background image

1 March, 2012

A Return to Issue Politics:
From the Kapenguria-Six to Now

There were few educated Africans Benjamin Machar at the time when African countries got their independence from European colonies. For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) got independence on June 30th, 1960 from Belgium with only 12 educated Congolese. The Belgian colonial power in the Congo did not educate its 15.5 million Africans to take over the responsibility of nation-building after independence. Less education among the African cadres means inferior political leadership.

Kenya was an exceptional case. First, Kenya was a settler colony, not a protectorate where resources were extracted for export. Kenya had the best-educated African leadership in British East Africa. Second, Kenya had a good number of cross-sectional educated Africans. They included Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kaggia, Paul Ngei, Ronald Ngala, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, James Gichuru, Thomas Mboya, Achieng' Oneko, Fred Kubai and Kung'u Karumba. Out of these educated Africans from different Kenyan ethnic groups emerged the nationalist leadership. Among these leaders, some were radicals, other moderates or some were technocrats. Kapenguria-6

The Kapenguria-6

The radical camp of the Kenyan nationalists included five of the Kapenguria six. Kenyatta was a moderate nationalist in the eyes of the British colonial officials. Mboya was a technocratic Pan-African nationalist with worldwide connections. Through his connections, Mboya in 1959 organized "Airlift Africa" in which 81 Kenyan students from different ethnic groups were airlifted to study in the United States. The most notable names among the airlifted Kenyan students are Barrack Obama Sr., the father of the 44th US president, Barrack Obama and the late Dr. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2004.

Those nationalists who were not in prison agitated the British governor of Kenya Sir Evelyn Baring to release Kenyatta and the rest of the Kapenguria six. Odinga tied the ending of the Mau-Mau guerilla hostilities against the whites with the independence of Kenya with Kenyatta as its leader. The Kenyan nationalists were united against the colonial power despite their ethnic differences. Unity and trust kept the nationalists intact to overcome the British tricks of using the ethnic card against them. The British colonial government tried hard to play the ethnic card to fracture their unity, particularly between the Kikuyu and the Luo. The British colonial administration promised Odinga that the British would make Kenya an independent country under his leadership. Odinga refused, but demanded that the British release Kenyatta.

One can see that the nationalists were united on the road to independence. The political leadership was united across ethnic lines with few collaborators. The nationalist leadership cemented the differences between the radicals who did not want to compromise anything with the white settlers and the moderate group led by Kenyatta. The fundamental issue that brought these camps together was the quest for Kenya's independence.

The nationalist leadership was very conservative, just like the Kenyan society. This was the reason why Kenyatta, by virtue of his age, was accorded the leadership. One has to be mindful of the international environment the nationalist leadership evolved and emerged out of. The 1960s was called the African decade because it was the decade when many African countries got their independence. The 1960s was the second decade of the Cold War politics that pitted the Western world led by the US against the Eastern world led by the Soviet Union.

The rivalry between the US and USSR also shaped the internal sociopolitical and socioeconomic decisions of the newly free African states in international politics. The united nationalist leadership was divided and fragmented along the East-West ideological lines between the conservatives and radical-leftists. Kenyatta was in the conservative camp. Odinga, Kaggia and the rest were labeled as radical-leftists or communists.

The post-independence Kenyan politics was dominated by elite and personality competitions around either Kenyatta or Moi. These competitions resulted into political assassinations of the prominent politicians such as Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, J.M. Kariuki, Robert Ouko, and Bishop Alexander Muge. These assassinations defined the three decades of Kenyan politics till 1990s. The post-colonial Kenyan politics also witnessed the personal rivalry between President Kenyatta and his first Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. The fallout within the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) leadership between Kenyatta and Odinga in the 1960s coupled with political assassinations resulted in the deadly Kikuyu and Luo ethno-political rivalry.

The elite and personal contests  >

in the post-colonial Kenya shifted the national political dialogue away from issue-based politics into petty and reactionary politics. President Daniel Arap Moi followed Kenyatta's footsteps. Many Kenyans thought that President Moi would move Kenya into a different direction of sociopolitical and socioeconomic development. Moi's political reign was known for its heavy handed authoritarianism, nepotism and corruption. Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya

Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya

The current Kenyan presidential contestants should campaign on issues rather than on the old failed elite and personal rhetoric. The second Kenyan Republic politics should be driven by issues where politicians should put the Kenyan people's interest first above personal, ethnic, religious, and regional interests. Kenyan politics should not only be issue-driven, but should be institutionalized politics where politicians should govern through institutions. For democracy and good governance to take deep roots in Kenya, Kenyans must learn how to govern themselves through institutions that uphold the law and reflect the hopes of the Kenyan society.

The mistake of the nationalists was not only adopting the colonial governing institutions, but they personalized such institutions. Governing through institutions requires the new generation of Kenyan leaders to understand the law, grasp the aspirations of the ordinary Kenyan, and craft appropriate social policies. This leadership demand is akin to the way a doctor understands the body's physiology before he or she prescribe treatment.

Issue-based politics would lessen ethnic and regional voting blocs that have defined the Kenyan democracy. When political candidates campaign on issues, the polarizing rhetoric that divides Kenyans along sectarian lines ceases. Kenyans would learn to elect a candidate whose platform addresses the uneven rural-urban development gap, the land problem, poverty, immigration, inflation and rising prices, among other hot issues. The new Kenyan leadership should divide and equitably deliver the national cake to all Kenyans. Issue-based politics would make Kenya a united nation-state where wananchi view one another as equal stakeholders. Social sectarianism is not the problem in Kenya, but lack of bold leadership.

Knowing the candidates and their political platforms (platform defines the vision that includes sociopolitical and socioeconomic programs of the candidate in relation to party ideological leaning) helps make politics clean. The specifics of the candidate's platform help in spreading the message to the Kenyan voters. Politicians must take Kenyans seriously and deem them capable of understanding policy. The Kenyan electorate is well-educated and politically astute, with the ordinary villager quickly gaining an understanding of her new political, economic and social rights.

Kenyan presidential candidates' campaigns must reflect economic empowerment and the constitutional protection of citizens' property rights as the key issue in this election. Understanding that "much of politics is economics as much of economics is politics" would help shift political campaigns from being candidate-centered entertainment spectacles to people-centered platforms for mapping out economic empowerment.

Equally important as an area that needs serious paradigm-shift is the place of political parties in establishing issue-based politics. The Party of Nation Unity (PNU), the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), the Kenya National Congress (KNC), the Party of Action (PoA), National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), United Republican Party (URP) and others, are all parties that could potentially form the next government. They must be representatives of their stated ideology and not be seen as representative of the Kenyan state. The Kenyan state belongs to its citizens, not the ruling party's apparatus as was known during KANU's reign. Parties must learn to be institutions that shape policy in line with their ideology, not guided by the whims of their leaders.

The nationalist leadership was cohesively united against the British colonial administration. Despite their many failures the nationalists liberated Kenya from British imperialism. The 2010 promulgation of the new Constitution is the right step in winning back this nationalist spirit, but its implementation needs bold leadership. The 2012 presidential contestants must now convince Kenyans that they represent this bold, visionary and issue-drive leadership.

Kenya Presidential Debates

~ Benjamin Machar
Political Advisor – Research and Policy
KPD, Washington, DC ~

Copyright (c) 2011, Kenya Presidential Debates,, all rights reserved