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Kenya's tale of two presidential candidates

© Denis Bouclon

Video by Duncan WOODSIDE

Text by Leela JACINTO , in Nairobi, Kenya

Latest update : 2013-03-04

Kenya’s two main presidential candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, are the sons of leading political figures. As Kenyans prepare to vote in Monday’s elections, a violent history overshadows the present vote and threatens the future.

Barely four kilometres divided Kenya’s leading presidential candidates as they ended their campaigns at massive rallies in the capital of Nairobi on Saturday. But half a century of historic entitlements and grievances separate Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – and they were evident in the final moments of the 2013 Kenyan campaign season.

As campaigning ended on Saturday ahead of the March 4 elections, the entitlement of one of the candidates was evident in the signage in downtown Nairobi.

To get to Uhuru Kenyatta’s final rally at Uhuru Park, Kenyans had to arrive at the corner of Kenyatta Avenue and Uhuru Highway to enter the sprawling green spot in the heart of the dusty, Kenyan capital.

The Kenyattas have a talent for grandiose nomenclature. In the course of a long, eventful life, Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta changed his name several times – from his original Kikuyu name to a Christian one before finally settling on Jomo Kenyatta. “Jomo” can be translated as "burning spear", while the name Kenyatta was said to refer to the Masai belt he wore.

The current presidential candidate, the son of Kenya’s founding father, was born two years before Kenyan Independence in 1963. His name reflects the hopes of those heady, freedom-struggle days. For his 2013 presidential bid, Kenyatta has formed an alliance of political parties called the Jubilee Coalition in a reference to Kenya’s 50 years of independence.

At Uhuru Park on Saturday, the results of a well-funded, professionally-managed campaign were all too clear – from the giant screen overlooking the sprawling venue, to the slick entertainment acts before the candidates arrived, to the sea of red T-shirts, caps, posters, vehicles and buntings stretching for miles around the downtown gardens.

A few kilometres down Uhuru Highway, the sea of red  - the campaign colour of Kenyatta's Jubilee coalition -  gave way to a trickle of orange (the colour of Odinga's CORD, Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, alliance) around the Nyayo Stadium, where Odinga was holding his final campaign rally. 

While Odinga’s final rally displayed none of the razzmatazz of Kenyatta’s down the road, it was replete with references to the oppression and political assassinations in Kenya’s 50-year history.

‘It’s easier for a Luo to get into White House than State House’

Odinga is the son of Kenya’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who famously fell out with the country’s founding father and quit his position before serving as head of the opposition.

The Odingas belong to the Luo tribe, which has never had a fellow tribesman in State House, the official residence of the Kenyan president.

In 2008, when Barack Obama, the son of a Luo economist, was elected US president, Africans across a continent where patriarchal tribal identities are keenly observed, quipped, “It’s easier for a Luo to get into White House than State House”.

The 2013 campaign marks Odinga’s third bid for the Kenyan presidency.

In the disastrous 2007 Kenyan elections, Odinga came close to a place in State House. When his rival, the incumbent and now outgoing President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner, all hell broke loose in a post-electoral carnage that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced over 600,000, plunging the country into a brutal, tribal bloodbath.

Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, face crimes against humanity charges at the ICC (International Criminal Court) for their alleged roles in the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence.

History’s lessons overshadow the present, and possibly the future

At the Nyayo Stadium on Saturday, the ills of the past were present in the speeches and references of the candidates addressing a crowd comprised largely of Luos, Luhyas and other ethnic groups that have never held the presidency in a country where entire tribes are believed to benefit – or “eat” as it’s called in Kenya – when a fellow tribesman is in power.

To a cheering crowd, Odinga made references to what he called the “political assassinations” during Jomo Kenyatta’s autocratic reign – although he never mentioned Kenya’s founding father by name.

“For 50 years, Kenyans have wandered in the wilderness,” said Odinga, telling the crowd that “the struggle has been long and hard”.

He then went on to list the prominent Kenyan freedom fighters who were killed in a free, independent Kenya. “The assassination of Pio Gama Pinto,” Odinga intoned, referring to the fiery Kenyan journalist and socialist politician of Indian Goan origins who was killed in 1965.

“The assassination of J.M. Kariuki,” Odinga continued, referring to the popular socialist politician Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, who was murdered in 1975.

At one stage, Odinga invited Kariuki’s daughter, Rosemary Kariuki, to share the podium with him, as he asked the crowd to share a minute’s silence in her father’s honour.

A hair-raising silence descended on a crowd of thousands of noisy supporters who, only minutes ago, were blowing vuvuzelas at a deafening pitch and punctuating the candidate’s speech with shouts and cheers.

But if there was silence at Nyayo Stadium, on the Twitter-sphere there was plenty of noise from Odinga supporters. “Raila invites Rosemary Kariuki the daughter of late JM Kariuki. Asks crowd to observe minute of silence in his honor. wow!” read one tweet, while another noted, “@RailaOdinga inviting Rosemary Kariuki daughter of JM Kariuki is a nice move”.

As the 6pm deadline marking the official end of campaigning approached, there were signs that if Kenyans do not learn the lessons of the past, there lie challenges ahead. Should Kenya revisit the bloody aftermath of the last, disastrous 2007 elections, the root of the trouble may well lie in the cause of so many of the world’s current crises: that history’s victors expect the world to carry on and bury the past, but the defeated never do.


Date created : 2013-03-03


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