Kenya, despite being composed of some forty different ethnic groups, has long been known for relative stability. Its breathtaking Rift Valley and extraordinary game parks have drawn droves of international tourists, just as they once attracted British colonialists with a taste for gin and hunting lions. Through only three presidencies since independence in 1963—those of Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, and the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki—the country grew into one of Africa’s larger economies, enjoyed good relations with the United States, and attracted investment scared away from its turbulent neighbors. A booming flower export business developed in recent years. Kenya was the anti-Somalia.
But beneath the surface, tensions simmered, principally between the largest ethnic groups: the Kikuyus, with 20 percent of the population, the Luos, with 14 percent, and the Kalenjins, with 12 percent. President Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, arranged for his tribe to make extensive, subsidized land purchases in Central Province and the Rift Valley, in areas running north from the capital, Nairobi. The losers were mainly Kalenjins. Rather than first president, Kenyatta often seemed to be first tribal leader.
That, at least, is how he appeared to Barack Obama’s father, a Luo shaped by his American education at the University of Hawaii and at Harvard. He warned in the 1960s that “tribalism was going to ruin the country,” according to the Democratic presidential candidate’s memoir. Kenyatta punished Obama Sr., a civil servant, by demoting him, a first step on the road to drink and early death.
Such discrimination was often the lot of the Luos, concentrated in western Kenya. Their leading political family, the Odingas, have been a particular target. Oginga Odinga had served from 1964 to 1966 as vice-president to Kenyatta, before resigning and going into opposition. He was arrested in 1969 after ethnic violence between Luos and Kikuyus in the Luo-dominated western city of Kisumu, near the Obama homestead. The facts that a Luo has never been president, and that investment in “Luo Land” has lagged behind that in other areas (infant mortality in western Nyanza Province is three times higher than in Central Province), have stirred resentments. Luos, who identify with Obama, have felt marginalized. Kikuyus, notably cooler to the Democratic presidential candidate, continue to dominate. A popular joke in Nairobi is that the United States is more ready to elect a Luo president than Kenya.
That may be. Daniel arap Moi, the second president, was a Kalenjin who promoted his own people in the army, police, and civil service, while being careful not to alienate the largest ethnic group. Kibaki, his successor in 2002, and the head of the Party of National Unity (PNU), restored the presidency to Kikuyu hands, albeit with promises of constitutional reform that would rein in an arrogant presidency. A Kenyan saying has it that the country is one big matatu—the overcrowded minibuses that have limbs protruding from windows and doors—with the president as insouciant driver.
Kibaki’s apparent commitment to divide the president’s …