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Drumbeats of a warlord: Gachagua’s outbursts a ticking bomb

By Kodi Barth

Leaders may talk recklessly, but their people listen. Eventually, the people may act, catastrophically. This is how Kenya almost went to the dogs in the 2008 post-election violence.

A Daily Nation story titled, “Gachagua: No apologies for defending Mt Kenya interests” on January 23, was disturbing.

Sample quotes attributed to Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua as he spoke at a funeral in Gatanga, Murang’a County:

  • “My work is to keep my eyes wide open in the resource kitchen for our people.”
  • “I will continue sleeping with one eye while the other remains wide open like a torch to see where our interests are being sabotaged.”
  • About the Nairobi County government’s plan to relocate matatus out of the capital’s gridlocked central business district, Gachagua said matatus are the backbone of Mt Kenya’s economy (he meant central Kenya, home to mostly his native Kikuyu community), the Nation wrote, “Chase them out? Who? When I am around in this government? Never,” he said.
  • About protests led by Azimio la Umoja Coalition: “If you are men enough…just go there and touch any wares, business, shop…that belongs to our people. That is when you will cross the line.”

Thing is, Gachagua is the sitting Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya. So, when he threateningly talks about “our people this, our people that,” who is he talking about? Who are his people? And who are not his people?

Reckless, divisive outbursts like this once helped fan the flames that led Kenya to a post-election violence that killed over 1,000 and displaced over half a million people.

The country’s 2008 crisis was fundamentally about four things: a chauvinistic concept of power, skewed economics, weak institutions, and failed politics.

The genesis stretched back to the early independence years.

Kenya’s founding president from 1964 to 1978, Jomo Kenyatta, was from the largest tribe, the Kikuyu. In 1966, the Luo, then the second-largest tribe, began to complain that Kikuyu were getting all the best jobs.

The vice president, Oginga Odinga, father of current opposition leader Raila Odinga, was a Luo. Oginga said the government was becoming corrupt. He tried to start the first opposition party but was placed under house arrest. Another popular Luo leader, Tom Mboya, was killed by a Kikuyu gunman. Luos protested in the streets. The government cracked down. People got killed. And the seeds of tribal suspicion were planted.

Sixty years later, it’s like nothing ever changed. As the opposition-led rallies begin to snowball into mass protests, Gachagua, a Kikuyu, was recently quoted in the press telling the president in public to allow him to deal with the opposition leader, Raila.

“One of my duties is to defend the President and as a son of Mau Mau, let me be allowed to deal with him,” various media quoted the Deputy President.

Mau Mau was the pre-independence uprising, most bitterly fought in the rich, agricultural Central Kenya, that drove colonial Britain out of power. Words like these have been spoken before by chauvinistic Kikuyu leaders.

“If you rattle a snake, prepare to be bitten by it,” the late Security Cabinet Minister John Machuki ominously warned the opposition in 2006.

Gachagua’s talk about our people this, our people that, is an ominous reminder of Michuki, who in the run-up to the bitterly contested 2007 election pitting Raila and Mwai Kibaki, brazenly told The Guardian, “The other 42 ethnic groups are welcome to live in Kenya, but only we (he meant the Kikuyu) can rule.”

Much of the 2008 postelection violence was really a mass revolt against this chauvinism.

Luckily, Kenya’s post-independence generation cares little for tribal tags. Their quarrel is about decades of economic disparity.

Gachagua is stroking a deadly grenade sitting between the haves and the have-nots. Worse, he is chanting that “his people” (he means the Kikuyu) are being threatened into becoming have-nots.

If the Deputy President’s government is looking out for only the Kikuyu, who is to look out for the other 40-plus communities in Kenya?

This is dangerous talk. And media is right to call Gachagua out on it.


Kodi Barth taught journalism at the University of Connecticut and the United States International University-Africa (USIU). He was public editor at the Star, Nairobi.

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