Tribal Politics

by Stanley Meisler

February 3, 2008

In 1962, when we were both young, I spent a good number of hours with Mwai Kibaki in Nairobi, listening to him explain the complexities of Kenya tribal politics. He was an official of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the party that would lead the colony of Kenya to independence a year later, and I was a Ford Foundation fellow studying the new nations of Africa. I would drop by his office every week or so and, if he was not busy, he would take time to reply to my questions. He was polite, soft-spoken and matter-of-fact, not charismatic at all, and it never dawned on me that he might become president of Kenya some day.

Much of our talk centered on Tom Mboya, the young labor leader who was a minister in the colony’s governing council. Tom was the best known African to Americans. He had made the cover of Time in March 1960. After the election of President Kennedy, he also had attracted headlines by organizing an airlift, with Kennedy family money, of African students to small colleges in the United States. Americans knew very little about Africa then, but they knew Mboya and found him affable, western, dynamic and very intelligent. In Kenya, however, he had problems, and they limited how far he could go.

The main problem was tribal. Mboya was not Kikuyu but Luo. Kibaki himself was Kikuyu, but he did not discuss the issue in any emotional way. He had a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and his analysis was careful, disinterested, and academic. It all began with Mau Mau.

Kenya had been a “white man’s colony” — a home for British settlers who, in their most fanciful dreams, hoped they could turn the place into another white-ruled South Africa or even an  Australia. But any hope like that was wiped out by Mau Mau — the ferocious rebellion by the Kikuyus against the British administration and the settlers in the 1950s. The British put down the rebellion with great force, detaining and killing many Kikuyus. The Kikuyus lost the war, but they won independence for an African-ruled Kenya. Mau Mau persuaded the British that they must transfer Kenya from the settlers to the Africans.

During Mau Mau the British banned all political activity by Africans and jailed many young Kikuyus. Since Tom Mboya was Luo and organized his followers in the trade unions, not in a political party, he managed to escape the British repression and emerge as a formidable political figure. By the time I arrived in Kenya, he was general secretary of KANU. He was only 32 years old then, a year older than both Kibaki and myself. Kibaki explained that many young educated Kikuyus resented Mboya. They looked on him as a Luo who had usurped their rightful place. He had done so, in their view, only because the British had held them back while the AFL-CIO in the US had sent him money to move forward.

Armed with the Kibaki analysis, I interviewed Mboya toward the end of my stay and found that he confirmed all of it. The young Kikuyus resented him, he told me, and wanted him out of the way. That was his main political problem.

I returned to Nairobi five years later as the Africa correspondent of the Los Angeles Times. Both Mboya and Kibaki were now ministers in the government of President Jomo Kenyatta. Although all belonged to the same political party, the Kikuyus still resented Mboya. They looked on him as the potential threat to continued Kikuyu dominance of Kenya once the elderly Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, left the scene.

On July 5, 1969, a young Kikuyu tough shot and killed Mboya while he was shopping in downtown Nairobi on a busy Saturday afternoon. When caught by police, the killer said he had fired his gun on orders from a Big Man. Neither the police nor the prosecutors nor the judge ever bothered to determine the identity of the Big Man. The assassin was executed surely wondering why he was being punished for carrying out orders.

The assassination drove Kenya into tribal turmoil. Luos mourned their favorite son with fury in their hearts. I joined the terrifying funeral cortege heading westward. Luos threw rocks at cars with whites, disdaining them as supporters of President Kenyatta. Other Luos flung open the doors of press cars in search of Kikuyu reporters to kill. None had dared to enter Luo territory. At the burial by the Mboya family home on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, Luos chanted, “War with the Kikuyus.” A medicine man cursed, “May the wombs of all Kikuyu women dry up.” Throughout the country, Kikuyus (who made up 20% of the population) and Luos (who made up 13%) realized that their first loyalty lay with their tribe, not Kenya. Violence erupted in both Nairobi and the main Luo city of Kisumu. It never reached the levels of the present carnage, and rioting was subdued by police who fired ruthlessly into crowds. Like a body blow, the depressing events deflated a good deal of my optimism about Africa.

As a foreign correspondent, I had only the most perfunctory contact with Kibaki and no contact at all after the Times transferred me from Africa in the 1970s. I was pleased to read the news about his election as president in 1992 although saddened to hear from Kenyans that illness and a car accident had slowed him down a lot.

In December of last year, I had just finished one of the novels in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and was feeling very good and nostalgic about Africa when the first returns from the latest Kenyan elections were reported. The heroine of these novels by Alexander McCall Smith is an overweight lady detective in Botswana named Mma Precious Ramotswe who looks at the world around her with love, generosity, tolerance and much wisdom. The books are a delight to read and their rosy mood fills you with good feelings about Africa .

The early returns gave Kibaki’s opponent, Raila Odinga, a Luo, a lead of a million votes. That seemed insurmountable. Perhaps buoyed by the books, I felt sure that Kibaki would soon concede and we would see one of those rare moments in Africa when one leader ousted another by peaceful balloting. Instead, the Kikuyus held back reporting the vote in their provinces until they could figure out how many votes their man needed to win. Then they reported figures inflated enough to carry Kibaki to narrow victory.

Our own electoral history should not make us too smug over the blatant steal. But it was a disastrous result for Kenya, and it set off the terrible tribal clashes that have killed so many in so short a time. It will probably be long before I pick up another Mma Precious Ramotswe detective book again.

I cannot resist an endnote. After I opened the LA Times bureau in Nairobi in 1967, I would receive thoughtful letters from time to time protesting my use of the words tribe and tribalism. These readers would insist on a phrase like ethnic group instead. I understood the problem. The word tribalism conjured up images of naked savages driving spears into the innards of other naked savages, images that reinforced all the hoary clichés about darkest Africa.

During my first months on the job, I tried to avoid the words tribe and tribalism but never could come up with anything better. More significantly, as the letters piled up, I began to realize that my critics were far less interested in the honesty of vocabulary than in the denial of a problem. Naked savages were not driving spears into the innards of other naked savages, but university-educated men in European suits were fuming with murderous hatred at other university-educated men in European suits even in the same government office. That was the depressing reality of Africa.

In stories describing the current mayhem, the New York Times and its Nairobi correspondent almost never use the words tribe and tribalism. Instead they keep referring to the Kikuyu ethnic group and the Luo ethnic group and all the other ethnic groups. This political correctness always sounds prissy to me — as if they were describing Greek-Americans and Italian-Americans bickering over who can put on the best church picnic. Perhaps that is why the NY Times stories sound, at least to me, as if the writer and editors were caught completely surprised by the terrible outburst of tribal hatred.

February 3, 2008
Washington DC

Stanley Meisler is the author of Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War and United Nations: The First Fifty Years.

see also:

Some Reflections on the Congo
May 23, 1997

Saints and Presidents: A Commentary on Julius Nyerere
December 17, 1996

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