In Kenya’s Rift Valley, divided tribes back Kenyatta

A member of the Kikuyu tribe holds a Kenyan flag during clashes in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, January 29, 2008.  By Roberto Schmidt (AFP/File)

A member of the Kikuyu tribe holds a Kenyan flag during clashes in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, January 29, 2008. By Roberto Schmidt (AFP/File)

MAUCHE, Kenya (AFP) – Five years ago in Kenya’s vast Rift Valley during bloody post-election violence in which the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes fought, Pius Saina’s farm was looted.

Today, while Saina has rebuilt his farm, he is still wary of his Kikuyu neighbours.

Nevertheless, like many Kalenjin, he voted in elections last month for the man seen as a key leader of the Kikuyu, president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta.

The Rift Valley, a sweeping swathe of land running northwest of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, was one of hardest hit areas in the violence that followed disputed elections in 2007 that saw more than 1,100 people killed.

Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president and one of Africa’s richest men, is to be sworn in as head of state on Tuesday.

At his side, will be a man to whom he owes a great deal: his former rival-turned-running mate William Ruto, who will be sworn in as vice-president.

Ruto, a Kalenjin, and a fierce opponent of Kenyatta during the December 2007 presidential polls, was this time one of Kenyatta’s best assets in elections last month.

At his farm in Mauche, some 140 kilometres (90 miles) northwest of Nairobi near the town of Nakuru, one of the epicentres of violence five years ago, Saina said that it was Ruto who convinced him to vote for Kenyatta, rather than his main rival, outgoing Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

“Ruto came to Nakuru and invited all elders for a meeting,” Saina said.

“He told us that the smart thing to do would be to back a Kikuyu presidency if he (Ruto) was to have a chance in the 2018 presidential elections.”

Political loyalties in Kenya are largely based along ethnic lines, with Kenyatta’s Kikuyu people the largest single group, although the Kalenjin of Ruto and Luo people of Odinga have sizeable populations.

While Kenya has not released the result of voting broken down by ethnicity, “the Kalenjin vote (in favour of Kenyatta) at the presidential level was impressive”, said an analyst specialising on the Rift Valley, speaking on condition of anonymity.

— Rival turned kingmaker —

But the vote was not a foregone conclusion.

The disputed re-election of now outgoing President Mwai Kibaki in 2007 led to Kenya’s worst violence since independence, with several hundred thousand forced to flee their homes.

Back then, Kenyatta and Ruto were in opposing camps: Kenyatta backing his fellow Kikuyu Kibaki, while Ruto supported Odinga.

The bitter violence ended only after international mediation and the formation of a coalition government, led by Odinga as the prime minister.

But both Kenyatta and Ruto were indicted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in orchestrating the violence.

Yet the former enemies decided to run together for the presidency.

Political analysts immediately pointed out the challenge that faced them, as to whether all Kalenjin and Kikuyu would vote for them.

But that ignored the political skill of the pair — and especially Ruto, who toured the Rift Valley drumming up support and working to convince communities that his former ally Odinga was now his rival.

Ruto managed “to convince his people that they had been betrayed by Raila (Odinga) and any future alliance with him would only lead to further betrayal,” said Joseph Omondi, a local political analyst.

Such efforts played into an already existing belief common among many Kalenjin, who view Ruto as a “martyr”, sacrificed by Odinga and facing trial at the ICC.

Nor have Kalenjin forgotten the controversial order by Odinga to evict settlers in the Mau forest — mainly Kalenjin people — for environmental reasons.

“Raila may rue the fact that he underestimated Ruto’s influence in the vote rich Rift Valley,” said another analyst, Mutahi Ngunyi. “Ultimately, that has been his Achilles’ heel.”

The Kenyatta-Ruto ticket may have also worked as people saw it as a vote for peace, since it joined together leaders from two neighbouring peoples split by intense rivalry over land, problems dating back from the 2007 election crisis.

“They managed to portray themselves as the one who wanted peace,” the Rift Valley analyst added.

“Because there had been no reconciliation, the only way to have peace was to have those two groups (Kalenjin and Kikuyu) together.”

This year, Kenya succeeded in holding largely peaceful elections.

But distrust is still strong between Kikuyu and Kalenjin, and many people live near neighbours who tried to kill them five years ago.

And if the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance frays, tensions could rise again, the analyst added.

Kalenjins in the Rift Valley feel too that having helped Kenyatta win the presidency, they should see favour under his rule.

“They must recognise that were it not for the Kalenjin, their goose would have been cooked,” Saina added. “When the time comes for them to return the favour, they better do it.”