Why do Kenya's other tribes resent the Kikuyu?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 8 2008 12:11 PM

Who Are the Kikuyu?

And why do Kenya's other tribes resent them so much?

(Continued from Page 1)

But with time, Kenya itself became the draw. Most of the land that British settlers appropriated belonged to the nomadic Masai, not the Kikuyu, but it was the Kikuyu who led an armed insurrection, Mau Mau, in the 1950s. With their fast-growing population, the Kikuyu needed room to expand. The British had removed that possibility by farming the White Highlands. British Capt. Richard Meinertzhagen claimed to have seen what was coming. "They are the most intelligent of the African tribes that I have met; therefore they will be the most progressive under European guidance and will be the most susceptible to subversive activities," he wrote.

Mau Mau has left its scars, psychological if not physical. At least 150,000 Kikuyus passed through British detention camps, and more than 20,000 Mau Mau fighters died in combat. Central Province's residents can still point out the caves where the freedom fighters hid and sketch the location of the British prisons and scaffolds where they were executed—in Nyeri's case, on what is now the golf club's parking lot.

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Seeking scapegoats in that turbulent past, many older inhabitants insist today's troubles are the work of a British government that has never forgiven the Kikuyu their revolt. Now the Brits are supposedly the hidden hand behind Luo leader Raila Odinga's opposition campaign. "This is not a war between Kenyans, it's a war imported from abroad," fumes Joseph Karimi, co-author of The Kenyatta Succession. "The British were not satisfied with the rule of the Kikuyu, so they brought in this war. They never actually left Kenya and they never intend to."

If the British won the fight against Mau Mau, the Kikuyu won the peace. When Britain pulled out in 1963, it was Kenyatta, once jailed as a Mau Mau leader, who became president, his community that took pole position. Forced proximity with the colonial administration and the proliferation of missionary schools in Central Province meant the Kikuyu were better educated than other Kenyans and best placed to benefit from independence. What's more, they enjoyed the president's patronage. "My people have the milk in the morning, your tribes the milk in the afternoon," Kenyatta told non-Kikuyu ministers who complained.

The Kikuyu, outsiders feel, have been rubbing other communities' noses in their pre-eminence ever since. "We're obnoxious, we're thrusting, we're loud, and we're everywhere," acknowledges a Kikuyu banker friend. "Our problem is there aren't enough of us to dominate, yet we're too large to ignore. We are at once both obnoxious and indispensable."

Although Kenyatta's successor, Daniel arap Moi, systematically crushed Kikuyu aspirations while promoting his own Kalenjin, the community still thrived economically. Hence the conviction, voiced by snarl-toothed elders and fresh-faced undergraduates alike in Central Province, that only the Kikuyu—the community that stood up and defied the white invader—deserve to run the country.

I hear the familiar refrain in a hotel bar in Muranga, whose wall, significantly, is decorated with framed photographs of Kenyatta and Kibaki, but not of Moi. "If you did an experiment and took five Luos, five Luhyas, five Kambas, and five Kikuyus and gave them money to invest, you would see the result," boasts John Kiriamiti, who publishes a Muranga newspaper. "The Kikuyu would be far, far ahead." His business partner, Njoroge Gicheha, chimes in. "You cannot compare a fisherman in Nyanza who simply pulls a fish from the lake to a farmer who plants beans in Central Province and waits six months to harvest. The fact is, we work harder than other Kenyans."

It's this bumptious sense of entitlement that infuriates Kenya's 47 other tribes. But, with the exception of two bouts of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, irritation was largely held in check under Moi, a topic of good-natured banter rather than abuse.

That changed with the 2002 elections that first put Kibaki in power. A consensus candidate backed by a broad tribal coalition, he swiftly reneged on promises of a new constitution devolving power to the regions. The pledge of a prime minister's post for Odinga, the man who probably won December's elections, was withdrawn. As the tribal coalition disintegrated, Kenyans noticed that key ministries were all held by members of what they dubbed "the Mount Kenya Mafia." Far from challenging Kenyatta's system of ethnic favoritism, Kibaki reinforced it.

While Western donors relished Kibaki's 6 percent to 7 percent growth rates, the mood on the ground was grim. The fact that Central Province's milk, tea, and coffee industries surged ahead while other regions remained marginalized did not go unnoticed.

Both sides helped whip low-level ethnic resentment into today's frenzied hatred.

Odinga raised the stakes by preaching majimboism. Majimboism means federalism, a system many might think well-suited to over-centralized Kenya. But to Odinga's supporters, it was a code word for something very specific: Kikuyus with plots or businesses in non-Kikuyu areas would be forced out and sent "home."

In Central Province, Kikuyu MPs seized on the majimboist threat to foster a siege mentality. Rumors of a project to slaughter 1 million Kikuyus circulated like wildfire. "The amount of fear-mongering [texts] and e-mails was stupendous," says Kwamchetsi Makokha, a columnist for the Nation newspaper. "It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you set the stage where a single community has isolated itself, what follows is a feeling of resentment by others, of 'what's so special about you?' "