Kenya’s Tribal Equations in the search for a new constitution

Kenyans have only one month to scrutinize a whole draft constitution. Thirty days to think about how to share power between a president and a prime minister, to solve the question of land, to devolve power down from central government to local government, to debate the usefulness of Khadhi’s courts, to improve women’s rights…the list is endless.

Kenyans have only one month to scrutinize a whole draft constitution. Thirty days to think about how to share power between a president and a prime minister, to solve the question of land, to devolve power down from central government to local government, to debate the usefulness of Khadhi’s courts, to improve women’s rights…the list is endless. That is the part you will love about Kenya’s politics.

Two decades spent clamouring about a new constitution that will reduce the powers of an ‘imperial’ presidency into some sort of premiership that will check the presidency, and suddenly someone shoves these big documents in your face and gives you four weeks to make your mind up about the laws you want your great great grandchildren to live under.

There is no prize for guessing what issue is eating up the biggest size of the pie. This draft constitution proposes an executive Prime Minister who is head of government and can only be elected by parliament because he will be the leader of the largest party.

The president will be elected by at least fifty percent of the people and will become a ceremonial head of state. The president cannot appoint or fire the Prime Minister except with express approval of parliament, which elected him and presumably whose majority belong to the Prime Minister’s party.

A president elected by the majority of citizens plays second fiddle to the Prime Minister who is the real power and needs only a majority of members of parliament who, from history, one can easily marshal without winning majority of total votes.
One would say, why not, if there is a proper balance of power between the president and the prime minister, why not? The answer lies in the tribal populations and population densities of constituencies.

The central province is dominated by the Kikuyu, the most populous tribe in Kenya (22%) and who because of their role in attaining independence, the consolidation of power and wealth during the Kenyatta presidency and the reaping of the fertile land and good climate around Mt. Kenya, naturally have the means to win and maintain power.

The second most popular group the Luhya (14%), are more of a disjointed assembly over 15 ethnic groups that shared cultural and language similarities, not one solid bloc, so have failed to unite into one political force in the tribal fabric of Kenyan politics..

The fourth most popular tribe the Luo (13%) supports the Odinga family to a man, for reasons beyond you and me. The mantle of Luo leadership was transferred from Oginga Odinga, Kenyatta’s former vice president to his firebrand son Raila Odinga.

The Kalenjin (12%), the fourth most popular group and also an amalgamation of smaller related nilotic ethnic groups, had been galvanized into one force during Moi’s 24 year reign but needed a formidable big tribe partner to really win an election.

President Arap Moi (a Kalenjin) became president against all odds. A powerful Kikuyu mafia worked day and night in the last days of a frail President Kenyatta to try to change the constitution so that Moi would not automatically become president when Kenyatta died.

But when the president died, the former primary school teacher through some luck and crafty politics survived the onslaught and went on to rule for over two decades. The return of multi-party-ism in 1990 saw many opposition figures come out but because of the sheer might of Kikuyu vote power, the three first runner ups in three multiparty elections have been Kikuyu, Kenneth Matiba in 1992, Mwai Kibaki in 1997 and Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002, while Raila Odinga was controversial second in 2002. Moi managed to unite the whole country against the Kikuyu in the first two elections (although some reports claim that he rigged) due to the incumbency advantage but when he stood aside in 2002, Mwai Kibaki beat a fellow Kikuyu to the top job.

Clearly, Kenyan history suggests that trying to become president without the support of the Kikuyu was not an easy thing.

This is where current Prime Minister Raila Odinga comes in. Oginga Odinga, his father fell out with Kenyatta in 1969 and formed the first opposition party although the state made sure that it never had any real impact outside his Nyanza bastion.

 In 1982, Raila Odinga then a young socialist firebrand was allegedly implicated and escaped to exile for a while before he was rearrested and was in and out of jail for years. It looked like Moi had inherited Kenyatta’s dislike for the Odingas.

The senior Odinga died in his nineties without achieving his single most wish to become president but he discretely slipped his hunger into one of his younger sons, Raila. Soon Raila realized that if you can’t beat them, join them.

He flirted and joined Moi’s party between 1998 to 2002 but when he realized the old man was not going to quickly forget his Odinga fears, he then led an exodus of Moi loyalists to the opposition just in time for the elder Kibaki to trounce his Godchild Uhuru Kenyatta (Mwai Kibaki was the senior Kenyatta’s finance minister and is credited for economic growth in the seventies and Moi’s first vice president but did not belong to the Kikuyu anti-Moi clique).

Raila, then a government minister in a Kibaki government, through a complicated proxy of links tried to orchestrate a prime minister position that would deliver his and his father’s quest for power in a new constitution in 2005. The Premiership became his new obsession.

He knew that since he could not win a popular election he might as well sneak through an executive premiership through parliament and thus his constitutional agenda. That clause never made it to the final draft constitution and he eventually was the reason why it lost the 2005 referendum.

After his success in 2005, he realized that perhaps he was capable of beating the Kikuyu if he managed to get everyone else behind him. He did, but depending on who you believe, he finally beat the solid Kikuyu vote but was cheated of his victory. However, now, some of his staunch supporters from the Kalenjin bloc claim he never won in the first place, especially now that they have disagreed on a few things with him.

Either way, even if Raila won the presidential elections with half a million votes, even with the whole country behind him, Kibaki allegedly lost narrowly.

In Kenyan politics, five years is a long time, so Raila would never be able to marshal a second stub at the presidency and perform better than he did because he must have made some promises to some tribal kingpins that he will support them in five years if they throw there support to him then.

That means that the only way for Raila to ever achieve real power in the face of an ever united Kikuyu front is through an Exclusive Prime Minister position elected by a parliament, which according to existing constituency borders would give a thorough beating to the Kikuyu whose constituencies are very densely populated and few.

In parliament today Kibaki’s Party of National Unity has 43 seats while Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement has 99 seats. This is against Kibaki’s 4,578,034 votes (47%) and Raila’s 4, 352, 860 votes (44%), a difference of slightly over 200,000 votes.

According to Raila about 300,000 votes were falsely given to Kibaki’s side which if true would have given him a narrow less than 100,000 vote victory. The figures thus explain why it is easier for one player to become an executive prime minister and not a popularly elected president.

Like one observer said, the balance of power between the president and prime minister can only work if the country chooses to have an executive prime minister or an executive president? Powers of the executive leader can be reduced but that executive leader must have the people’s mandate.

The idea of the people electing one person and the parliament electing another more powerful figure than the people’s man, is at best whimsical. That idea can only make sense to one man. Again, there is no prize for guessing who that man is!