It has been impossible to slow down the political class in its instinctive dramas in the season of the coronavirus pandemic.
Its activities evoke memories of previous times, seasoned with the regular landmarks of anxiety about missing the gravy train and recurrent migrations and marriages of convenience.
Allegations of betrayal have also been made, just as in previous seasons. Away from the new cast and its costumes, nothing has changed. It is a replay of the same script, the same dramatis personae, and new actors – or old actors in revised roles. The drama reflects individual and ethnic group anxieties, with more focus on the self and the ethnic group as cannon fodder.
On the brink of independence in the early 1960s, similar anxieties informed political party activity with more focus on the community.
Historians tell us that at the formation of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) in 1960, key leaders from Rift Valley, western Kenya and the Coast rejected the positions given to them in Kanu at the Kiambu meeting where the cockerel party was born. They went on to form their own party, which they named the Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu).
David Anderson, as read by fellow historian and journalist Daniel Branch, described Kadu as “a defensive party.”
Kadu was “defensive in character and born out of fear.” The indigenous Mijikenda people at the Coast feared domination by migrants from the hinterland. The Rift Valley was, for its part, concerned about land.
Branch says about Kadu’s Daniel arap Moi and land matters at the time: “He and many of his fellow Kalenjin hoped that independence would see the farms of the White Highlands pass to the groups that considered themselves to be the rightful occupiers of the Rift Valley.”
Fear ruled and informed political party activity 60 years ago. It still rules and informs them today, embracing concerns that the country has not been bold enough to confront, outside hushed environments.
For, Branch notes in Kenya Between Hope and Despair, “Moi, other Kalenjin leaders and their Maasai counterparts feared that the migratory Kikuyu and Luo would exploit the political dominance in Kanu to take over the land left vacant when the settler farmers left.”
The Nandi District Independent Party was one of the many small political entities that Ronald Ngala, Moi and Masinde Muliro brought together to form Kadu. At a meeting held on September 4, 1959, the Nandi party resolved, “The land once occupied by our fathers and mothers and now in the hands of the foreigners should be handed back to the Nandi people.”
These fears were carried into Kadu memoranda at the Lancaster House Independence Talks of 1960-62. Kadu wanted an independence constitution that recognised traditional peoples’ claims to traditional lands and spaces.
It spoke of “land injustices of the past” and the need to correct them after independence. Kadu understood that the justice it sought was in a federalist government. Hence the distinction between Kanu and Kadu was in their preferred architecture of government.
One party wanted a unitary government with power concentrated at the centre in Nairobi. The other one wanted federalism (majimbo), with power devolved to the regions.
One party feared that the new nation would disintegrate into mutually hostile tribal pockets. The other one feared domination of small tribes by big ones. The tribe was planted into the psyche of the different tribes that were working on a project to become one nation – Project Kenya.
Even the Arabic population at the Coast had fears of its own. Arabs had lived here for several centuries. They had dominated commercial activities here, with their relatives in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, all the way down to the Cape. They, too, had their own ideas and fears about their future. They thought that they should not be a part of the coming Kenyan nation. That they should be in one formation with their relatives in Zanzibar.
It was fear in 1960, and it is fear in 2020. However, the focus on the community has diminished. In its place is focus on the individual politician. The community is in focus only to the extent that it can be mobilised for individual gain.
In the political arithmetic of latter days, tribal numbers have been herded into cocoons that pass for political parties, each with a distinct ethnic champion. In the notion of the school of tyranny of numbers, it is a forgone conclusion that the numbers will go wherever the champion tells them to go with him, and occasionally with her.
In the words of Ivorian novelist Ahmadou Korouma, the tribespeople have become wild beasts. Like the wildebeest, they migrate with the leader and the seasons. Again, like the wildebeest, they rank very low on the political food chain. Hence when the alpha male politicos meet, they talk in terms of, “How many numbers are you bringing on the table?” It is in this regard that political party activity has defied the coronavirus and is playing itself out almost as if it operates in a theatre of its own.
There is palpable anxiety about which numbers will go into which camp, in the imminent 2022 Uhuru Kenyatta succession. The prime players are Uhuru, his deputy William Ruto, ODM leader Raila Odinga, Amani National Congress (ANC)’s Musalia Mudavadi, Wiper’s Kalonzo Musyoka, Ford Kenya’s Moses Wetang’ula and Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM)’s Isaac Ruto. The rest feature as “also starring.”
If in 1960 there was fear of domination in entire communities, in 2020 there is fear that individuals could be rendered irrelevant if they do not get into the right political formation. Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli is a political factotum in Uhuru-Raila axis.
He is clear in his mind that this is the axis that will form the next government. He has urged his Luhya tribesmen to join this bandwagon. Atwoli also understands that the ethnic breed will follow the furrow. Significantly, he has repeatedly said that when that government comes into existence, he will be one of the notables and grandees in State House. The focus on the self in the unfolding drama is dizzying.
The urgency to get it right respects nothing, not even the dreaded new coronavirus. In the wake of the first report of the bug in the country, Uhuru rolled out a raft of prohibitive movement and physical association restrictions and guidelines. Entry into and exit from the Nairobi Metropolitan Area was one of the most profound of these measures. Political party activity and sundry anxieties have, however, made nonsense of these restrictions. The government’s own political wing has been, at once, a culprit and a helpless observer.
The till on the restrictions was extra-legally lifted for the elite political class, by alpha males of the group, during the Easter weekend in April. Against the tide of the ban on the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, Raila led a cocktail of his political cronies and protegees to what was billed as “a goat eating” function at the Kajiado residence of the Cotu boss. The goat function was also attended by Jubilee Party vice chairman David Murathe.
It was to be the start of an active, if somewhat chaotic, civic season, with political party activities with uncanny mirror imaging of past intrigues, fears and associations. Atwoli and Murathe spoke of future political alliances and hinted at the possibility of a Government of National Unity (GNU) under President Kenyatta’s present regime.
Political activity that had gone into a lull for a few days has since assumed priority over everything else in the country. Even concern over Covid-19 itself is secondary to political party activity. Things are getting into full-throttled competition, complete with riot police and teargas back in action to support the formations on the right side of power, while scattering those on the wrong side.
In this season of Covid-19, Jubilee Party has changed its National Management Committee amidst public displays of anger and counter anger within its ranks. The party has whipped its senators and members of the National Assembly at State House functions in Nairobi, making President Kenyatta’s himself to lead his troops in what could be seen to be a breach of the ban on political gatherings in the season of Covid-19. The urgency of such meetings has not always been clear. Others have picked up the cue and began mobilisations of their own.
Elements of Ford Kenya mobilised to stage a foiled coup against party leader, Wetang’ula. In a swift move, Wetang’ula led another faction of the party to expel the coup makers. The office of Registrar of Political Parties and the Political Parties Disputes Tribunal have referred the matter back to the party for internal resolution, after petitions landed on their laps.
The coup attempt in Ford Kenya and simmering similar schemes against Mudavadi in ANC have quickly galvanised the two Luhya politicians to grope for partnership that has otherwise eluded them for some time. Their effort has enjoyed a jab in the arm by their being joined by Luhya MPs in the Tangatanga wing of a disintegrating Jubilee.
A few days after the goat eating in Kajiado, Atwoli hosted another function at which he proclaimed himself, Senate Speaker Kenneth Lusaka, Wycliffe Oparanya and Eugene Wamalwa to be the new Luhya spokespersons. This came slightly three years after the same Atwoli crowned Mudavadi the community’s spokesperson. Atwoli’s group has been on the ground in efforts to consolidate its new role.
Perceptions on the ground, however, seem to be that they are Luhya spokesmen for Raila, an opinion that could complicate matters for them and which they need to correct speedily.
Besides, observers have noted keenly that Oparanya and Wamalwa have been addressing community politics at public gatherings that have passed for food relief functions in the season of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the Wetang’ula-Mudavadi axis is being teargassed and facing rocky police roadblocks. The government may want to revisit the style of the Oparanya-Wamalwa missions in the face of perceptions that one political wing is enjoying free movement and State protection while the other one is being frustrated by the same State. This perception could further compromise Covid-19 containment efforts in the region.
Meanwhile, a no-nonsense Uhuru has read the Riot Act to Jubilee legislators from both Houses, on two separate occasions. Uhuru’s wrath has led to drastic changes in Jubilee leadership in both houses of Parliament, with more on the way. Vanquished in Parliament, Tangatanga has for all practical purposes broken away from Jubilee to establish itself in separate offices. This brings back memories of the 1992 wrangles in the original giant Ford Party, as well as the Kalenjin migration from ODM in 2008-2013. Ford was a star-studded party. It played, however, as a team of champions rather than a champion team. The political giants, Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba, could not agree on many things, including where the party headquarters should be, who should be the flagbearer in the 1992 elections, and the method to be used to determine the candidate.
The Matiba faction housed itself in Muthithi House in Nairobi’s Westlands, while the Odinga wing took space in his then Specter East Africa offices in Agip House. Each faction sought to be registered as the legitimate entity. In this, they played into the hands of Kanu. Attorney General Amos Wako told them that he would register both, if they submitted slightly different names. That was how Ford Kenya and Ford Asili were born. Odinga and Matiba were, respectively, the chairmen.
Ford Asili would go on to splinter further to give birth to Sabasaba Asili, when Matiba differed with his Secretary General, Martin Shikuku. And in 2002 another splinter, Ford People, was born, with Omingo Magara as the architect. Later, Simeon Nyachae took over the captainship and steered it to significant victories in Kisii, in the 2002 elections.
In 2016 Ford People fused with 15 other parties to form Jubilee Party. The current tectonic shifts in the political space are bringing up new alliances that are going to be critical to watch over the next few months. In the latest development, there is talk of ODM going into the 2022 election in a pre-election arrangement with the Uhuru wing of Jubilee. This wing of Jubilee has also signed a post-election pact with Kanu, and cooperation pacts with Wiper and CCM.
Remaining in Nasa are ANC, Ford Kenya and nominally ODM. ODM is, however, not averse to stating from time to time that Nasa is dead. Secretary General Edwin Sifuna, in particular, has stated time and again that Nasa died “when the other three principals failed to join Raila at his swearing in at Uhuru Park on January 30, 2018.” The event was extra-legal. Interestingly, however, ODM still invokes the Nasa coalition from time to time. In a recent purge of parliamentary committees, ODM removed Deputy Minority Whip, Chris Wamalwa of Ford Kenya, in what they said was reorganisation of the coalition in Parliament.
They also made moves to remove other members from committees, generating protest from coalition partners. In Kakamega County Assembly, Speaker Buluma Indakwa ruled this week that ANC and ODM were coalition partners and ANC should not, therefore, serve as the Minority in the assembly – a role it has played for nearly three years. The contest is now in court.
The on-again, off-again dalliance among political parties in the country since independence speaks largely to absence of clear defining agenda that unifies and separates them. There are no enduring ideological principles, or public agenda, bringing the leadership of political parties together. Hence, after one election cycle, people begin shopping around for the next plausible formation.
In the absence of competitive ideological agenda, parties are now accusing each other of interference in internal affairs. The leadership wrangles in Ford Kenya and Jubilee have been blamed on ODM.
Lugari MP Ayub Savula has recently claimed that top ODM leaders approached him to overthrow his party leader, Mudavadi. Sifuna countered with prize epithets against Savula and ANC.
Now, the level of discourse pales terribly when contrasted with the competitions of the country’s formative years, even when the old competitions did not go beyond worrying about ethnic welfare.
In the mid 1960s, for example, the divide between Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union (KPU) and Kanu was ideological. KPU leaned towards a socialist welfare state, while Kanu was decidedly capitalist, despite its allusions to what it called African socialism.
The closest the present competitions have come to an ideological framework is in Ruto’s mantra of “hustlers versus dynasties.”
In this, he has attempted to define the competition in the political space as a “class struggle.” Yet, even he has yet to frame and define this struggle clearly.