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Councils of elders role in politics put into sharp focus ahead of 2022 poll

POLITICS
By Standard Team | March 21st 2021
National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi with elders when he was coronated as Mt Kenya spokesman. [Phares Mutembei, Standard]

Elders who were initially relied upon by communities for guidance on culture and tradition now involve themselves in divisive political issues.

A fortnight ago, a section of Mijikenda elders kicked off a controversy after they installed ODM leader Raila Odinga as a Duruma elder at Samburi in Kwale.

In the ceremony, the elders named Raila, Mgandi wa Mganga.

The ODM leader revealed that in the past he was also installed as an elder by the Digo in Kwale and named Gakweli.

The ceremony was led by Shaban Ndegwa, who said he was a Kaya elder and serves as the chair of Kaya Mtswakara in Kinango sub-County.

During the week, a group of elders calling themselves Kiama Kia Ma allegedly issued an edict suspending Captain (rtd) Kung’u Muigai, who is related to President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kung’u however dismissed the notice that was circulating online as fake saying it was the work of “political brokers seeking relevance.”

Across the country, councils of elders are known to hobnob with politicians particularly ahead of the General Election.

This has raised questions on the relevance of the once-revered associations.

Supposed to arbitrate

Gone are the days when communities would rely on the elders for guidance on culture and traditions as they increasingly involve themselves in divisive political issues.

Elders from different communities often find themselves on the receiving end after being associated with dirty political schemes after taking sides in feuds they are supposed to arbitrate.

Recently, the decision by a section of the Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders in Meru to coronate Speaker of the National Assembly Justin Muturi as the Mt Kenya spokesman sparked outrage from a section of the community.

There was furore when a group of Kikuyu Council of Elders coronated Raila amid claims that they were overstepping their mandate.

Although the elders have denied being merchants that are hired for political assignments, observers feel that shedding the tag would be difficult as their activities remain under sharp focus.

The Kikuyu Council of Elders admitted that there is risk of politicians watering down their traditional role of guiding the community.

Peter Munga, the council’s secretary general cited the political stratification of the Gikuyu community with elders seen as the estate owners and politicians the managers.

“There are many political centres envious of this stratification and who could give anything to see it dismantled especially by instigating fights between the three levels of leaders, the leaders, the propertied and the workers,” said Rev Munga.

“The Kikuyu elders are basically the trustees of cultural awareness and pride, and also preside economic empowerment and cultural direction.

“They also promote social and political awareness and participation but politicians want to usurp these roles for their selfish interests,” he added.

Munga said that while the Kikuyu elders will not get fully involved in politics, they will seek to create a harmonious working relationship between the three community strata and guide the region into how it best fits into the Kenyan political system made up of regional tribal states.

Josephat Murangiri, the Njuri Ncheke Council of Elders secretary general however defended the elders against accusations of taking sides in the national political debate.

“As Njuri Ncheke, we do not play politics but we are also Kenyans and Kenya is largely driven by politics and politicians.

“We also have freedom of association and freedom of speech and you can’t wish those freedoms away,” said Murangiri.

He noted that the Njuri Ncheke has elaborate structures and parameters of involvement in politics with local partisan politics being a no-go zone.

“The reason is that all Meru leaders and residents are our children and therefore elders cannot afford to take sides on local politics because that would compromise our ability to be non-partisan on other matters under our jurisdiction which will involve players from all political shades,” he added.

He explained that the universal understanding in the Njuri Ncheke is that the government of the day has the elder’s support either at national or local level.

Kikuyu Council of Elders chair Wachira Kiago said the best way to understand elders’ involvement in political issues is to know where they are coming from.

“One of the accepted values among elders is that the senior peers never fight each other so it is usually best to first understand where they are coming from before reaching any conclusions,” said Kiago.

For Raila’s coronation at the Coast two weeks ago, Ndegwa, 57, who carried out the ritual said he joined the Kaya institution way back in 1990 and he has the authority to offer blessings and anoint any individuals.

The ceremony also involved decorating Kwale Women Representative Zuleikha Hassan.

Ndegwa was assisted by Kaya Mtswakara elders Mwero Kalimbo, Ngala Yamba and Gogo Keke.

He explained that they were facilitated by Ms Hassan who bought the outfits used to decorate the ODM leader.

“We were asked to come to offer prayers and decorate the ODM leader and we were happy to do so. We offered Raila our blessings and we hope he will succeed in his quest to become president,” he said.

He said tradition does not allow Raila to be taken to the Kaya forest since he is from outside the community but he can be decorated and anointed outside the shrines as a way of welcoming an important guest.

Ali Abdalla Mnyenze, 85, the Kaya Kinondo chair in Kwale County said he dressed former President Kibaki, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and Charity Ngilu at Ukunda showground in 2002 during a rally and was nominated councillor in the Kwale County Council.

“We dressed the three opposition politicians, prayed for them and conferred blessings. We were four of us.

“I got an opportunity to ask them for a job once they win and I was nominated as councillor,” said Mnyenze, who doubles up as the chair of the committee of Coast Kayas.

Impartial and independent

Mnyenze said it was right to anoint people from outside the Mijikenda community outside the Kayas since they could not ‘defile’ the shrines in any way.

Former assistant minister and Kisauni MP Anania Mwaboza claimed that the current crop of Kaya elders were involved in showbiz and instead of working in the kayas, are being misused by politicians.

“I have had the privilege of being taken to most of the Kayas in Kilifi County for prayers and blessings and what we are witnessing today is a political showbiz,” he said.

“For one to be taken to the Kayas, he has to be a Mijikenda, has to buy food, clothes, offer a goat and cockerel. 

“Kaya elders are also supposed to contain themselves to operations within Kayas. What we see is just a rush for money and nothing else,” Mwaboza said.

His remarks were echoed by the chair of the Mijikenda Community Council of Elders Association (Mijicea) Vincent Mwachiro who said performers of the rituals should not use their clothes to decorate politicians from outside the community.

Mwachiro said the cloth with black, red and white are reserved for kaya elders.

“I can wake up and dress even the president in State House or elsewhere outside the Kaya but only in clothes which are not for the Kaya elders,” he said.

Western Kenya Region Council of Elders under the chairmanship of Mzee Philip Masinde also dismissed claims that the elders are guns for hire by politicians.

“We remain impartial and independent and our decisions and statements are not motivated by money received from this or that politician,” argued Masinde.

In the Rift Valley, months after the expulsion of Nandi’s Talai clan vice chair Christopher Koyogi, the council is yet to reconcile.

Two factions have since emerged due to ‘political conflicts’ with each of them maintaining that they are still influential in decision-making.

The Talai Council of Elders last year announced the expulsion of Koyogi after he criticised the coronation of Deputy President William Ruto at Kapsisiywa at night.

While announcing the expulsion, elders led by the chair James Bassy accused Koyogi of allegedly leading another coronation of the ODM leader in Kapsabet in June 2017.

Koyogi told The Standard yesterday that; “I am still the vice chair of Talai Council of Elders. There were no minutes of any meetings to warrant my removal.”

And the Abagusii Council of Elders has been gaining attention as the community seeks to pick a spokesperson.

The council chair Araka Matundura was picked by President Uhuru Kenyatta as a member of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) task force.

The council’s executive secretary Samuel Bosire said they are not biased.

“We must cut a fatherly figure. We always mediate between parties and never support one side.

“Individuals within the council can have a personal opinion which should not be taken as a message from the council,” he said.

He maintains that the council cannot go public supporting an individual on any elective seat.

The Luo Council of Elders split and one faction is led by Ongandi from Homa Bay County and the other by Ker Elly Otondi from Kisumu County.

[Report by Patrick Beja, Nathan Ochunge, Brian Kisanji, Eric Abuga and Wainaina Ndung’u]

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