Kenya’s Political Turmoil Is a Tale of Fathers and Sons

Kenya’s Political Turmoil Is a Tale of Fathers and Sons

Not long after, though, things fell apart.

The elder Mr. Kenyatta became a pro-Western capitalist, entrenching the wealth of his family and his ethnic community from his presidential perch. The elder Mr. Odinga advocated sharing state resources — especially the land the British settlers would leave behind — among Kenya’s many ethnic communities.

“There was a dramatic departure between Odinga’s father and Kenyatta’s father,” said John Githongo, a longtime civil rights activist and a former federal civil servant. “In a sense, that old fight is ongoing now.”

That fight was, and remains, partly about land, and partly about power.

Mr. Kenyatta wanted to sell the British settler lands to Kenyans of means, and to concentrate political power in the presidency.

Mr. Odinga wanted to redistribute land among those marginalized by the colonial government, and to have a decentralized power system that would allow neglected regions more autonomy and a share of the state coffers.

These differences ultimately undermined the founding fathers’ alliance. In the end, Mr. Kenyatta set up a buyback scheme, which meant the land “went more or less to the political elites,” said Odenda Lumumba, the chief executive officer of the Kenya Land Alliance, a national land rights group based in Nyanyuki. “The political elites, to protect themselves, attracted their ethnic tribes around them.”

Mr. Kenyatta brokered land deals that benefited his fellow Kikuyus, and his own family. His government blocked repeated efforts by Parliament to limit land ownership, and his family amassed vast tracts of land, tea and coffee plantations, and stakes in ruby mines, among other riches, according to a 1978 dossier that the C.I.A. declassified last year.

In 1966, Mr. Odinga split with Mr. Kenyatta and started a new political party. It was banned three years later, and Mr. Odinga was jailed for more than a year.

After Mr. Kenyatta’s death in 1978, his handpicked successor, Daniel Arap Moi, banned other political parties, largely to keep Mr. Odinga out of politics.

His government also cracked down on dissent, harassing and jailing opposition figures and democracy advocates, censoring the press, canceling the passports of perceived “enemies” of his government — all moves the younger Mr. Kenyatta has reinstated, in these last weeks, as he battles with the younger Odinga.


From left, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, left, and Jomo Kenyatta, second from left, with other leaders in Nairobi giving a news conference in December 1963 on the eve of Kenya’s independence.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


President Daniel Arap Moi, second from right, talking with Uhuru Kenyatta, right, after a meeting of the ruling Kenya African National Union party in 2002. On the far left is Raila Odinga.

Khalil Senosi/Associated Press

By the time Kenya held its first competitive election, in 2002, political leadership had passed from Kenya’s founding fathers to their sons. Mr. Moi, who had run the country for 24 years, had groomed Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, and Raila Odinga picked up his father’s fight after he died in 1994.

In that election, Mr. Odinga’s party won, and Mwai Kibaki became president. But by 2013, Mr. Kenyatta defeated Mr. Odinga in a presidential election. Now he has won re-election — twice.

It can feel, some here say, more like a family dynasty than a democracy.

“Mr. Kenyatta is the fourth president of Kenya,” said Mr. Mutunga, the former chief justice. “He is also the son of the first president, the political protégé of the second president, and the godson of the third president.”

Many here say Mr. Kenyatta’s interests look similar to his father’s.

“Uhuru Kenyatta represents, in some respects, the continuation of an old order,” said Mr. Githongo, the civil rights activist. “And Odinga has always represented a change from that.”

Mr. Kenyatta’s family’s land holdings have ballooned, to an estimated half-million hectares, or about 10 percent of the country, and corruption in his administration is rife. His first administration decentralized some of power shored up in Nairobi, but complaints about the financial support for Kenya’s new counties are widespread.

Many say budgets are slow to come, or never appear. Concerns about the central government’s fiscal responsibility became so bad last year that the United States suspended $21 million in aid to the Ministry of Health, citing corruption and poor accounting.

Mr. Odinga’s central political argument today is that over generations, many Kenyans have been left by circumstances — their geographic location, their ethnic groups, their landlessness — on the outside of power. He speaks often of marginalization and disenfranchisement, of economic grievances and historical injustices, code words that tap into decades’ worth of disappointments and frustrations first articulated by his father.

“What has always happened is the instrumentalization of grievance,” said Patrick Gathara, a political analyst in Nairobi. “People know they’re being treated unfairly, but politicians put a veneer. They substitute their problems for the people’s problems.”

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