× Digital News Videos Health & Science Opinion Education Columnists Lifestyle Cartoons Moi Cabinets Kibaki Cabinets Arts & Culture Podcasts E-Paper Tributes Lifestyle & Entertainment Nairobian Entertainment Eve Woman TV Stations KTN Home KTN News BTV KTN Farmers TV Radio Stations Radio Maisha Spice FM Vybez Radio Enterprise VAS E-Learning Digger Classified Jobs Games Crosswords Sudoku The Standard Group Corporate Contact Us Rate Card Vacancies DCX O.M Portal Corporate Email RMS

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy: Historic lessons from power intrigues that shaped party politics

By GAKUU MATHENGE | January 3rd 2016
President Uhuru Kenyatta celebrates the launch of TNA with a party supporter.

NAIROBI: President Uhuru Kenyatta’s twin agenda to secure re-election next year and position his deputy to succeed him depends on Central Kenya buying or rejecting it.

His father used many tricks to retain a tight grip on power for 15 years.

He persuaded the opposition party Kadu to dissolve itself and cross over to the ruling party Kanu in Parliament, ruthlessly unleashed instruments of state violence to crush internal dissent inside Kanu, bending the Constitution to shield friendly tribal chieftains from trouble as he did for Ukambani comrade Paul Ngei, then detained or exiled pesky intellectuals. 

If Uhuru’s plan works, the Jubilee Party (JP) strategy of dangling the 2017 presidential prize as the single-most logical option for not upsetting the apple cart, will deliver the fifth political epoch to lead the region into political power since independence.

The Mt Kenya region was at the centre of power from 1963 to 1978, but was out in the periphery and in opposition benches from 1979 to 2002.  

One factor has remained constant even as election vehicles changed — Mt Kenya voters supported only parties based, owned and controlled from the region.

Political analyst and University lecturer Peter Kagwanja, however, says it was not always the case, neither was it by design.

No other scholar has continuously participated in the evolving contemporary political reorganisation and reconstruction of Kikuyu power, studied it, written about it, commented on it, and profiled key players for the last 15 years, like Prof Kagwanja.

The visiting professor of African Diplomacy at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Diplomacy and International Studies, and President of the Africa Policy Institute says the apparent determination to anchor the region in parties owned and controlled by local elites resulted from a combination of factors, some rational, others not.


Kagwanja says founding President Kenyatta and his cohorts sowed the seeds of dread and suspicion driving the region’s political thinking today.

“President Kenyatta was an overbearing personality. He ignored politics and, instead, anchored his administration on two thin legs of the civil service bureaucracy, and the provincial administration. He was old, charismatic, fatherly and grand fatherly to all around him,” Kagwanja says.

But that was after ruthlessly crushing the only credible challenger to his comfort, his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and persuading the opposition Kadu to wind itself up.

The political space left after the annihilation of the opposition would be occupied by a tribal outfit called Gema, that soon cast such a pervasive influence in public sphere, at one point it projected an image of a state within a state.

One of the longest serving political faces from the region and former Gema chairman, Njenga Karume, recalled in his 2010 autobiography, From Charcoal to Gold: “Kenyatta silenced all voices of dissent by ensuring none of Jaramogi’s supporters made it back to Parliament in the mini-general elections of 1966.

Kenya People’s Union (KPU) was proscribed in 1969, and dominance of Kenyatta, Kikuyu and Kanu allies continued...it was against this precarious and unstable background that Gikuyu, Embu, Meru Association (Gema) was formed...”

In the last days of Kenyatta’s rule, Gema associates of Kenyatta in government became extremely arrogant, so drunk with raw power that they generated deep resentment and hatred towards themselves and the government they represented.

The sense of grievance and impunity generated deep-seated resentment, fear and dread, against both government and key functionaries.


“Old Jomo’s government run on two legs, which were as strong as long as he was strong. His stature was such that he was the government, and the government was him, the state power resided in the man, and not in institutions,” says Kagwanja.

The flip side was that when the the man died, his flock had nowhere to shelter. He had killed Kanu, and virtually made it impossible for political parties to operate.

“During transitions people normally hide in political parties to mobilise and negotiate for compromises with new rulers. The group around Jomo had made itself so unpopular with Kenyans that many wished Gema to be gone and remain gone.

“Within one year of assuming power, retired President Moi was so popular that the Kenyatta inner court had crumbled, and its cohorts derogatorily referred to as the ‘Kiambu Mafia’ scattered never to rise again,” Kagwanja recalls.

Those who would survive the purge were falling over themselves to pledge loyalty to the new rulers

In the absence of institutions in which power was mobilised and socialised, the post-Kenyatta system found the Kikuyu political elite as sitting ducks with nowhere to hide when the rain fell.

“This was unlike the Kalenjin elite when Kanu lost power to the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) in 2002. They had Kanu to seek compromises in Parliament, and when this was not forthcoming, Kanu joined hands with Narc insurgents in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to form the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), that had the effect of drastically taming the first Kibaki administration’s bravado,” the scholar says.

After Kenyatta died, the Kikuyu political elite would be progressively removed from government one after another, from civil service jobs with no consequences. By 1988, the last of their senior most member of government, then vice president Mwai Kibaki, was dropped.

“The manner and casualness in which Kibaki was dropped sent a chilling message, and marked the most significant turning point that dramatised the lowest point of decline of power of the Kikuyu as a community. Thus humiliated and bitter, the reconstruction of the Kikuyu power would begin after 1988, and by 1990, the under ground opposition going by many names, including Mwakenya, left the underground hideouts, exploding into open rebellion in the urban streets,” Kagwanja says.

The infamous mlolongo (queuing) election of 1988 marked the climax of the hubris of the Kanu power barons and the open humiliation of rivals.

The open rebellion most graphically dramatised in the Saba Saba riots (7/7/1990) is often acknowledged to have marked the beginning of the end of Kanu monopoly of power.

“The reconstruction of the Kikuyu power was itself re-enactment of the Mau Mau, only this time it round revolved around party politics. Almost to a man, the Kikuyu rejected Kanu, opting to form their own parties. The failure of the Kenyatta state left a painful legacy and a lesson Kikuyus would not forget” he says adding:

“From that moment the resolve and thrust is to congregate around own political formations they partronised and controlled, and not in government. In reality, the ordinary Kikuyu, both peasant and elite, are extremely mistrustful of government” Kagwanja says.


This mistrust would be graphically manifested in the rise of Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD).

Ford was significant to the Kikuyu, and they trooped into it by the droves upon formation.

But, inside Ford, they found they were not in control. They rebelled, splitting the original Ford into Ford-Asili faction led by Kenneth Matiba, and Ford-Kenya led by Jaramogi.

“At the height of the popularity of Ford power, on Christmas eve of 1991, retired President Kibaki announced the formation of Democratic Party (DP). Many people missed the significance of the formation of DP, as a rebellion by the  Kikuyu elite against a Ford system where they were part and parcel of, but in which they had no real control,” he says.

DP symbolised that determination to form what one would call a political home for Kikuyu, and the larger Gema interests and aspirations.
“It didn’t gain traction immediately, but by 1997, it was the party of choice in the entire Mt Kenya region” he recalls.

It was a strategy of having a political party of his own, and constructing politics around party resistance that would bring Kiabiki to power, not personal charisma or prowess like Jomo Kenyatta.

Kibaki’s ability to reconstruct Kikuyu power around credible institutions of democracy such as DP would easily give life and impetus to the National Alliance (Party) of Kenya (NAK) and later National Rainbow Coalition (Narc).

The intense trauma around which Narc was negotiated tells you how painful it was for the Kikuyu to let go of DP, and their own institutions.

“DP founders and elders like Mr Matu Wamae and Mr Matere Kireri made powerful arguments that it is better to be in the opposition with your own institutions, than be in government in institutions controlled by others,” recalls Prof Kagwanja.


But Kibaki ceded DP in favour of Narc due to the exigences of the moment, to gain power first, disappointing many who thought DP should have been preserved at all costs.

When Narc was formed, it brought back painful lessons from the past for the Kikuyu, because they found themselves into a system they did not control. “When Ngilu ran away with Narc, the immediate reaction was to avoid Narc-Kenya, and form PNU which they had firm control in, and held the certificate. Very quickly all people in the region flocked into PNU. Within a few weeks, PNU garnered the highest number of presidential votes. For the first time in Kenya’s elections history, PNU discovered the region’s votes’ muscle when put in one basket,” Kagwanja recalls.

“I can disclose that beyond PNU, other structures were formed to try to harness the power of the Mt Kenya people separately — the Mt Kenya parliamentary group, the Mt Kenya Foundation, the Gema Cultural Association (GCA). Some were visible and public, and others were invisible behind the scenes,” he recalls.

The formation TNA, using lessons and insights gained from Kanu, DP and PNU, symbolises the return into the mainstream, a reconstruction of Kikuyu power, and organising politics outside the bureaucratic corridors into mass mobilisation of political forces.

The professor says TNA essentially symbolised the rebirth of Kanu of 1960s. “This brings us to the formation of Jubilee Alliance Party (since renamed Jubilee Party), and questions of who owns it, who controls it, whose interests does it serve are very important at the moment,” he says.

“The million dollar question is the history of Kikuyus investing heavily in Kanu, then losing it to Kadu, then losing Narc to Charity Ngilu. These had far-reaching consequences   in lost momentum in rolling out a development agenda to serve the aspirations of the people.”

Share this story
Suspicion clouds launch of Jubilee Party in Rift Valley
Political suspicion has dogged Jubilee Party (JP) less than a month after President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto hosted leaders of affiliate parties at State House and rallied them to support the coalition.
Why Kenyan boxers are winning medals once again
The BFK led by President Anthony ‘Jamal’ Ombok was elected into the office in 2019 and has since...