Before the murder of Tom Mboya in July 1969, Kenya politicians could mute and obscure their country's tribal tensions. The tensions, of course, were always there, straining the fragile unity of the new country, but they did not pervade every side of political life. Personal rivalry counted; so did ideology. The assassination changed all that.

For more than a year, Kenya was torn by a dangerous and blatant tribal conflict that colored all political activity. In a sense, this only followed what had happened elsewhere in Africa, where crisis invariably heightens tribal hatreds and suspicions. The results, as Nigeria showed, can be terrifying. But Kenya is not another Nigeria. In recent months, the fury has diminished, giving Kenya a time of calm to deal with its tribal problem. Its future depends on whether its politicians learn to do so.

At stake is a land of 10.5 million people led by pragmatic men who have nursed the old white settler economy so well that Kenya has one of the highest economic growth rates in black Africa. No other black African country has anything to compare with its fertile soil and energetic farmers. Its wildlife and incredible and varied beauty have made it the tourist center of black Africa. But all this is threatened by the instability inherent in tribalism.

Before analyzing the tribal problem, it makes sense to recount the excited political events of the country since the death of Mboya. They rushed on Kenya in a breathless way, moving so swiftly that they seemed part of a novel or a film rather than a real political story. Stark, dramatic events sometimes have a way of oversimplifying the complexities of a political and social problem. In this case, however, they helped to reveal the intensity and urgency of the problem, demonstrating how tribalism can suddenly take hold of an African country and blot out all else.


Mboya, the Minister for Economic Planning and Development, was gunned down by an assassin on a crowded shopping street in downtown Nairobi. Unlike almost all other politicians

in Africa, Mboya had never appealed to tribal chauvinism. He was an urban man who had come to power through the labor unions. In Parliament, he represented a Nairobi district, where few of the voters came from his Luo tribe.

Mboya had never had the support of most of the Luos, the second largest tribe in Kenya with 1.3 million people. The majority were behind Oginga Odinga, a Luo tribal elder who was the leader of the leftist opposition party, the Kenya People's Union (KPU), a former vice president of the country, and a bitter personal enemy of Mboya. A large minority, however, joined Mboya in supporting the government of President Jomo Kenyatta, a leader of the Kikuyu tribe, the largest in Kenya with two million people. As long as the Luos divided this way, Kenya politics could stay above tribal conflict.

But the assassination united the Luos behind Odinga. The Luos assumed immediately that the Kikuyus, who dominated the government and were the best-educated people in Kenya, had murdered Mboya. In death, Mboya became a great tribal hero to the Luos. Since they believed the Kikuyus in government had murdered him, they decided they must now support the Luo leader who was a proven enemy of that Kikuyu government. The years when Odinga schemed against Mboya were forgotten.

The Luos went on an emotional rampage. They stoned and threw shoes at the Mercedes of President Kenyatta while he drove to the memorial services for Mboya at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Nairobi. At the burial by the family home on Rusinga island in Lake Victoria, Luos chanted, "War with the Kikuyus." A medicine man cursed, "May the wombs of all Kikuyu women dry up." "Where is Jomo Kenyatta?" another mourner shouted. "If he were here, even if he were guarded by one hundred thousand soldiers, I would kill him." The chanting also revealed the new political alignment. "Tom, why did you join with them?" several wailed by the coffin. Another mourner chanted by the graveside, "When things get worse, there is only one man who can save us. That is Jaramogi (Odinga's Luo title). Where is he? I am looking for him in the crowd." When Odinga did show up, he was lifted in the air and carried around the grave.

The Luos believed their anger justified when Nahashon Isaac Njenga Njoroge, a young Kikuyu tough in Kenyatta's ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), was charged with the murder. When arrested, according to police testimony at the trial, Njoroge told them, "Why don't you go and get some big man? We did what we were told." But the big man was not identified at the trial. In fact, the prosecution never attempted to establish a motive for the crime. Njoroge was convicted and hanged.

Njoroge's remark and the failure to establish a motive lent support to the Luo suspicion that some official in the party had ordered the assassination. But it is hard for an outsider to believe that the "big man" could have been very big. The Kikuyu ministers did feel threatened by Mboya in the continual Kenya politicking for a good position in case of Kenyatta's death; and while Mboya had little tribal support and had made too many enemies, he was the most intelligent, ruthless and capable politician in government. Yet his assassination unleashed so much anti- Kikuyu hatred that a Kikuyu's chances of succeeding Kenyatta may have become weaker because of it. It would have made little political sense for a Kikuyu minister to have ordered the assassination.

The fury and unity of the Luos after the death of Mboya frightened the Kikuyus. When threatened in the past, the Kikuyus have often resorted to oaths as a way of strengthening themselves. They had done so during Mau Mau days when they wanted to unite against the British colonial government and the white settlers. In those days the mysterious and bestial nature of the oaths had shocked both other tribes and outsiders. The Kikuyus went back to oathing this time and shocked outsiders and other tribes again.

In an oathing ceremony, Kikuyus, after drinking goat's blood or undergoing some other ritual, swear allegiance to a tribal cause. Whether they oathe voluntarily or are forced to take part, many Kikuyus believe they will be struck dead by sacred spirits if they break the pledge. In this case, according to reports in parliament, the Kikuyus would stand naked in a dark room in a house on the grounds of the home of President Kenyatta and take an oath that they would never allow the flag of Kenya to leave the "house of Mumbi," as Kikuyus call their tribe. Other tribes believed this meant that the Kikuyus wanted to keep the presidency indefinitely and dominate them forever. The other tribes were angered and frightened even more by the seeming acquiescence of Kenyatta.

In October 1969, with elections only a few weeks away, Kenyatta decided to show the country that he was still its national leader. He drove to Kisumu, the main town of Luo land, to dedicate a Russian-built hospital there. From the first, he was received with anger. Luos held up signs asking, "Where's Tom?" Some threw stones. Many shouted the slogan of Odinga's opposition party. This enraged Kenyatta. In Swahili, he shouted at the crowd at the hospital, "I can assure you, my brothers, that anybody who brings trouble . . . will be taught to know that Kenya has a government." He cursed at his opponents and boasted, "We are going to crush you into flour." The crowds grew disorderly again after the speech. As the President's motorcade drove out of town, the Luos threw rocks and surged toward the car of the President. This panicked the bodyguard, and they fired into the crowd. The toll was 11 dead and many wounded.

Kenyatta blamed Odinga for both the insults and the carnage. He banned the opposition party and detained Odinga and the other seven opposition members of parliament. With their two leaders gone, the Luos dropped to the low point of their fortunes. On the eve of elections, the party that most represented them was banned.


This was probably the most critical moment in Kenya's history since independence. The plight of the Luos seemed desperate. To outsiders, it appeared that Kenyatta and the Kikuyus had gone too far. The horror of Nigeria was on everyone's mind, and many waited for an explosion. Instead, Kenya dropped into a calm. It is not exactly clear why this happened, but several reasons can be suggested.

First, Africans live in tribal societies that respect authority. Kenyatta asserted his authority in an uncompromising way and made it clear he would continue to do so. This shocked the Luos and sobered their rage. They withdrew like a child slapped by an angry father. Second, the Luos, though emotional, have a tribal personality that allows them to accept adversity in a fatalistic way. Their grievances were bitter, but this did not provoke them into acts of revenge. Instead, they bemoaned their fate. Third, they realized how little they could do. Western Kenya was not Eastern Nigeria. Unlike the grieving Ibos, the Luos did not have a government or even a radio to rally the people. In centralized Kenya, these instruments of secession belonged to Kenyatta in Nairobi. The Luos could not have broken away even if they had wanted to.

Finally, the detention of Odinga allowed a group of younger, better- educated and more moderate Luo leaders to come forward. They had long felt that Odinga was leading his people astray. In their view, the Luos needed to align themselves with the government, not to fight it. The young men counselled patience.

The government helped the calm by allowing a remarkable election in December 1969. Ironically, with only one party, the election turned out to be far more democratic than it probably would have been with two. The election became a free-for-all primary within the ruling party much like the old statewide democratic primaries in the American South. Anyone could vote in it, even members of the banned opposition party. In addition, the government allowed Mrs. Grace Onyango, a lieutenant of Odinga in the banned party, to stand for office in the government primary. It was a shrewd political move by Kenyatta. The election became a way for all peoples of Kenya, whether Luo or not, to demonstrate their grievances and hostilities. They defeated 82 incumbent members of parliament, including five ministers. In one of the most sweeping turnovers in any African election, the voters sent newcomers into two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

If there had been a two-party election, fewer incumbents might have lost. With two primaries, many people who voted against the incumbents in the government KANU primary probably would have voted instead in the opposition KPU primary. This would have reduced by a good deal the number of incumbents beaten in the KANU primary. In a general election, the KANU candidates probably would have had an easy time defeating the KPU men everywhere except in Luo land. A two-party election probably would have been less a reflection of the general mood of dissatisfaction in Kenya than this single party primary was.

The government chose not to interpret the election as a vote of no confidence or as an expression of hostility to Kikuyu dominance. Spokesmen for the government noted ingenuously that everyone had run on the same party platform and therefore could be considered supporters of the government. Moreover, the primary machinery did not allow an opponent for Kenyatta as president. He was reëlected automatically.

The results, however, did lay bare the disquieting tribal problems of Kenya. In Luo country, the voters elected Mrs. Grace Onyango decisively and rejected every Luo incumbent. Ironically, the defeated included two old friends of Mboya, Sam Ayodo, the Minister of Tourism, and Joseph Odero Jowi, the successor to Mboya as Minister for Economic Planning and Development. They and every other Luo incumbent were looked on as traitors for having remained with the Kikuyu-dominated government after the assassination. Elsewhere, general dissatisfaction and personal pique probably accounted for most defeats, but a case could be made that at least a few lost because the voters resented their close ties with the Kikuyu government.

The government, however, was probably right in not panicking over the results. The election, in a sense, had given Kenya a reprieve. There was a feeling that a fresh start was now possible. Kenya now had a chance to deal with its awesome tribal problem without crisis ; Kenya had time and calm.


What, in fact, is the awesome tribal problem? It has two sides, the domination of the Kikuyus and the disaffection of the Luos. This, of course, seems obvious from the events of last year. It is easy, in fact, for an outsider to come up with a simple formula : Kenya will be sure of stability with the decline of Kikuyu power, and its corollary, anti-Kikuyu resentment, and the increase of Luo influence and loyalty to the central government. Unfortunately, the issues are a good deal more complex and emotional.

Kikuyu dominance can be documented easily. The President and six of his 22 cabinet members are Kikuyu; and the six ministries include the two most prestigious, Finance and Foreign Affairs. In the civil service, Kikuyus have nine of the 22 permanent secretaryships, the highest nonpolitical position in the ministries. Of the seven provincial commissioners, the civil servants who administer the provinces for the President and the central government, four are Kikuyu. Kikuyus also head the police, the Central Bank of Kenya, the University of Nairobi, and the two most important government agencies involved in the private sector of the economy, the Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation and the Kenya National Trading Corporation.

The Luos and the Kambas (the fourth largest tribe in Kenya) fill a number of the other significant positions, though they are far less influential than the Kikuyus. Three cabinet members and the head of the labor movement are Luo, while two cabinet members, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chief Justice of the High Court, and the commander and many of the top officers of the army are Kamba.

The Kamba dominance in the 4,700-rnan army comes from colonial days when the British looked on them as favored recruits and the Kikuyus, who led the Mau Mau rebellion, as suspicious and disloyal. The lieutenants and captains in the army these days, however, are heavily Kikuyu, and in a decade or two the army could come under Kikuyu dominance. In addition, the general services unit, a 1,200-man paramilitary unit within the police, is run by Kikuyus.

In a survey of the Kenya élite in 1967, Michael Chaput and Ladislav Venys of Syracuse University's program of Eastern African Studies concluded that the Kikuyu were preëminent. "In terms of both number and percentage they are disproportionately represented," they wrote; "have more inhabitants in Nairobi; are better educated; possess more individuals educated outside East Africa; are more frequently employed by government or in the professions, private business and teaching; have more members in voluntary associations; are more widely represented in local and national government than all other Africans and most non-Africans in this survey."

There has been a good deal of resentful criticism of Kikuyu dominance by backbenchers in parliament recently. No doubt some tribal bias is at work. Throughout Africa, politicians and civil servants feel more comfortable with associates from the same tribe and therefore tend to favor them in appointments and promotions. This is probably true in Kenya. But the critics of Kikuyu domination try to ignore a fact which they find difficult to face. The Kikuyus are the most educated, experienced, resourceful, energetic, adaptable and modern tribe in Kenya. If all promotions and appointments could be controlled strictly by an objective, computerized test of merit, the Kikuyus probably would still hold almost all the positions they have today.

The great advantage of the Kikuyus comes from the role of achievement in their traditional society. Unlike many other tribes, they give a relatively great deal of status to a man for what he has achieved rather than what his fathers did. Wealth counts far more than genealogy. The society also is fairly egalitarian and not authoritarian. In short, there is a good deal of social mobility and competition among the Kikuyus. In this regard, they resemble the Ibos of Nigeria, probably the most energetic and modern people in West Africa. People like the Kikuyus and the Ibos are quick to adopt new ways if they feel the changes will bring them the wealth that is so admired in their societies. If it strikes them that Christianity and education and modern ways can lead to status, they will accept them all. This, of course, gives them an advantage over other tribes that are satisfied with inherited status and adopt new ways with less fervor.

The Kikuyus also have other advantages. They come from an area of fertile land and cool, healthy climate. Malaria does not sap their energy, and arid or rocky land does not cheat them of production. In addition, a shortage of land has made them aggressive in their drive to compete and achieve. They also have benefited from having closer contact with the white settlers than other tribes in Kenya, for the whites settled on Kikuyu land. The Kikuyus have been closer to modern ways than other tribes and more eager to adopt them.

Education statistics demonstrate their drive. In Kenya, the number of schools and pupils are good indices of a community's desire for education, because the community usually must put up the school itself or contribute heavily to it, and the parents must make sacrifices to pay tuition. Central Province, the heartland of the Kikuyu people, has 15 percent of the country's population but 25 percent of its primary school children. Primary school enrollment in Central Province was 312,000 in 1969-21,000 more than the estimated population of children aged six to twelve in Central Province. In short, it is probable that all children of primary school age attend primary school in Central Province, plus a good number who are over- age. In Nyanza Province, the home of the Luo people, primary school attendance is only 53 percent of the estimated primary school age population.

The Harambee secondary schools of Kenya tell the same story. These schools, named from the Swahili word for "Let's pull together," are built by communities without any government assistance. Under the plan, the schools become eligible for government control and financing after they have operated on their own for several years. It is a way for an energetic, resourceful community to forge ahead in secondary education. Of the country's 431 Harambee schools, 110, or more than a quarter, are in Central Province.

It is nearly impossible to stem this drive of the Kikuyus. Moreover, it is doubtful whether the government of a developing country should make any attempt to dampen the enthusiasm of its most aggressive people. The drive of the Kikuyus is what development is all about.


The Luo litany of grievances need not be repeated here. In the first years of independence, Odinga was vice president of the government and Mboya its best-known and most brilliant cabinet member. Now the Luos do not count at the center of power. The great question is whether they can swallow their bitterness, try to establish new ties with the Kikuyu-dominated government and regain some of their lost influence.

The young, moderate and well-educated Luos who came to parliament after the last election have been trying to lead their people in this direction. They feel that the Luos have to help themselves. But the government has been slow to support them. A massive development program in Nyanza, for example, might persuade the Luos that they are better off with their new leaders than they were with the old firebrand Odinga. Yet the government has refused to start any new special projects in Nyanza.

Some of the new Luo leaders believe their task would be made easier if Kenyatta released Odinga. He has become a martyr, and his detention seems to dwarf all other issues for the Luos now. The Luo leaders believe they could assert their influence more if he were removed as an issue. At the same time, they believe he could be kept on the sidelines as a free man. The government also has failed to make small gestures that might placate the Luos, like paying homage to the memory of Mboya.

It is probable that Kenyatta believes that porkbarreling Nyanza or releasing Odinga or making gestures about Mboya would be interpreted by the Luos as a sign of government weakness and persuade them to demonstrate again or cause some kind of trouble. Of course, he may be right. After all, his massive show of authority did quiet Kenya at the end of last year. But the task of drawing the Luos back into the mainstream of Kenya seems to have been made more difficult by the government's refusal to take some initiative to welcome them.


Tribal conflicts could flare again when the time comes to choose a successor to President Kenyatta. He is an extraordinarily strong man, who projects an image of power; but he is eighty years old. His era will come to an end in the near future. Under the constitution, the vice president, now Daniel arap Moi, a leader of the small Kalenjin tribe, would act as president for 90 days. During that time, his powers would be limited while the government prepared for a national election. The constitution insists, however, that a candidate for president must be nominated by a political party. If there is only one party then, as is true now, the KANU nominee would be elected automatically. The president thus would be selected either by the executives of the party, a primary open for all, or a limited primary in which the executives allow only a few select candidates.

Whatever the case, tribal man?uvring probably would be paramount. The Kikuyus would present the most difficult problem. The country cannot do without them; yet they are probably too weak numerically to rule without the support of a good number of other tribes. Any form of Kikuyu isolation, as a result either of the Kikuyus trying to rule without popular support or of the other tribes trying to form a government without the Kikuyus, would make governing difficult. The Luos probably are too weak, disaffected and leaderless to expect any candidate of their own to have a chance for the presidency. But they can be an unsettling force if they decide to resist any Kikuyu or Kikuyu-supported candidate. The best insurance for stability after Kenyatta would be some kind of an agreement between the Kikuyus and the Luos about his successor.

The next president, if selected by constitutional means, probably would come from one of these four groupings :

(1) The Kikuyu establishment. These are the ministers around Kenyatta, the ablest and most experienced men in government. Kenyatta probably would like to see one of them succeed him. Their best chance would come if the KANU candidate for president were selected by the party executives rather than in an open primary. Even then, they would have the difficult task of overcoming the resistance of the Luos and other tribes that resent Kikuyu domination. They are too closely identified with the present government.

(2) The Kikuyu outs. These are the younger Kikuyus, often wealthy and popular in their home districts, who have not been brought into Kenyatta's inner circle. Their ties with other tribes are far stronger than those of the establishment. In a primary, they might have a better chance of winning national support than members of the establishment. Most likely, they would do away with tribal identification in their campaigning and paint themselves as militant socialists determined to bring a better deal to all common men, no matter what their tribe.

(3) A small tribe. If anti-Kikuyu resentment becomes too strong, the Kikuyus, as a compromise, might support the leader of a small tribe in exchange for his pledge to keep the Kikuyu establishment in power. Vice President Moi is a strong contender for this kind of position.

(4) A larger tribe. The Abuluhya, the third largest tribe in Kenya, and the Kamba, the fourth largest, are pivotal tribes in the confrontation between the Kikuyus and the Luos. At the moment, both are in alliance with the Kikuyus in government. But, in man?uvring for a successor to Kenyatta, they might throw their support either way. This is particularly true of the Abuluhya who live near the Luos in western Kenya. Their price for support might be the presidency. But this is more likely to come in an alliance with the Luos than the Kikuyus. The Kikuyus probably would not pay such a high price. But any Abuluhya president, with only a Luo-Abuluhya-small tribe majority behind him, would have a difficult time ruling with the Kikuyus in opposition.

All this, however, should not suggest that turmoil is an inevitable result of the tribal man?uvring for succession. The Kenya politicians are aware of the need for stability and for tribal compromise; they intend to bargain and trade. They do not intend to let the tribal conflicts get out of hand. But they will face a hard task. Of course, if time eases the tribal antagonisms, other issues could rule the selection of a new president. Dissatisfaction about unemployment and the uneven distribution of wealth, for example, could create more important issues. But Kenya is unlikely to have that much time.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now