The nuptials between the Kenyatta and Odinga clans ahead of this year's presidential election in Kenya took many aback. Political monogamy is not a common trait among Kenyan presidential contenders, but the alliance between outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta and his longtime rival Raila Odinga seems to be holding. History plays a role. And the dynasties of Kenyatta and Odinga have that in abundance, dating back to the liberation struggle against British colonial rule more than seven decades ago.
That backstory made it easier for President Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila to negotiate a rapprochement after their bitter dispute over the election results in 2017. That fight culminated in Raila’s parallel inauguration ceremony and mass civil disobedience against Kenyatta’s presidency.
Some feared the country would split at the seams. Kenyatta’s hard-line supporters favoured putting Raila on trial for treason. Others talked of a guerrilla struggle against a presidential usurper.
It took the protagonists another six months following prolonged one-on-one meetings to hammer out a route out of the abyss. Raila shared with The Africa Report how during their first meeting to defuse the crisis, he and Kenyatta sat facing each other, their conversation punctuated only by the occasional sip of water.
“At first it was very hard because we had said very nasty things against each other, and it was very tense,” Raila recalled. “Eventually we calmed down and we got started. We just talked for 13 hours, we took the journey down memory lane.”
They talked about their families, how they were intertwined in their country’s history but also of their vision for its future.
Like fathers, like sons
Just like their sons a half-century later, the founding fathers of Kenya’s independence – Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga – alternately cooperated and confronted each other.
“I was a small boy when I first saw Jomo Kenyatta in our residence in Kisumu,” Raila said. “It was shortly before he was arrested and imprisoned in 1952. I vaguely remember this bearded man.”
Jomo Kenyatta had travelled to Kisumu, the lakeside capital of Nyanza province, to fire up the campaign against colonial rule and Britain’s land grab for large tea and coffee plantations. Impressed by Kenyatta’s fierce oratory, Odinga sent his deputy Achiengb Oneko to become Secretary General of the leading anti-colonial party, the Kenya African Union, in Nairobi.
After the colonial authorities arrested Kenyatta, Odinga led the campaigning for his release and for independence from Britain. The two became close allies. And in the spirit of the times, Jomo and his wife Mama Ngina named the son they had in 1961 Uhuru, which means freedom in Swahili.
During the independence negotiations at Lancaster House in London in 1963, Kenyatta and Odinga booked rooms next to each other at the Cumberland Hotel, discussing tactics with their advisors late into the night, Raila recalls. When Kenya became a Republic in 1964, Kenyatta senior became president and appointed Raila’s father as his deputy.
But disagreements over land bubbled up. Radicals such as Odinga, Oneko and Paul Ngei argued that the settlers in the so-called White Highlands in Kenya’s central uplands should simply return the land taken by their forbears to its rightful owners.
Fight over land
By then the British government was proposing lending money to the newly independent Kenyan government so it could buy the land back back from settlers. That plan was backed by a conservative, pro-West faction in the government led by Attorney General Charles Njonjo and Tom Mboya. It pointed to an ideological split at the heart of the Kenyan government.
Kenyatta sought to referee the battle between the two factions. When the newly installed president arrived in Nakuru, the headquarters of the settler farmers at the time, he was met by Odinga’s group who had prepared a speech rejecting the British loan for land idea.
But then the settlers invited Kenyatta to another meeting where they produced an alternative – and much more conciliatory – speech that accepted the loan for land scheme in principle. It was a version of that speech – with phrases such as “suffering without bitterness” and “forgiving but not forgetting’ – that President Kenyatta eventually delivered.
“Then he called my father outside,” Raila said. “Then he told him that these people want to work with us … they want us to forget the past and they’re ready to assist us, even with property. They’ve offered me a farm, they’re ready to also offer you a farm.”
To which Raila said that his father responded: “You know, Mzee (“respected elder”), so many of these people of ours whose farms have been taken away, have been in detention, some in emergency villages … they’re hurting. If we start taking, you and me, these people will rebel against us. So let’s first ensure these people are settled.”
Kenyatta’s response was to the point, according to Raila. He told Odinga: “You’re a very stupid man. You take yours first before you think of someone else.”
When Raila relayed these old stories to Uhuru Kenyatta during their reconcilation meetings, they both laughed heartily, Raila says.
“We realised where we came from and we can actually heal because the differences were ideological, not ethnic,” he said.
It was a lesson in practical politics, adds Raila.
“This is what happens in most parts of the world, that the elites are usually the authors of ethnicity,” he says. “In the competition for resources they revert to ethnic background and say ‘our community’s interests are threatened.”
The point of his political truce with Kenyatta was to de-ethnicise politics, Raila insists, and to bring back the unity of Kenya’s people. To do that, these two sons of dynasties have concocted a far-reaching system of devolving power and sharing resources and key national posts.
From the independence generation to their contemporary heirs, some of the ideological cleavages have survived. What is different this time is the effort that both sides have put into agreeing on an elite pact to govern political competition.
For now, the two political scions seem to have united on this project. But they face an equally clear opponent in the form of Deputy President William Ruto, who rubbishes their project as a gargantuan confidence trick.
It will be up Kenya’s voters on 9 August to pass judgement on the Kenyatta and Odinga clans’ history as well as their current political project.