History of ethnic politics


Oct 31, 2007
Ethnicity ruled Kenyan politics in the early days - The Daily Nation
Publication Date: 11/21/2007
In our continuing in-depth series of documentaries on Kenya's political history, The Making of a Nation, HILLARY NG'WENO argues that in matters of security, Kenyatta did what most African leaders were doing.

One of the most notable things about Kenya soon after independence is the central place that her politicians assigned to ethnicity.

The nationalist rhetoric was still in vogue, harambee, the national motto that the country’s first Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta coined, being the best example. But in reality, ethnic forces were very much at work as Kenyans went about trying to build a new nation.

The three major political parties were essentially coalitions of ethnic interests — the Kenya African National Union, Kanu, dominated by the Kikuyu and Luo; the Kenya African Democratic Union, (Kadu) dominated by Mijikenda, Kalenjin and Luhya leaders, and the African People Party (APP) by the Kamba.

Ethnic politics is often seen as some deliberate creation of African leaders bent on acquiring power or hanging on to it. There is probably much truth in that view, but in the case of Kenya, some of the forces driving Kenyan politics towards greater ethnicity had their origins in external events, rather than the machinations of any particular Kenyan leader. This was particularly so in matters pertaining to security.

Kenya became independent on December 12, 1963. A fortnight later on Christmas Day, Kenyatta’s government declared a state of emergency in the North Eastern Region to quell the shifta secessionist rebellion backed by neighbouring Somalia, whose leaders were committed to unifying under one flag all lands inhabited by Somali-speaking peoples.

Kenyan troops would be dispatched to the region for their first taste of guerrilla-style warfare. On the morning of January 12, Kenyans woke up to the news of an uprising in the neighbouring Indian Ocean island sultanate of Zanzibar.

It was more than an uprising, even a military coup. It was a revolution.

A band of armed men, led by a self-styled Field Marshal John Okello, had succeeded in overthrowing the centuries-old Arab dynasty in Zanzibar and Pemba islands and its trappings of constitutional government that the British left it when they granted it independence the same month they granted Kenya independence.

Hundreds of Arabs were killed by the revolutionaries. Thousands were forced to flee the islands. It was a spectacle that Kenyatta’s government, with its recent assurances to the white minority settler community in Kenya about their future, hardly wanted to see.

Even before the situation in Zanzibar could clarify itself, a chain of events took place, which gave further concern to Kenyatta.

On January 19, exactly a week after the Zanzibar revolution, soldiers of the Tanganyika army based in Dar es Salaam mutinied.

There followed widespread looting in downtown Dar es Salaam, most of the victims being Asian shopkeepers.

Prime Minister Julius Nyerere had to seek temporary refuge in the British High Commission from which he emerged after the British had put down the mutiny.

A few days later, soldiers of the Uganda Rifles, the country’s army, held prisoner Felix Onama, the minister for the Interior, under whose portfolio the army fell.

Their motives were not clear and, in any case, Onama was soon freed.

Taking no chances

But Prime Minister Obote was taking no chances. A contingent of 400 British troops stationed in Kenya flew out to Uganda to guard the country’s main airport in Entebbe and key points in the capital, Kampala, in case the incident involving Onama was a prelude to more trouble within the Uganda military.

And, as if that was not enough, on January 24, less than a week after British troops had left Kenya for Uganda, there was shooting at the Kenya Rifles Lanet barracks near Nakuru.

Following a stormy Cabinet meeting under Kenyatta’s chairmanship, it was decided to use British troops stationed in Kenya to help deal with the incident.

Kenyatta’s government tried to downplay the whole affair. They called it just that: an incident, not a mutiny. But it took some days before roadblocks near Lanet on the Nairobi-Nakuru road were removed.

Following a court martial, 16 of the Lanet mutineers were that May jailed for a total of 197 years.

The Zanzibar revolution and the army mutinies in the three East African countries, coming as they did so early after Kenya’s independence, had a profound effect on how Kenyatta now went about securing his position and power.

Mau Mau men in arms had contributed to his rise to power. Now he saw men in uniform as a potential danger to that power. He needed to safeguard himself against any more Lanets, or, God forbid, an Okello or worse.

That meant strengthening and guaranteeing his control over the armed forces and the police.

The British had mistrusted the Kikuyu and other communities from around Mt Kenya because of their association with the Mau Mau and other anti-British organisations and had, therefore, deliberately kept them out of the armed forces and, to a lesser extent, the police.

Civilian intelligence

Consequently, at independence, the bulk of the Kenya army was made up disproportionately of the Kamba, Kalenjin and Luo.

If Kenyatta needed a fellow Kikuyu to head the army, there were no senior officers to choose from. But there were some in the police force; he appointed Bernard Hinga police commissioner within a few months of independence.

To head the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) under Hinga, he placed another Kikuyu, Ignatius Nderi. Even more important, he would later appoint an officer from the neighbouring Kirinyaga community, James Kanyotu, to head the country’s civilian intelligence machinery, the Special Branch.

Kanyotu’s deputy and head of operations would be Stephen Muriithi, a Kikuyu.

Not long after that, Kenyatta would set up a mechanised unit of the police force, the General Service Unit. Another Kikuyu, Benjamin Gethi, would head it.

In placing the instruments of law and order in the hands of trusted fellow tribesmen, Kenyatta was not doing anything that other African leaders were not doing or wouldn’t eventually do. And he was doing it against a background of disturbing events all over the African continent. Ethnicity occupied central place in matters of state security as well as the personal security of those in power.

Ethnic problems had been at the root of civil strife in Sudan in 1955 and again in 1962.

Eritrean rebels had started a secessionist civil war in 1962 against the Ethiopian government of Emperor Haile Selassie that was still going on as Kenyatta was trying to secure his power.

The Hutu had already carried out their first revolution against their Tutsi masters in 1959. There had been a coup in Togo, the first in sub-Saharan Africa, in which President Sylvanus Olympio was shot dead outside the United States embassy, by a group of ex-soldiers in an ethnic feud between the north and south of the country over army recruitment. And more spectacular and protracted was the case of the Congo.

The Congo had gained its independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960, three and a half years before Kenya, with Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister.

Six days later, the Congolese army mutinied against its mainly Belgian officers, setting off a chain of events that resulted in the mineral rich province of Katanga declaring itself independent under the leadership of its provincial premier Moise Tshombe.

Next to declare itself independent was another mineral rich province, Kasai. In the ensuing civil strife, Lumumba was murdered by Tsombe’s men in Katanga, less than seven months after independence.

Civil strife now turned to generalised full scale civil war.

Communist adversaries

By late 1964, things had deteriorated so much that the Organisation of African Unity felt sufficiently moved to set up a conciliation committee to try and salvage the situation.

The man they chose to chair the committee was Kenyatta, and for several weeks, Kenyatta hosted rival Congolese delegations at meetings in Nairobi, seeking to bring about peace in the Congo, but in the end, nothing came out of them.

Today, 40 years later, ethnic strife kills more Congolese than it did in the days of Lumumba and Tshombe.

In the days of Lumumba and Tshombe, there was more to the Congolese troubles than just ethnicity. There was ideology.

A bitter Cold War was then raging between the Western powers and their Communist adversaries, a war that affected the internal politics of most newly independent African countries, a war that Kenyatta was already increasingly having to contend with in Kenya’s own domestic politics even as he tried to reconcile rival Congolese leaders."

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