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

President Uhuru Kenyatta, center, behind bulletproof glass on the outskirts of Nairobi last last year.

NAIROBI, Kenya — The two men were political allies.

But they had a falling out over the direction of newly independent Kenya — especially over land and power — and became bitter adversaries.

Now their sons are fighting a modern adaptation of the same battle as they vie to lead the country, pushing one of Africa’s youngest and most vibrant democracies to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

“History is not exactly repeating itself,” said Maina Kiai, a human rights lawyer in Kenya, describing the eerie political parallels between past and present, “but it certainly is rhyming.”

Politically, Kenya is deeply — and evenly — divided between Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, and his longtime political rival, Raila Odinga. In last year’s election, Mr. Kenyatta won slightly more than half the votes, and Mr. Odinga slightly less. Those results were tossed out in a historic decision by the Supreme Court, which cited widespread irregularities.

The court ordered a do-over of the polling, which Mr. Kenyatta won. But Mr. Odinga has not accepted the result, and even “inaugurated” himself as “the people’s president” at the end of January.

In recent weeks, supporters on both sides have hardened their claims that their man is the only legitimate leader.

Mr. Odinga’s followers threaten to secede from the country if his main demands — dialogue and a path to new elections this year — are not met. Mr. Kenyatta’s followers say the opposition leader committed treason by staging his mock inauguration to undercut the legitimacy of the real one.

It didn’t start out like this.

President Kenyatta shown applauding on a video screen during his inauguration ceremony in Nairobi last November.
Prince Philip of Britain, center, in white, at an independence ceremony in Nairobi on Dec. 12, 1963. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s new head of state, is to his left.

Jomo Kenyatta, the father of the current president, was a Kenyan freedom fighter, the living embodiment of African nationalism, and, therefore, the British colonial government’s most hated man. He spent the last decade of Kenya’s colonial rule in prison.

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the father of Raila Odinga, negotiated independence with the British. The colonial rulers wanted Mr. Odinga to lead the new Kenya, but Mr. Odinga had other ideas: He demanded Mr. Kenyatta’s freedom — and his appointment as Kenya’s first head of state.

“Kenyatta would not have been released, and he wouldn’t have been made prime minister, if it hadn’t been for Odinga’s backing,” said Daniel Branch, a professor of history at the University of Warwick and an expert on post-colonial Kenyan politics. “The two men always admired each other.”

Willy Mutunga, who was chief justice of the Supreme Court from 2011 to 2016, believes Mr. Odinga was motivated by more than mere admiration. “I think he genuinely believed that the country was going to be better off with somebody who had become a legend,” he said.

And so, in 1964, when Kenya became a republic, Jomo Kenyatta became its president, and Jaramogi Odinga vice-president.

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