standard of September 22, 1958: “When Kenya’s history is written ….any accurate record must include the fact Kenyatta was a prisoner of conscience in the African struggle…. The question of Kenyatta leadership shouldn’t arise. The immediate question is when he will be released from jail.”

At the same time, Jaramogi coined the term “Uhuru na Kenyatta” (Freedom and Kenyatta) much to the annoyance of the colonialists and the Young Turks within African leadership who wanted Kenyatta isolated and forgotten. On August 14, 1961, Jaramogi led Luo and Kikuyu traditional dancers in ululating to welcome Kenyatta back home. Historian Keith Kyle says Jaramogi became one of Kenyatta’s confidants. “Odinga was much in evidence as Kenyatta’s business manager – keeping him in communist bloc funds, according to police Special branch reports.”

But Mzee Kenyatta and Jaramogi would soon part ways on the question of ideology, with the former choosing the capitalist path and the later moving far to the left. The final showdown was on October 25, 1969, during the opening of the Kisumu Hospital (now Jaramogi Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital). Kenyatta and Jaramogi exchanged bitter words after stones were thrown in the direction of the president and his security responded with live bullets.

But even in the hostile circumstances, Mzee Kenyatta still had kind words for his old friend when he said: “You Jaramogi were it not for respect to our old comradeship, having loved you more than I loved my brother, I would have ordered you be locked up right away.”

At the time of Mzee Kenyatta’s death, two rival camps jostled for his succession, one keen on a political alliance with North Rift bloc and fronting Vice President Moi, and the other camp crafting a return to old Mount Kenya/Nyanza political alliance with Jaramogi in the equation.

Postscript: It is history repeating itself ahead of 2022 succession, President Uhuru Kenyatta rooting for a Mount Kenya/Nyanza alliance and his deputy William Ruto separately gunning for a Mount Kenya/North Rift alliance. 


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