The unexpected is happening. There’s a quiet revolution taking place among hoi polloi. Except in Luo Nyanza and among the Kikuyu, tribal barons everywhere are under siege. Even among the Luo, the once indomitable Raila Odinga is constantly being forced to put out small bushfires. Only TNA’s Uhuru Kenyatta has untrammeled control in his backyard. There’s a slow-burning metamorphosis of the Kenyan psyche. Kenyans are seeing — for the first time — the futility of the tribe as their cardinal pivot. I attribute this emergent consciousness to four factors — devolution, the elite looting of the public purse, impunity and the rising maturation of the average voter in our fledgling democracy. Economic interests are replacing ethnic loyalties in our polity.
The tribalisation of the Kenyan state is legendary. KANU perfected the art — and science — of ethnic politics. Under NARC’s Mwai Kibaki, tribal mandarins took charge. Jubilee rests on only two groups — the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. The bankruptcy of our politics is deep in the marrow of the bone. Let’s take a walk along memory lane. Virtually each group has had a tribal baron, although some groups were less regimented than others. For example, the Coast hasn’t jelled around one figure since the age of Ronald Ngala. The late Karisa Maitha had a shot, but was cut down by disease. The hawkish Shariff Nassir was too much of sycophant to wield real power. The Coast is a king-free zone.
So is Somali country, once known as North Eastern, or NFD. There, clans proliferate the political landscape and prevent the emergence of a true kingpin. Former KANU honcho Yusuf Haji was favoured by Nairobi, but his influence wasn’t king-like. National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale, the most senior politico from the region, doesn’t command the populace. Pastoralist and nomadic culture tend to disdain central authority or control. The same goes for the Maasai. After the iconic William ole Ntimama, no one is able to personify the Maasai, or fill his vacuum. The Kisii are without a baron after the Age of the son of Nyandusi, the once feared Simeon Nyachae. No one of his stature will again reign over the Kisii.
Among the Ameru, there will be no Jackson Angaines, or even the late Gilbert Kabere M’mbijiwe. Senator Kiraitu Murungi has tried to be the modern-day Angaine, but he’s fallen far too short. Governor Peter Munya and other Meru Young Turks have no respect for overlords, or even the once vaunted — but now splintered and discredited — Njuri Njeeke. The Embu aren’t different — the Nyagah Dynasty is politically dead — never again to be replaced. The Luhya, among the most democratic, or unwieldy groups, always rejected kings even when strongman Moses Mudavadi was alive. The irrepressible Masinde Muliro wouldn’t let Mr Mudavadi lord it over the Luyha Nation. Musalia, his son, can’t seem to hack it. Nor can Ford-Kenya’s Moses Wetang’ula.
The Akamba have historically rejected the notion of musumbi or muthamaki (king). The late Paul Ngei tried to rule them, but failed. The illiterate Mulu Mutisya, the New Akamba Union honcho, only managed to be a broker. Former VP Kalonzo Musyoka has come closest to a Kamba linchpin, but his reach isn’t very deep even in Wiper. Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua and Mama Rainbow Charity Ngilu keep on distracting him. He doesn’t have the undivided loyalty of the Kamba elite and professionals. Progressive Kenyans of Kamba extraction like CJ Willy Mutunga have no time for the pusillanimous character of ethnic barons. This is a notion that now echoes in many communities among progressives in Kenya. It’s a new day. I’ve saved the most interesting vignettes for the last. The Kalenjin Nation is the biggest prize because of the heavyweights battling for its control. Under former President Daniel arap Moi, the Kalenjin generally backed KANU, except for the dissenting voices of MPs Chelagat Mutai and Jean-Marie Seroney. Then Mr Moi’s political pupil — now DP William Ruto — started calling the shots after 2007. His command over the Kalenjin seemed to be cemented when he convinced them to overwhelmingly back Mr Kenyatta in Jubilee in 2013. But KANU and URP rebels have put Mr Ruto on his back foot. The rebellion against him is so deep, organised and widespread that he may not put the genie back in the bottle.
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This leaves the Kikuyu and the Luo as the only two communities with virtually unchallenged ethnic barons. But even among them, I don’t think the Big Man syndrome will last beyond the cycles of Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga. That’s because Kenyans of all ethnicities are fed up. Devolution has brought accountability and transparency. The massive stealing under Jubilee has disgusted even the regime’s supporters. Impunity has sickened Kenyans. That’s why they are maturing politically — and fast. The tribe is no longer a refuge.