Race for Kenya's presidency splits along tribal lines

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The Independent Online

With just three days to go until Kenya's presidential election, the race is too close to call. One-time allies President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga are neck and neck in a campaign that has been dominated by questions of tribal allegiances.

The two front-runners put ethnicity aside five years ago, uniting to break Kanu's monopoly on power since Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963. But the spirit of co-operation survived just three years. Mr Odinga was incensed that Mr Kibaki failed to keep an alleged promise to create a prime minister position for him. He left the cabinet and hit the campaign trail.

Until recently most analysts and Western diplomats believed the incumbent Mr Kibaki would bag a comfortable win, but the latest polls show that Mr Odinga has overturned a 10-point disadvantage and the prospect of dethroning his former ally on 27 December is now in sight.

This time, both men are playing the tribal card. Mr Kibaki is a Kikuyu, the majority ethnic group which has supplied two out of three of Kenya's post-independence presidents. Mr Odinga, is a Luo, who make up just over a tenth of the population and hails from the western province of Nyanza near Lake Victoria.

On top of the personal scores to settle, there are also historical grievances. The Kibaki-Odinga falling out was almost a re-run of history. Mr Odinga's father, Oginga, was sidelined by Kikuyu president Jomo Kenyatta after independence even though he helped propel him to power.

When the election campaign started Mr Odinga used to joke that the United States might find itself with a Luo president in the form of Barack Obama before Kenya did. But Mr Odinga's brother Isaac believes that that joke could soon be out of date.

"Luos feel rejected," he said in an interview at the family home in Kisumu. "The government has always been focused on other regions. Kikuyus have been in government since independence. We Luos have never tasted that power."

According to Kenyan stereotypes, rattled off good-naturedly, Luos are well educated but spend all their money on keeping up appearances, while popular mythology has it that if you drop a coin on the grave of a Kikuyu, the corpse will come back to life to claim it.

But tribal allegiances are also a serious business, especially around election time. And indeed for many voters, ethnicity is the deciding factor, even if it's not the one they offer up first. Up the road from the Odinga home, John Okenyu, who has three children and scrapes together a living as a street vendor hawking his wares of socks, handkerchiefs and belts, says the main issues in the Kenyan election are corruption and poverty. But when asked why he is voting for Mr Odinga his answer is simple: "We are the same tribe."

Kenya has remained peaceful when many of its neighbours have been consumed by war, but ethnic flare-ups do happen around election time. In 1992, some 1,500 people died in land clashes and in 1997, another 200 were killed in fighting in the coastal town of Mombasa.

All the main presidential candidates have pledged to run violence-free campaigns, but their supporters have not always taken much notice. This year clashes in the Mount Elgon region in the west and the Kureosi region in the Rift Valley have left scores dead. The country's leading supermarket chain last month reported a run on machetes, and a car belonging to a junior minister was stopped, reportedly stuffed with 400 weapons.

Mr Odinga's opponents have tried to paint him as a dangerous radical, highlighting his time spent in East Germany and his decision to call his son Fidel Castro Odinga. Some ministers have said that his party initials of ODM really stand for One Dangerous Man, not Orange Democratic Movement.

At a recent briefing to reporters in Nairobi, it was a softly-spoken man on show, despairing that even though Kenya's growth has averaged 5 per cent over the past five years, more than half of all Kenyans still live on less than a dollar a day.

"We want to change course and go the route of the [Asian] tigers," Mr Odinga said. "We want to become an African lion. We want to make Kenya the example that other African countries emulate."

He is scathing about the government's attempts to rebuild Kenya's crumbling infrastructure. "It took Britain five years to build the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu," he said. "The independence governments have never added a single inch to that railway line. I think that is a strong statement about the mediocrity with which this country has been run."

Political friends turned enemies


Born into Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu, President Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2002 on a wave of optimism, ending almost 40 years of unpopular and graft-ridden rule by the Kanu party. He was vice-president of Kanu for 10 years before defecting and forming the National Rainbow Coalition. The 76-year-old has turned the economy from negative to forecasted growth this year of almost 7 per cent and his introduction of free primary education has earned him support from the poor. But critics say he is indecisive and has not done enough to tackle corruption. Key figures in his government have been implicated in scandals involving large sums of public money. He has sat in every parliament since independence and if re-elected, will be the longest-serving MP.


The flamboyant opposition leader, from the Luo tribe, who has turned up at rallies in a bright red Hummer, earned himself a reputation as kingmaker when he joined forces with Mr Kibaki in 2002. But the pair have since fallen out. The son of Oginga Odinga, Kenya's first post-independence vice-president, he was educated in communist East Germany. Mr Odinga named his first-born son Fidel Castro and his supporters hope that he will bring an end to tribalism, nepotism and endemic corruption. Although he was born into a political dynasty, it has not all been plain sailing. He was charged with treason following an attempted coup against Daniel arap Moi in 1982, and spent nine years in jail six in solitary confinement before fleeing to Norway.