Since Kenya secured independence from British colonialists in 1963 after a protracted conflict, three things have been true in the East African country: death, taxes and the Kikuyus voted primarily as a force indivisible linked to each presidential election.
This Tuesday, when 22 million registered voters decide who becomes the country’s fifth president, there is a split among the Kikuyus, the country’s largest voting bloc by virtue of being the country’s 47 officially recognized ethnic groups.
Often known as the Mount Kenya area, the block is arguably the region that passes the presidency to former Prime Minister Raila Odinga or Deputy President William Ruto, the two main candidates to succeed the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta.
Since independence in 1963, the Kikuyu have held a significant sphere of influence in most sectors of the country, especially in the economy and politics.
Even in culture, the country’s best-known writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, often considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, is Kikuyu and writes primarily in the language. Wangari Maathai, the activist who in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is also Kikuyu.
The group represents about a fifth of the country’s population and has represented three of the country’s four presidents so far. The only exception has been Daniel Arap Moi, from the Kalenjin ethnic group (the third largest ethnic group), who was president from 1978 to 2002.
With no Kikuyu leading the polls of a major political party on Tuesday, the election has also been framed more as a class war between rich and poor over Kenya Kwanza, the nationalist movement led by Ruto.
But analysts say ethnicity remains a key factor in determining voting patterns and that the Kikuyu vote remains as relevant today as ever, even though it has been relegated to the top of the news.
“At least three of the deputy presidential candidates are Kikuyus, so Kikuyus still play an important role in the election,” Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, a political analyst and executive director of Siasa Place, a non-profit organization that works on the political engagement of Kenyan youth. , he told Al Jazeera. “It may not be overtly tribal, but tribe still plays a role in our politics. It may not be as toxic as it might or might normally be.”
“The strategy is to establish a candidate in the coalition, we will have a better chance of gathering enough people to push that candidate,” he said. “This has further highlighted ethnicity because it makes people see their candidate as to what tribe they belong to, where they are and how strong that voting block is, they would have influence.”
Ruto and Odinga, who are respectively Kalenjin and Luo, the country’s third and fourth largest ethnic groups, have selected running mates from the Mount Kenya region to secure votes, an electoral necessity to have a opportunity
Odinga, who is running for a fifth term, has chosen Martha Karua, who is seen as a hard line against corruption, as his running mate. Former justice minister of former president Mwai Kibaki, is also Kukuyu.
They have been strengthened by the presence of President Kenyatta who has been in the electoral campaign with Odinga, as allies in the meetings of the Azimio la Umoja coalition.
Ruto’s choice to rally the Kikuyu vote is Rigathi Gachagua, a current parliamentarian who also has the gift of conversation as the vice president and thus the ability to court his Kikuyu relatives.
That has put the Kikuyu, who have historically had trouble with the Luos and Kalenjins since the days of Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president, in the tight spot of having to choose a lesser veil, analysts say.
In 2007, Odinga controversially lost to then-President Mwai Kibaki, also a Kikuyu, in an election that many Kenyans still believe was rigged in favor of the latter getting a second five-year term.
This triggered a large-scale bloodbath, with more than 1,100 people killed and another 650,000 displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tensions between Kikuyus and Luos also continued in the 2013 and 2017 elections after Odinga lost to the younger Kenyatta. But the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities also clashed in 2007 after the elections, under the direction of the young Kenyatta and Ruto who at the time were supporting Kibaki and Odinga respectively.
This led to Kenyatta and Ruto being indicted – and later acquitted – by the International Criminal Court and winning the 2013 and 2017 elections handily, as a team.
But Odinga and Kenyatta have since mended fences, with the incumbent president making a dramatic U-turn in 2018 to support his former nemesis, an event known as “the handshake” in Kenyan socio-political lexicon.
And that pushed Ruto out of the establishment and let veteran opposition Odinga into the space vacated by the former.
All this has led to lingering mistrust among the Kikuyus, with many reluctant to heed the Kenyattas’ pleas to support Odinga given the rancorous history between the two families.
The elder Kenyatta was elected president in 1963 with Odinga’s father, Jaramogi, as his deputy, but the duo fell apart, with the former reportedly reneging on an unofficial agreement to let the second happened to him.
And there is also a sense that the Kikuyus remember the president asking them to vote for Ruto after him, before dramatically changing his mind to asking them to ditch him and vote for Odinga. Politicians in the area claim that people have been abandoned since “the handshake”.
Kikuyu constituency MP Kimani Ichungwa criticized the president at a rally on August 6. “You have [sent] us in an economic trench. It’s just you, your family, and Odinga’s and Moi’s are the only ones out.”
Surveys and propaganda
An opinion poll by research agency Tifa puts Ruto in the driving seat in Mt Kenya with 66 per cent in his favor compared to Odinga’s 27 per cent. National polls disagree, with 46.7 percent of the latter and 44.4 percent of the former.
If this comes to fruition, it could force a runoff election, as either man needs more than 50% to be declared the winner.
Unsurprisingly, the Vice President chose to hold his last rally on August 6 in Kikuyuland, namely Kirigiti, historically strategic to Kenya’s liberation struggle and post-independence politics.
At the rally, politician after politician took to the stage to speak in Swahili or Kikuyu about being rescued by him, from “the current economic mess”.
“We will get out of the trench, with God on our side under Ruto’s leadership,” Ichungwa said.
Even among Odinga’s supporters in the region, there is a sense that many are “ruined”, said Elizabeth Thuiya, bishop of the president’s hometown of Gatundu, who is leading a group of clergy to campaign for the former prime minister.
But they are optimistic they will prevail on Tuesday, saying the Kenya Kwanza movement is inciting people to violence and insulting the president.
“You can’t tell people that Uhuru will kill you,” Thuiya said. “This is incitement. This is how violence begins. It’s not true… it’s propaganda.”
Like many residents of the capital, Nairobi, an Odinga stronghold, Ali Kader, a Kenyan Somali, is adamant that the former prime minister will win, whether or not he captures a significant share of the Kikuyu vote.
“Baba (Odinga’s nickname) has been winning all these years without Kikuyus, but these people stole his mandate,” the taxi driver told Al Jazeera. “Now that he has some of that, victory is sealed.”