Coalitions have always been part of Kenya’s politics

Kenya goes to the elections on December 27. The Making of a Nation series, written by veteran journalist and publisher HILARY NG’WENO, and co-produced with Nation Media Group, which will air on NTV and run in Daily Nation, is a year-long project examining the tensions and forces that make Kenya what it is. Coming as they do in the midst of a hotly contested election, they provide a rare opportunity to plot the political evolution of Kenya.

Over the past decade or so Kenya’s politics has been dominated by coalitions, the most recent being the Party for National Unity on whose ticket President Mwai Kibaki is seeking re-election. But from the very beginning, there have always been political coalitions of one form or another.

When in 1957 African members of the Legislative Council set up the Elected African Members Organisation (EAMO) they were essentially entering into a coalition that would make it easier for them to achieve their common objective – bringing an end to British colonial rule and thereby establishing a free and independent nation ruled by the African majority. Among the EAMO leaders were Tom Mboya, Ronald Ngala, Oginga Odinga, Daniel arap Moi, Masinde Muliro, Julius Kiano, Taita Toweett, Justus ole Tipis and Jeremiah Nyagah.

These men represented a nationalist cause, but they also represented the interests of the different regions of the country that had elected them to the Legco, interests they were willing to merge into a greater common good.

Often forgotten

What is often forgotten is that they each had their own individuals ambitions, and being politicians the most important of those ambitions was the exercise of power or at the very least a share in the that exercise.

Under a unified EAMO, African Legco leaders engaged the British government in a series of constitutional conferences at Lancaster House, London, which charted out a path to Kenya’s Independence. The January 1960 conference held under the chairmanship of then British Colonial Secretary Ian McLeod increased the number of Africans in the Legco from 14 to 33, out of a total of 65 members. It gave Africans four seats in what would initially be a caretaker government, as opposed to three for Europeans. And it provided for a common electoral roll, doing away with the limited electoral franchise system that had hitherto brought Africans into the Legco. Independence was now a matter of when and how, rather than if.

As is often the case with coalitions, fissures within the EAMO began to emerge as the common objective of Independence drew near. The new divisions among African leaders have often been blamed on the machinations of white settlers still anxious to hang on to power in Kenya, but that is at best simplistic. At worst, it is an affront to the intelligence and moral integrity of the African leaders of the time.

Barely four months after coming back from Lancaster with the McLeod constitution, African leaders were busy doing what any right-minded politician would do, positioning themselves for a place in the country’s future power structure. They had all agreed that at the head of that structure would be Jomo Kenyatta then still being held in detention by the colonial government for his part in the Mau Mau freedom struggle. Where everyone else would fit in the new dispensation was now a matter of primary concern to the individual leaders.

On May 14, 1960 African leaders meeting at Kiambu formed the Kenya African National Union (Kanu). To head the new party as a stand-in for the still to be freed Kenyatta was Mr James Gichuru, Mr Odinga, Mboya (secretary general), Mr Ngala (treasurer) and Mr Moi (vice treasurer). Mr Moi and Mr Ngala were out of the country at the time. On returning home, they declined to take up their posts and instead, at a meeting in Ngong on May 25, set up a rival party – the Kenya African Democratic Party (Kadu) under Mr Ngala’s leadership.

The reason Kadu leaders gave for setting up a rival party was that Kanu was dominated by the big tribes – the Kikuyu and the Luo. In Kadu, they would take care of the interests of the smaller tribes, the Kalenjin and Maasai of the Rift Valley, the Luhya of Western Province, the Mijikenda at the Coast. They probably were sincere in invoking ethnic interests as the main reason for setting up Kadu. But in addition to the ethnic interests, there were simple but pragmatic personal political considerations at play.

As Kenya moved towards independence, the field was getting crowded at the top political ladder. Originally, with Kikuyu leaders banned from taking part in politics, national politics had been a preserve of non-Kikuyus such as Mr Mboya, Mr Odinga, Mr Ngala, Mr Moi and Mr Muliro. Then with the end of the state of emergency in 1956 the ban had been lifted. Dr Kiano had joined the EAMO. By the time Kanu was formed, there were many other Kikuyu heavyweights in politics, men such as Dr Njoroge Mungai, who had just returned form Stanford University with a degree in medicine. Soon Kenyatta would be free, and with him would come others with strong claims to the high places in the new political patheon – among them the men tried with Kenyatta at Kapenguria at the start of the Emergency in 1952 – Mr Bildad Kaggia, Mr Achieng Oneko, Mr Kungu Karumba, Mr Fred Kubai and Mr Paul Ngei.

Mr Ngala, Mr Muliro, Mr Moi, Mr Tipis, Dr Towett and their colleagues went off on their own not because they were manipulated by white settlers, or even because, they were trying to do what they claimed they were trying to do – take of the interests of their ethnic constituencies. Like their counterparts in Kanu, they were men of ambition who wanted to exercise power and they saw in Kadu a reliable vehicle to the exercise of political power.

Gamble did not pay off

In the end, their gamble did not pay off. In the post-McLeod general election of February 1961 called to prepare Kenya for self-government, Kanu won 19 and Kadu 11 of the seats earmarked for Africans in the new constitution.

Mzee Kenyatta was released on August 14 that year and for a while tried to reconcile the two parties. But when he failed, he accepted the presidency of Kanu from which Mr Gichuru now stepped down. Kenyatta was a nationalist, but he was a consummate politician as well. For him, the choice between Kanu and Kadu was clear. The latter simply did not have the kind of majority support Kanu enjoyed. To choose Kadu would have been the height of political folly.

Kadu leaders did come up with an answer to the challenge they now faced from Kanu under Mzee Kenyatta’s leadership. With the support of the new British Colonial Secretary Reginald Maudling and white settlers they pushed for a federal political system of government for independent Kenya. A compromise “majimbo” system was eventually adopted at the February 1962 Lancaster constitutional conference, setting up a bicameral legislature and six regional assemblies with entrenched rights but no financial powers. It was not an arrangement that Kanu was particularly happy about, but as Odinga said afterwards: “We might be been forced to accept a constitution we did not want, but once we had the government, we could change the constitution.”

On the face of it Majimbo was about protecting the interests of smaller tribes against the bigger communities, but for Kadu leaders it was also a way of ensuring that they too exercised political power in the regions since the country’s population distribution appeared to condemn them to perpetual seats in the opposition.

They were not alone in seeking space within a coalition arrangement for their personal ambitions to flourish. Mr Ngei had joined Kanu on being released from detention. Like Kadu leaders, he too was an ambitious politician. He too sought a prominent place for himself within the country’s new political edifice. He could find none. So he went off on his own, forming in November 1962 a new party – the African Peoples Party – which he thought would propel him to some form of power he did not then think he could exercise if he remained under the same roof as Mzee Kenyatta, Mr Mboya, Mr Odinga and Mr Gichuru.

In the May 1963 General Election that led to independence, Kanu won 83 out of 124 seats, signalling an end to the original coalition of interests for which the EAMO leaders had stood. Later, new coalitions would come and go, but the interests of ambitious political leaders would remain, and through the interplay of those interests the history of independent Kenya would be shaped.


The Making of A Nation will air every Sunday and Monday on NTV at 9:45pm, and will be serialized in Daily Nation for the next month.

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