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Tribe still a factor in race for State House

By By Dominic Odipo | August 6th 2012

By Dominic Odipo

It will be the end of an era; the end of the beginning. When President Mwai Kibaki leaves office after the presidential elections now scheduled for Monday, March 4, 2013 that event will mark the end of the reign of the old order— the leadership of the generation which led this country to Independence in 1963.

Intriguing tales

In a sense, President Kibaki’s exit will mark the end of independent Kenya’s pioneering political leadership. It will be the end of the beginning as the torch passes to a new generation of Kenyans, most of whom were born in the second half of the 20th Century.

History and statistics, when combined, sometimes tell very intriguing tales. Take Kenya’s presidential history, for example.

Fifty years after our Independence, there is still only one Kenyan secondary or high school which has produced a Kenyan president — Mangu High School. Of the three men who have served as Kenyan presidents, only Mwai Kibaki managed to attend a secondary school in Kenya. And that school was Mangu.

Incidentally, Mangu also stands out, historically and statistically, as having produced the highest number of vice presidents. Of the 10 men who have so far served as Kenya’s vice presidents, three of them — Kibaki, George Saitoti and Moody Awori — went through Mangu. But, perhaps, there we digress, if only peripherally. As the Independence generation of Kenya’s political leaders fades away, what factors are most likely  to determine who will be elected the country’s fourth president?

Will it be the high school or university which a particular presidential candidate attended? Will it be money, in the sense of how much each of the leading presidential candidates will be able to amass and deploy during the campaigns leading up to March, 2013?

Will it be a candidate’s moral character, in the sense or extent to which one is an exemplary husband or wife? Will it be a candidate’s so-called reformist or non-reformist credentials? 

Will it be a candidate’s latest relationship with the International Criminal Court? Or, at the end of the day, will the most critical factor simply turn out to be the candidate’s tribe or ethnic origins?


The words Luhya, Luo, Kamba or Kikuyu do not appear anywhere in our new Constitution. And perhaps they shouldn’t.

But any Kenyan politician gunning for the presidency who ignores these words, and the undercurrents they portray and unleash, might as well be living in outer space.

Politically, the Kenyan tribe is, indeed, very much alive.

At each of our three presidential successions, this tribal factor has reigned supreme, whether or not the word ‘’tribe’’ appears in our Constitution. Jomo Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnicity was probably the most critical factor in his rise to the presidency of this country in 1964.

Given the critical role that the Kikuyu community had played in the struggle for our Independence, it would have been difficult to contemplate the possibility of any Kenyan from another community taking power immediately after Independence.

Critical factor

When President Kenyatta passed on in 1978, the wheel had turned full circle. Then, after 15 years with a Kikuyu as President, it had oddly become very difficult for another Kikuyu to succeed him.

The fact that Vice President Daniel arap Moi was not a Kikuyu suddenly became a critical factor in the Kenyatta succession power play.

Twenty-four years later, as President Moi was preparing to step down, this subterranean tribal factor reared its ugly head again. After Moi settled on Uhuhu Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as his preferred successor, the Opposition quickly concluded that only another Kikuyu candidate could stand the best chance of defeating Uhuru and the entire state machinery at the polls.

That is how Kibaki, another Kikuyu, quickly and unexpectedly rose to the helm of the Opposition and on to the presidency. Kibaki’s ethnicity had suddenly become the critical factor in the 2002 presidential sweepstakes.


If this tribal factor has played such a decisive role in all our previous presidential successions, is it not reasonable to suspect that it could play the same role next year as well? Is it not reasonable to suppose that the next President of Kenya could emerge not because of his schooling, money, moral standing, or so-called reformist credentials but mainly because of his or her ethnic origins?

The political purists among us will quickly rubbish such a thought. But, before they do, they had better glance at the American experience. It took more than 180 years for the Americans to elect their first Catholic president, even though nothing in their Constitution barred them from doing so.

It took them 232 years to elect their first black president. The Constitution is not always the best guide to a country’s inner political dynamics.

The writer is a lecturer and consultant in Nairobi.

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