Cultural leaders of Agikuyu and Meru communities have had an active and impactful influence on the political fate of the Mt Kenya region. However, due to the high-stakes politics witnessed this year, the Njuri Ncheke Supreme Council of the Ameru and the Agikiuyu Council of Elders who revere themselves as the custodians of their community interests found themselves at odds. They nearly lost credibility.
Njuri Ncheke Council has six ‘districts’ in which elders deliberate on important matters affecting Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties.
These districts have shrines where elders meet to discuss important issues and settle land, family and other disputes. But it is headquartered at their Nchiru Shrine in Tigania West which also has a ‘Parliament’ and where elders meet to make important decrees.
It is at the hallowed grounds that politicians usually make a beeline for every electioneering period, to seek the blessings of the elders.
The elders’ shrine is viewed as crucial by presidential candidates due to the significant role the Njuri elders play in charting the direction of the political direction of the Meru.
So it was here that former National Assembly Speaker and now Attorney General Justin Muturi landed as he mulled a run for a top political seat.
Njuri elders led by chairman Linus Kathera, Secretary General Josphat Murangiri (Operations) and his Programmes counterpart Washington Muthamia elevated him as the Mt Kenya East spokesman.
His endorsement came at a time political heavyweights from the region, including former Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, former governor Kiraitu Murungi and others were keen to have a piece of the political pie.
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Muturi by virtue of his elevation as the region’s kingpin gained some advantage. It was believed no major presidential candidate could access the three counties in the region (Meru, Tharaka Nithi and Embu) without Muturi. The endorsement by the influential Njuri served the desired effect of informing the various political formations that Muturi had the gate pass to Mt Kenya East.
He was the chosen political leader of the three counties and he would be negotiating on behalf of the leading presidential candidates.
After Muturi had been picked as the region’s kingpin, Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga, his running mate Martha Karua and other top politicians allied to them landed at the shrine too, to seek the elders’ blessings and endorsement.
The elders heaped praise on Muturi and Raila’s leadership qualities and blessed and decorated them in elaborate traditional ceremonies, interpreted by many as the elders’ endorsement of their political ambitions.
Former Nyambene MP Joseph Mutuuria and Kiraitu pointed out the significance of Raila stepping into the shrine.
“This is hallowed grounds. Mzee Kenyatta and Moi, Kibaki, Uhuru were here for our blessing. Now you are here for our blessing. We have given you our blessings and you are going to be our president,” said Mutuuria.
Kiraitu also gained the elders’ blessings, with elders blessing his bid for re-election as Meru governor.
But these visits by politicians to the Njuri shrine did not go down well with other ambitious politicians. Mr Munya who is also a Njuri elder came out strongly against Mr Muturi’s enthronement as Mt Kenya East spokesman. Munya’s allies who include now Meru Assembly Speaker Ayub Bundi, also a former Njuri assistant secretary general, opposed Muturi’s elevation, saying the decision was not unanimously endorsed by elders.
Kenya Kwanza ally
As it turned out, Muturi decided to take the region to President William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza.
Prof Kithure Kindiki, now Interior and Administration of National Government, who is also a Njuri elder, had been at the forefront of bringing the region’s leaders together in Dr Ruto’s coalition. The decision of the Njuri to endorse some politicians was not taken kindly by a section of residents, and politicians.
The argument was that as an apolitical group, the council was not supposed to dabble in politics.
Now Meru Governor Kawira Mwangaza was also not happy after the elders announced their support for Kiraitu’s re-election. “We saw a situation where the elders openly endorsed their preferred candidates and were not happy. The elders’ should have remained politically neutral, just as they have been admirably neutral when resolving land and other disputes,” said Kirimi Njue, a Chuka trader.
The elders’ roles in political endorsements drew anger from politicians and voters alike and threatened their credibility as the custodians of the community’s cultural, traditional and other interests.But the elders defended their actions. Murangiri said they had only “blessed”, not endorsed, Raila’s quest for the presidency after the Azimio leader had requested the elders to do so.
“If Ruto and others had also made the request to the elders they would have received their blessings. We are non-partisan. We only blessed those who came to us for blessings. It is Raila who came to us,” Murangiri said.
But political analyst and former National Cohesion and Integration Commission member Prof Gitile Naituli said the elders acted within their rights to endorse Raila.
“The role of Njuri Ncheke is, first, to administer justice in Meru. They specifically address the question of the weaker members of society; widows and children. The primary role is maintaining law and order, basically,” Prof Naituli, who is also a Njuri elder, said.
But in addition, he said elders also have a role in politics. “This engaging in politics and endorsing people that too is their role because they are (also) leaders and therefore are supposed to identify appropriate leaders of the society but they are not emotional about it. If they identify a leader and then society does not like it, they respect that,” Naituli said.
He said it was right for Njuri Ncheke to endorse Raila, but not Kiraitu. “It was okay for them to endorse Raila as a national leader but at the same time prepared to respect the choice of Kenyans. Whoever Kenyans chose, the Njuri would have been happy with that one. Like any other members of the society, elders have an opinion and that is why they endorsed Raila,” he said.
On endorsement of Kiraitu he said: “That was wrong. Locally we do not separate the people of Meru. That is separating Meru’s children because all the Merus are equal. Njuri Ncheke cannot afford to come between them. You cannot endorse one Meru against another.” In the Agikuyu traditional community, elders’ groups clashed due to the politics of the day. The groups which are the Kiama Kia Ma and Kikuyu Council of Elders are known to guide the community and give wise counsel to the youth but during the last year’s electioneering period, the groups not only clashed but sought to outshine each other.
Politics were so intense that Kiama Kia Ma was divided into two with one faction supporting the former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s preferred Presidential candidate Raila while the other supported President William Ruto.
Kikuyu Council of Elders supported Raila’s bid together with a faction of Kiama Kia Ma and several times met their Luo counterparts to cement their newfound relationship after the two groups’ patrons, Raila and Uhuru entered a peace pact.
The two groups visited each other in Bondo and Nyeri counties and sealed a deal that the communities would unite politically claiming when the mountain and the lakes unite, great things happen.
This saw the rival factions in the Mt Kenya region criticise the eligibility of each other to speak on behalf of the community.
“We were so divided that at times, we could only speak to each other based on our political affiliation. We have never been this divided,” recalled Mzee Njoroge Kamanu. But the rivalry of the highly respected Kikuyu cultural groups started taking shaping shape earlier even before the political fireworks between the President and Raila were shot in the mountain.
The controversial coronation of Muturi as the speaker of Mt Kenya region was the epitome of the clash between the cultural associations.
While the elders could not agree on the eligibility of Muturi’s coronation, they ended up being enemies when Muturi’s ceremony was conducted at Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga shrine. The choice of venue elicited mixed reactions not only from the elders but also politicians who criticized the idea of ‘desecrating’ the cradle of humankind which is considered sacred.
The Agikuyu high priests commonly referred to as Agongoni whose membership comprises elderly men mostly who lived a century and who conduct rare rituals were also dragged into the political divisions.
The matter later ignited a nasty altercation among elders’ groups in central Kenya with one group accusing the other of being politically manipulated and vulnerable to political patronage with the other standing their ground and saying the gods (Ngomi) had approved their actions. The coronation ceremony that was conducted in May albeit with the heavy presence of police officers, after former governor Mwangi Wa Iria vowed to storm to disrupt the exercise, was later denounced by a rival lobby led by Mr Wachira Kiago (Kikuyu Council of Elders), and Ndung’u Gaithuma of Kiama Kia Ma.
The factions maintained that the group could not have legitimately represented the Kikuyu community in the event and that their actions could lead to catastrophe if they did not concentrate on the venue. After the cleansing of Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga, a new battlefront was opened between Muturi and a section of elders when he decided to support Kenya Kwanza.
While he was left with the former President’s cousin Kungu Muigai, other elders who facilitated his coronation led by Prof Peter Kagwanja severed links when they rescinded their decision to support Ruto. After the coronation, symbols of tribal authority such as leopard skins, three-legged stools, spears and fly whisks were conferred on Muturi, but questions abound on their political relevance or whether the elders are mere puppets propped up by politicians to do their bidding emerged.
Kagwaja now admits that although the divisions in cultural groups are the order of the day in every transition period, last year’s left the elders in the ugliest scope.
“In 2013, the elders were divided between the third President the late Mwai Kibaki and the President with one being conservative while the other leaning toward Uhuru but last year’s situation is regrettable,” added Kagwanja.
According to him, the patron of the Kiama Kia Ma Muranga chapter, the political sloganeering hustler versus dynasty crept through the elders leading to splitting between the haves and have-nots.
“It did not matter whether one was in Kiama Kia Ma or Kikuyu Council of Elders, it is the slogans that shaped individual elder political inclination hence the division,” said Kagwanja. The class lines, Kagwanja noted, also divided the Kenyatta family where the have’s elders supported the Azimio One Kenya Alliance while others supported Kenya Kwanza.
“Politics leaves everyone engaged in it dirty and so are the elders, but those who coalesced themselves behind Muturi now feel closer to power,” added Kagwanja
Kungu Muigai said it was not the only elders who had been hypnotized by the politics of the day saying other stakeholders like the churches, professionals had also been sucked into political wars.
“Politics are over. We are now in a new era where we are seeking peace to earn respect from our community. We are doing so through our initiation processes where we are overseeing the initiation of 14000 young men into adulthood,” said Muigai.
Kikuyu Council of Elders Wachira Kiago said they are in the process of reaching out to other factions for dialogue.
But Isaac Thuita, the chairperson of Nyeri Young professionals said the elders’ continued engagement in politics was eroding the trust and credibility that the masses have for elders advising them to keep off politics in future.
“They need to concentrate on giving the wise counsel of our cultural traditions and to the already elected leaders instead of actively engaging in politics,” said Thuita.