The big story of the recent Kenyan election was, undoubtedly, the defeat of President Kenyatta’s chosen candidate, his erstwhile rival Raila Odinga, in Kenyatta’s own ethnic bailiwick, Mount Kenya. From the region, inhabited by his Gikuyu and associated communities, Kenyatta used to draw massive turnouts; at times at 90% or more of the vote. Now, his personal power is shattered and his party’s candidates swept out of office in virulent fashion. Commentators across the globe have heralded this as evidence that the lethal hold ethnicity has had on the country’s politics is breaking. The reality is significantly more complex, especially as scholars have long considered that ethnicity is more than communities competing en bloc, but also an internal arena for debate about representation, justice and morality.
The reasons the Gikuyu broke with Kenyatta include attraction to the “hustler” narrative of his opponent, William Ruto, the widespread corruption of recent years and decades of anti-Luo (Odinga’s community) propaganda. Explaining the “Mountain’s” support for Ruto is the key to understanding Kenya’s election result. One element that repeatedly came up in the campaign has, however, been missed in post-mortem commentary: rival appeals to a legacy of Mau Mau.
Uhuru Kenyatta himself has never been shy to claim the legacy of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA)—Mau Mau’s less popular moniker. His father, Kenya’s first president, was first alleged, by the colonial government, to lead the KLFA, and then in power condemned them as ‘hooligans’. In popular discourse, the Kenyatta family have suffered from regular accusations of siding with the loyalists—Gikuyu that fought for the British in the 1950s. Loyalism itself has come to stand as historical shorthand for corruption, neo-colonialism, and a failure to distribute the fruits of uhuru (independence) to those who suffered most for it.
There have been many efforts to rewrite this history by Kenyatta II, such as opening a Heroes’ Museum at the former Langata camp and naming a core piece of road infrastructure the Mau Mau Road. The most stand-out attempt (and to many the most heartbreaking) to revise the image was conducted by Uhuru’s mother, Mama Ngina, in April this year. During a ceremony in Nyeri, Mama Ngina shaved the 70-year-old dreadlocks of celebrated Mau Mau Field Marshal Muthoni, who had kept these for all those decades as testament to the unfulfilled promises of independence. Mama Ngina is perceived to have cut her hair to illustrate a symbolic end to the freedom struggle; Kenya’s destiny now fulfilled by the son of Kenyatta himself. Despite the pageantry with which this was conducted, there was much outcry on social media, as Kenyans were horrified at the instrumentalization of a 96-year-old woman for political point-scoring.
The ‘establishment’s’ efforts to harness Mau Mau’s legacy was always going to be difficult, even when the Mau Mau Governing Council of Elders endorsed Odinga. It was easier to use it for populist appeal, and this was clearly evidenced by Ruto’s running mate, Rigathi Gachagua. Gachagua represents Mathira in Nyeri, a bulwark of the 1950s insurgency and has repeatedly touted himself as a child of Mau Mau, claiming his father serviced guns for the fighters. In vernacular media, and on social media, it is precisely this claim that is foregrounded by his supporters. The hustler figure at the core of Ruto and Gachagua’s campaign is painted as a continuation of Mau Mau’s struggles.
The struggle for independence has also been invoked in a more sinister way, in the resurgence of narratives about oathing, a practice dating back to 1969. At that time, Gikuyu were brought from far and wide in trucks to Kenyatta Senior’s home to take an oath to never let the presidency be taken from the Gikuyu ethnic community, and especially not by the Luo. Mau Mau oath administrators were brought in to help, including Kenyatta’s own ex-Mau Mau bodyguard. During the 2022 election, Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria invoked the Gatundu oath against Raila Odinga’s candidature and Kikuyu elders had to come out, in support of Odinga, to declare that the oath no longer held validity.
In short, Gikuyu ethnicity did not simply disappear in this election. Instead, it was a crucible where both sides mobilized historical ideas and claims in order to win supporters. The mistake made by Kenyatta and his allies was to think that Mau Mau’s legacy is easily controlled. The reality is that Mau Mau, in the decades after independence, has come to play a deeper, ideological role. Despite attempts to control its legacies by the state, it now stands for a rejection of the post-colonial bargain Kenyatta made with former loyalists and white settlers. However, references to 1969 oathing indicate the potential to regenerate decades-old suspicions.
Kenya’s election this year was, thankfully, more than an ethnic headcount, but there is a long way to go before ethnic divisions stop shaping political outcomes.