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Tough task for Ruto: How will he overcome Gema’s fear of an ‘outsider’ president?

By GAKUU MATHENGE | December 27th 2015

The fear by the Kikuyu of a government in which they have no control is the biggest hurdle confronting the Jubilee Party’s twin mission to secure President Uhuru Kenyatta’s re-election in 2017, and play launching pad for Deputy President William Ruto’s presidential contest in 2022.

The pervasive fear of forced repatriation of the most populous and peripatetic community — with as many members outside of the native Central Kenya as there are inside — drives the Kikuyu to cling to the safe and familiar: their own.

The political expression of this fear is the rabid dread of anything that remotely resembled Majimbo (regionalism), and Uhuru’s current burden is to convince his kinsmen that Ruto can guarantee their interests and assuage their fears if they vote for him.

Although the region has produced three of the four independent presidents, a siege mentality against power of state being turned against the Kikuyu was a dominant factor influencing voter behaviour during elections. This dread of forced eviction is rooted in the colonial experience, the anti-Gema purge of the 80s and perpetuated by the cyclic ethnic violence around election seasons in the 90s, whose ghosts are still haunting the nation to date, including the International Criminal Court’s interventions in Kenya.

The trauma of the colonial experience, and fear of retribution against the region’s political elite for perceived past excesses during the reign of first President Jomo Kenyatta, continue to cast a dark shadow on voter behaviour during elections.

Uphill task

Ruto and his backers will sooner than later have to wade through this historic baggage in the Kikuyu psyche if he were to succeed in securing the region’s backing for his bid to succeed Uhuru.

Political actors who tried to persuade Central Kenya voters into voting for CORD leader Raila Odinga, and Amani Coalition leader Musalia Mudavadi in the 2013 general election say Mr Ruto’s is an uphill task.

“Since colonial times, the Gema have experienced the power of the state turned against them and this left a traumatic scar, a historical baggage that politicians overplay and exaggerate to scare voters,” says Ngunjiri Wambugu, a political consultant.

Through his Kikuyus For Change lobby, Mr Wambugu was among a group of brave Central Kenya businessmen and politicians who tried, with dismal success, to sell CORD leader Raila’s presidential flag in Central Kenya in 2013.

He was director of political affairs in ODM’s presidential campaign secretariat, before defecting to Jubilee after elections. He says the colonial experience lasting more than 70 years of collective subjugation, mass punishment and an intense military operation to suppress Mau Mau (1952-59) are among factors that left a deep seated phobia of being under the power of “others”.

After independence, a combination of excessive behaviour of some key actors during the first administration of Jomo Kenyatta (1963-78), and what was perceived as a retributive purge of the region’s political and civil service elite after Kenyatta’s death, fuels this siege mentality perhaps more than any other factor.

The cyclic ethnic violence phenomena that has plagued the country since re-introduction of multi-partyism in 1992, and which escalated most dramatically following the disputed presidential elections in 2007 elections, did not help matters.

“These have buttressed the political demagogues’ clarion call "ni twathira" (we are finished) to every generation of voters, to stampede them towards their own and reject ‘outsiders’ regardless of their other credentials, policies or ideas,” Ngunjiri says.

In one major rally in Karatina, Nyeri County, in the run up to the last elections, one presidential candidate warned the voters:
“If that man (one of his rivals) gets to State House, he will make all of you (Kikuyus) put on prison garbs when visiting public offices so all people can see you from a kilometre away because they call you thieves.”

Fear was deployed to the maximum to instill a siege mentality among sections of voters to goad them not only to come out to vote, but also in large numbers because it was their lives ‘on the line’, not political careers of individuals.

A popular assumption is that the average Kenyan voter is a fairly informed, rational and law abiding citizen, who faithfully pays tax and goes to church on Sunday or Mosque on Friday.

Few people have tested this assumption to their painful grieve than former Laikipia West MP, Nderitu Muriithi. Armed with the assumption that all the voter needed to make rational political decisions was a clinical analysis of what was wrong with the economy and what needs to be done about it, his UDF party produced a manifesto dubbed Wanjiku Compact, translated in all major vernacular languages, Kikuyu included.

A former World Bank economist turned politician, Mr Muriithi says he learnt what swayed voters in the 2013 polls was fear, not ideas.

“Politicians and social scientists have discovered that Wanjiku is burdened by many cares in her daily struggles. To catch her attention, they must frighten her out of her daily preoccupations with survival. This explains the intense scare mongering directed at Kikuyu voters every election time. The slogan "ni twathira" was so effective,” he recalls.

Muriithi and his former Ndaragawa counterpart Jeremiah Kioni went against the grain of the TNA wave and were whitewashed. By sticking with Mudavadi, they staked their political necks for a chop they will not forget in a hurry.

“UDF believed a middle of the road route through a moderate leader as Mudavadi was the most viable alternative to draw Kenya back from the extreme passions excited by a contest between Uhuru and Raila. Their followers behaved, and continued to behave, like two alien war formations which is not good for national unity,” he recalls.

Wambugu had a front row interaction with what he describes as “irrational fear of annihilation” that seemed to eclipse every other idea, argument or consideration in choice of leadership among Kikuyu voters.

“Having tried to persuade leaders and voters in Central Kenya to consider a non-Kikuyu for president, I constantly came across expressions of deep fear that cuts across the social strata among the Kikuyu. The average Kikuyu peasant, university graduate or businessman deeply fears that government can be turned against them,” he says.

The average Kikuyu middle class and professional grew up on a diet of negative ethnicity, in addition to being targets of unflattering social labels that seemed to have left many seeing a shadow behind every bush.

Extremely gullible

“These are the same narratives they heard from their parents and grand parents, narratives of being hunted and haunted by an alien colonial state, and which makes them extremely gullible to political scare mongering,” Ngunjiri says.

While working for Raila, Ngunjiri says he became aware of two seemingly contradictory aspects about the group behaviour of the Gema people than he was before.

“This is hard to believe for many, but it is true Kikuyus are a politically ambivalent and detached lot. I am convinced they can comfortably live in Kenya without ever bothering to be in political leadership, if they did not feel their interests in land, business and physical safety were threatened by government,” he says.

The second seemingly contradictory aspect about their group behaviour he said: “Some argue the poor have no interest or reason to gang up with the rich to protect. The Gema people carry a collective baggage of a historical memory of being targeted, isolated, haunted, hounded during the colonial times,” he says.

“Their experience is when it begins, it does not end with the rich, both rich and poor will soon be in trouble. This is why Uhuru was able to stand up and say we are being targeted and everyone identified with him. At that point, he spoke as a Kikuyu, not as a rich man. Even the street families understood the alarmist rallying call of "ni twathira”.

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