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TROUBLE FORETOLD IN 2006

 

Tuesday, January 15, 2008.

 

By MMK

 

 

I grew up being told that Luos were clever but addicted to showboating; Kambas were clean but stupid; the Maasai brutal and backward; people from the Coast were lazy; while we Gikuyus were ambitious and a tad dishonest.

 

In a Kenya where the president’s marital wars impact national politics more than his economic policy, it is not strange that the personal becomes the political.

 

The jokes I heard at home have now become phone texts whose intention is to drive us into tribal camps pitted against each other. The enemy increasingly is not Orange Democratic Party (ODM) as a political party – it is the Luo, the non-Gikuyu. The opposition’s intention (many Gikuyus are starting to believe) is not to win an election and lead with different ideas and policies; no the aim is to destroy the country and us along with it. It is a fight to the last, the winner takes all and everyone else is damned.

 

As a Mugikuyu, I think it’s important for our country to have a Gikuyu political grouping that vocally refuses to merely toe the ethnic line. It is not that the opposition leadership is not driven by similar ethnic mathematics, but rather that the trend – seen in the 2005 referendum – is of the rest of the country aligning against a perceived Gikuyu determination to hold onto power at all costs.

 

This is going to hurt Gikuyus not to mention the country in the long term, possibly violently. The bigger the segment of Kenyans willing to give their support to candidates for non-ethnic reasons, the closer we will be to a peaceful, strong democracy.

 

Recent mobile text: “Nari Koruo Kibaki arendia nyamu ici cia ruguru (meera) nakuu Thailand. Tutiguo tutari ona imwe. kana tugiciheane ouguo tuhu? Ukuuga atia weemundu wa Mumbi?”

 

Translation: (If only Kibaki was selling these Luo animals to Thailand (like the elephants that the Kenya Wildlife Service controversially wanted to sell to zoos abroad) Or should we just give them away for free? What do you say child of Mumbi?)

 

Delivered with a laugh and a wink just as it was when I was a child.

 

Two years ago, I interviewed a woman who was imprisoned in Rwanda for having participated in the 1994 genocide. She has remained vivid in my memory for a curious remark she made when I asked her how far back the genocide’s planning started.

 

“The war,” she said, “started when I was a little girl in the 1970s and other children would tease me for having Tutsi legs…” Two decades later, the length and thickness of your legs marked who died at many a roadblock. Imagine for an instant one of those children that did the jeering and teasing, now an adult with machete in hand faced by an ID-less girl with long, thin legs.

 

Kenyans have been toying with the flames of hatred for decades now, imagining ourselves to be immune to the violence that has engulfed our region since independence. “We are special, Kenyans are just different,” said a friend of mine last night as we shared a beer, “we can never become like Rwanda or Uganda, we like peace too much.”

 

I thought that she might have forgotten to pick up the Sunday Standard to read stories of tribal clashes in Rift Valley and Laikipia. But she does know of them, but prefers to remain a fully paid up member to Kenya’s national amnesia and head in the sand approach to the consequences of our politics.

 

Like the people of Ivory Coast thought they were different when looking to the Biafras and the Liberians rejecting outright that they too were vulnerable to the same logic until they plunged into a massive civil war.

 

Let us be honest and acknowledge that our political parties are not expressions of ideological or policy differences. Instead the leaders of ODM and Narc-Kenya are in a fight to the death for a politics they envision as a system of spoils.

 

This fight to get a larger slice of the ‘cake’ has been growing in divisiveness and hateful rhetoric. We are like infants drawn to touch a flame or driven by a horrid fascination with what lies beyond the cliff’s edge, curious perhaps to test the limits of our peace after decades of tut-tutting at the many wars in our neighborhood.

 

Past clashes at the Coast and the Rift Valley are our version of dipping our toes into hot water to test its temperature. But beware the push from behind by our politicians who would have us dive in if it protected their positions.

 

We may (thank God) not become a Rwanda but we can easily create a country balkanized along ethnic lines. Where a Gikuyu cannot peacefully live in the Rift Valley or a Kamba work in Kisumu and a Luo settle in Mombasa.

 

The December 2007 elections approach after three years of intense campaigning and politicking. President Kibaki has dropped in and out of public view; the Cabinet has been reshuffled; high-level resignations and firings for corruption have occurred; a constitutional referendum has come and gone; while political alliances have been dissolved and elsewhere reconstituted. The lightning and thunder of these events has been directed by the elite’s simple calculation of ethnic alliance.

 

On the one side is the Narc-Kenya camp which identifies itself - and is identified by many Kenyans - as pro-Gikuyu. Its public utterances are aimed at winning next year’s elections against the leaders of the Orange Democratic Movement.

 

Kenyans know that what is said by politicians in newspapers and on television, which a non-Kenyan might imagine to be news, is actually then re-interpreted by most of us to fit tribal frames. It is in this decoding that ODM is increasingly perceived by many Gikuyus to be an existential foe, not just an electoral one.

 

To be anti-Kibaki, if we keep to our present path, is going to be regarded by Narc-Kenya’s supporters as inimical to their existence and survival as a collective: the first step toward violence.

 

In politics perception is reality. And the reality of politics, its fundamental meaning, at those rare moments when it enjoys the greatest clarity to the greatest numbers, is that it is the contest between friends and enemies.

 

Many Kenyans, especially the Gikuyu middle class to piece this letter is directed have chosen their friends and enemies on the basis of ethnic loyalty and identification. Beyond the much repeated admonitions against such politics, I want to suggest that we have dipped our toes into dangerous waters.

 

It is not that the rest of Kenya is not tribalistic or that the higher reaches of ODM are in anyway driven more by the national interest than are Kibaki and company. My point is that the regime in power for better or worse is tying its fortunes to the fluid but popular identity of Ugikuyu and betting that it can remain in power in our name.

 

That politics will continue to be the struggle between friend and enemies will never cease to be the case. That this struggle is subject to the principle of escalation, when one side enmity and its resulting actions is intensified by the others, and holding out the perpetual possibility of a ‘war of all against all’ is also unavoidable if we accept that politics is the battle ground against enemies.

 

How we define who are our friends is therefore the determinant to the shape of the struggles to come and the constitution of the armies that will march.

 

Since our independence, and arguably prior to it, Kenyans have only rarely experienced the high ground of politics when the enemy stands out in stark relief. Our nationalist writing of history suggests that this is what the Mau Mau war represented but then we all know despite our history curriculum that in reality the rebellion was never an act arising from a national consensus.

 

In fact the nationalization of the Mau Mau has not allowed a national sharing of rights and privilege, but rather has rendered invisible other anti-colonial movements that existed, and served as a shield to the powers that have placed themselves at the head of the nationalist line against democratic opposition.

 

But we do have national moments, when Kenyans feel themselves to be part of a nation, and these for us who do not shirk from the notion of politics as enmity are clearly to be identified in moments when the opposition is in view. We feel Kenyan watching the Olympics five thousand meter final and seeing the Ethiopians trying to surge ahead of our compatriots.

 

In a similar way, we felt Kenyan during the 2002 election period by identifying the enemy as Daniel Arap Moi’s mercenary regime and its attempt to survive its term limit. We united against its narrow tribalism, its cynical henchmen and its attempt during the 1990s to rob us of all hope and saddle us with corruption as a permanent state of being.

 

That precious moment of nation-hood, which we all recall with nostalgia, is now only alive in the fleeting moments when we watch a race or the Harambee Stars. It has been swamped by the struggle against tribal enemies.

 

The private jokes about un-ambitious Luos and admonitions against an overly ambitious Raila Odinga are the symbolic roots of a growing public chasm between us Gikuyus and other Kenyans that is being actualized in the conduct of this ‘Gikuyu’ government.

 

Those jokes and stereotyped opinions function to enlarge the ethnic space while shrinking all the other identities (marriage, church, profession, neighborhood, economic class etc) that Kenyans share. The individual despite his membership of and loyalty to different groupings is coming to be strictly enfolded (perhaps imprisoned is a better word) in a single tribal collective, ugikuyu, that owes loyalty to those within – no matter their crimes or failings.

 

Its character is oppositional to ODM, its language that of the victim so that it in not unusual to hear prosperous and powerful relatives of mine refer to the Gikuyu as victims of a political process that seeks to destroy us or consign us to the dark margins.

 

At some point, as the electoral battle heats up, it is possible that this feeling of victimhood will escalate beyond the outcome of polls or the chance to ‘eat the cake,’ and into a perception of physical threat: that an ODM government would kill Gikuyus. It is here that the real danger lies. Yet the inevitable outbreaks of violence in political rallies in the coming year will be identified by many a subtle demagogue as evidence that a victory for ODM is tantamount to a clarion call for anti-Gikuyu violence.

 

Societies that have become engulfed in political violence rarely get much warning. This is because its lead-up is characterized by the political rhetoric of reasonableness. Prolonged political conflagration is far less the province of the foaming-at-the-mouth ideologue, the hater, it is to be found among the ‘reasonable.’

 

The Kibaki government and its supporters dress in the robes of order and reason. In this ethnicized atmosphere, they charge their opponents with being the armies of disorder and unreasonableness. It is us versus them, and no other political ground to stand on is identified as viable.

 

We are reasonable, they are unreasonable. Since we are for good schools, Kibaki, safe streets, prosperity, honesty and ugikuyu, they can only stand for failing schools, insecurity, Raila, Luo power and dishonesty.

 

I occasionally ask Gikuyu supporters of this regime to describe to me what they mean by order. They identify it with the reigning in of law-breaking matatus, the campaign to beautify Nairobi (by painting buildings, sweeping streets and planting flowers on roundabouts) and the destruction of slums, ugly kiosks and the aggressive pursuit of squatters.

 

Order in other words is a paintbrush and a rungu. It did not strike a close relative of mine that it was unreasonable for squatters in a Nairobi slum be given ten minutes warning before their shacks were bulldozed and razed to the ground by thugs hired by the landowner and acting with the assistance of the police.

 

We speak the language of reasonableness knowing full well that its actualization is unreasonably violent and unjust. But politics is not shooting fish in the barrel, the bulldozer and the askari’s rungu carrying forth our Gikuyu version of order will not always be met with entreaties and tears.

 

The enemy too is subject to the law of violent escalation and will with time gain the will to resist, which in turn will drive the regime to send in even more bulldozers and bigger rungus.

 

The Gikuyu middle class’ uncritical identification of its interests with those of the Kibaki regime will only make it seem that those rungus are wielded by us rather than by a narrow group of people who want to hide among us while pursuing their own selfish ends.

 

Hopefully I am wrong about the turn to violence that our present politics will lead us to. But consider again, for a moment, what the politics of either-or lead to. While we take possession of reasonableness and order, refusing to believe that other Kenyans are also driven by similar desires, we will eventually conclude that the only way to hold to these hopes is to bring others – those ‘beasts of the west’ – have to be brought to order.

 

And this as I have mentioned before, by virtue of the shape and history of our state, which retains all its colonial trappings and tendencies, will be a recipe for our supporting violence and the disenfranchisement of our ‘enemy.’

 

The propaganda to come will go beyond humorous abuse to sinister whispers of what Raila and others have planned for Gikuyus should they win. A pamphlet that was found in Rwanda immediately after the 1994 genocide had this to say about how to motivate Hutus to loath their Tutsi neighbors and countrymen:

 

Never underestimate the strength of the enemy, and never overestimate the intelligence of the target audience. Strive in your language to identify the enemy with everything feared and loathed. Lies, exaggeration, ridicule, innuendo—all ably serve the ultimate aim of winning over the undecided, sowing confusion and division among the opposed. And this freedom from the confines of truth opens up a powerful technique for sowing fear and hatred: ‘accusation in a mirror.’

 

Accusation in a mirror. Remember this tactic: what we are told about the motives of ODM and Raila will often be exactly what the Gikuyu xenophobes have planned for others. That way, they will continue to present themselves as victims and the most cynical acts of manipulation and even violence that they initiate will be framed to seem as reactions to the ‘enemy.’

 

I do not want to end on such a pessimistic note, and I pray that I am wrong in believing that a nation cannot play with hatred and tribal division without being plunged into some degree of violence. And no, I do not think that we are on the way to becoming a Rwanda or a Congo. But I do know that one week of tribal clashes in Nairobi is all it will take to forever change our country for the worse.

 

I am proud of my family’s entrepreneurial courage, my being raised to be ambitious and forward looking but I recognize that these are not exclusive Gikuyu traits.

 

I love one-man guitar; feel a twinge when I hear Kenny Rogers; and have acquired a great hunger to own land of my own. But I have lived in Nairobi and elsewhere long enough, among many people from other parts of the country and the world to know that I share these interests with others who were not born in the shadow of Mt. Kenya.

 

A failure to take this into consideration in the coming year, by joining ranks with a supposed Gikuyu regime will only ensure that I am not true to my life. And that I will betray the ideals of flexibility and open-mindedness that my Gikuyu mother brought me up with and that have allowed me to thrive in Nairobi and abroad by being open to others with whom I share so much.

 

Editor's Note: This piece was written in late 2006.

 

MMK is a London-based writer and academic. He blogs as African Bullets and Honey.

 

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