Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was the Pioneer of Tribalism in Kenya: Kikuyunization of Government Started with Him

21 May

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was the Pioneer of Tribalism in Kenya: Kikuyunization of Government Started with Jomo Osewe, many thanks for chipping in for me. This is your pet topic and the retort touched on everything within it. You gave the same last week to Hatari who often equates discussants around ethnicity with tribalists. You summarized it so well with this line: “If you are living in a racist society, analyzing racism in all its forms does not make you a racist.”

Sikwekwe: Why did you focus on ethnicity yet I also gave a gender distribution of the Cabinet nominees? Instead of discussing whether the persons reflect regional and gender balance, you chose to go personal by labeling me a tribalist. Ethnicity and gender are independent or status variables used to investigate and understand socio-economic and political disparities in all societies. Worldwide, major institutions of higher learning have departments/faculties dealing with ethnic studies to examine labor market placements and income differentiations. The results of big studies continually recommended affirmative action or quota systems within certain ethnic groups for the sake of parity. Sweden, which was ethnically homogeneous, is now a multicultural society and has authorities handling ethnic divisions to understand the complexities of integration. The Swedish office of the Ombudsman against Ethnic Discrimination deals with ethnic-related matters. Is it tribal too?

Kenya’s new Constitution is a template for correcting the ethnic divides exacerbated by all the past presidents who pitted big tribes against the small ones for political expediency. These leaders never righted the shameless typecast by the British colonizers who categorized various tribes as thieves, lazy and so forth.

Ethnicity reared its ugly head during Kibaki’s first term when plum jobs in the public sector went to members of the Mt. Kenya region. The Kenya Revenue Authority exemplified this within its top 18 Commissioners. The current Uhuru-Ruto power-sharing formula is on the basis of a pre-election tribal arrangement between Kikuyus and Kalenjins. In 2010, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission investigated claims of tribalism in public jobs and the outcome reflected citizens’ perceptions of seriously skewed placements in favor of the Mt. Kenya members.

In 2012, author Charles Hornsby published a book titled ‘Kenya: A History Since Independence’. He dedicated some pages under the sub-heading “The Kikuyunization of Kenya Under President Kenyatta” to show how unashamedly Mzee had appointed 11 senior parastatal heads from the Kikuyu community in the 1970s. Also, out of the then seven Provincial Commissioners, only three were non-Kikuyus. Below is the section from from Hornsby’s book and you can brand him a tribalist too.

The Kikuyunization of Kenya under President Jomo Kenyatta

Although the State continued to talk of Kenya as one nation, and to de-emphasize ethnicity in its public statements and policies in land, service delivery and jobs, the unifying rhetoric of nationhood concealed a less palatable truth. The 1970s saw the entrenchment of Kikuyu power via a web of both formal and informal networks. As with the security forces, the senior civil service was increasingly Kikuyu dominated. The crucial posts of provincial commissioners, for example, were held by a small group of conservative insiders, more than half of whom were Kikuyu from 1967 until Kenyatta’s death, and three of whom were sons of chiefs. Appointments to statutory boards and parastatals showed the same trend.

These men were powerful, educated, intelligent and able, and they effectively ran Kenya in the interest of Kenyatta, themselves (they all had substantial business investments) and the country. Just as their colonial predecessors had done, they disliked local politicians, whom they treated as competitors, and made no pretence of democracy. Provincial Commissioner (PC) Eliud Mahihu was particularly well known for his dictatorial attitude and concern with development. As he said in 1998: ‘About calling us governors, I had no problem … we were employed to govern our provinces and we did.’ Simeon Nyachae was in a class of his own as the most able, politically astute non-Kikuyu PC with direct personal loyalty to Kenyatta (though he had married a wife from Nyeri). His governorship of Central Province was a critical ethnic balancing act. Moi’s influence was seen in the appointment of two Kalenjin PCs, and Kenyatta took care to ensure that the Luo were governed not by a Kikuyu, but by a Kipsigis.

The same pattern was seen elsewhere. In the central government, Geoffrey Kariithi (a Kikuyu from Kirinyaga and educated at Alliance High School) headed the civil service from 1967 to 1979). Other senior figures included Kiereini (ex-Alliance, also from Kirinyaga and an ex-detention camp warden) who ran the Ministry of Defense, Peter Gachathi (Alliance, Kiambu) was education secretary from 1969 to 1979. Duncan Ndegwa (Alliance, Nyeri) was governor of the Central Bank. Joseph Gethenji (Nyeri) was director of personnel from 1968 to 1978, while Joseph Kibe (Murang’a) was permanent secretary for commerce and industry. Of course, there were powerful civil servants who were not Kikuyu, but they generally played a secondary role. A study of top civil service posts in 1972 showed that Kikuyu now held 50 per cent of the top jobs, a rapid increase since the 1960s. There were reports that a Posting Committee in the Office of the President (OP) made civil service appointments in advance of interviews by the Public Service Commission, and that this committee was dominated by ex-Home Guard Kikuyu.

The situation was a little different amongst the parastatals. Many heads of parastatals, appointed by Kenyatta or his ministers, were also Kikuyu. There is no doubt that these were intelligent, competent individuals. Many had gone through the elite forcing-ground at Alliance High School and knew each other well. Whether they were the best men for the job was another question, as personal loyalty to Kenyatta was critical. Kenyatta was lucky that he had an educated, able cadre of loyalists to choose from, a luxury that Moi did not have a decade later.

Amongst private sector organizations not led by Europeans or Asians, Kikuyu dominance was equally strong. Francis Thuo (Murang’a) was chairman of the Nairobi Stock Exchange during 1970-83. Joseph Wanyoike (Murang’a) was managing director of Kenya Cooperative Creameries from 1968 until 1978. Bethwell Gecaga (Murang’a) chaired BAT from 1967 until 1995. His son and Kenyatta’s nephew Udi Gecaga was then Lonrho chairman. Ex-permanent secretary Kenneth Matiba (Alliance, Murang’a) ran Kenya Breweries until 1984, while Joe Wanjui (Kiambu) ran East African Industries until 1993.

The Kikuyu dominance at the top filtered down to other levels. Each appointment generated power and income for its holder and a trickle-down to their home area through contracts, jobs for clients and preferential allocation of development funds. A self-reinforcing structure of privilege was built which 24 years of Moi’s rule never fully dismantled. In October 1973, Shikuku presciently warned that if the Kikuyu did not share the fruits of Uhuru with others, they would eventually be ‘eaten’ by the other 41 tribes ‘like a satisfied hyena was eaten up by hungry hyenas’. Not every job was set aside for the Kikuyu, however. The ethnic sifting process worked much the same way when a non-Kikuyu ran an organization. There were protests in 1970, for example, that East African Airways (EAA), the National Housing Corporation (NHC) and the KNTC were the ‘monopoly of Abaluyias’.

The Luo received little preference from the State. The 1965-66 split and the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) era had alienated Kenyatta permanently from the community and as Kenya Times suggested: “Henceforth, the Luos became second class citizens of Kenya. They were viewed with suspicion in all quarters and they were given the lowest rating whenever it came to jobs. Apart from the Kisumu-Busia, Kisumu-Kericho and Kisumu-Kisii roads, Luo Nyanza roads were not tarmacked.”

While the Kamba had the military, the Luo—with some of the best-educated and most active elites at Independence—had few avenues for their energies. They had no large settlement schemes and most of Luo Nyanza was unsuitable for coffee and tea. They could go into business, but the commercial sector was tilted in favour of the Kikuyu and they had capital. Distrusted in the military, parastatals and politics, they focused instead on the civil service, the professions, trade unionism and religion. Luo increasingly blamed their marginalization, both real and apparent, on the Kikuyu, and built a mythology of resistance and social cohesion around opposition to the Kikuyu elite’s political and economic goals.

It was now clear that the Kikuyu and to a lesser extent their Mount Kenya neighbours in Embu and Meru were embedding a sense of pre-eminence in their collective culture. There was growing assumption of their right to rule. Many Kikuyu believed they were smarter, more entrepreneurial and had suffered more under colonialism. They compared themselves with Europeans, and viewed other Kenyans as backward and likely to destroy the economy if given power. Their widespread antipathy to the Luo was not based on their failure to practice male circumcision (though it was a genuine point of cultural tension), but on the threat they posed because of their numbers and history of recent conflict. By the 1980s, under Moi, the Kikuyu had become firmly associated in the popular imagination with competitive differentiation and ‘money grabbing’, while their Luo counterparts had come to epitomize indolence, poverty, socialism and rebellion. Jaramogi Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta symbolized this cleavage: Odinga was the dispossessed; Kenyatta the benevolent dictator but simultaneously ‘the chief architect and patron of the Greater Kikuyu Community’.


  • Paul Boit — PC Central, Western and Nairobi (1964-80) Kalenjin – Nandi, son of chief
  • Isaiah Cheluget — PC Nyanza (1969-80). Kalenjin – Kipsigis
  • Charles Koinange — PC Central and Eastern (1967-80). KIKUYU from Kiambu, son of senior chief, Mbiyu Koinange’s brother and Kenyatta’s brother-in-law
  • Eliud Mahihu — PC Eastern and Coast (1965-82). KIKUYU from Nyeri, colonial administrator and ex-Home Guard
  • Isaiah Mathenge — PC Coast, Rift Valley and Eastern (1965-82). KIKUYU from Nyeri, ex-Home Guard and detention camp warder
  • John Godhard Mburu — PC Coast, North-Eastern, Nairobi and Western (1964-79). KIKUYU from Murang’a
  • Simeon Naychae — PC Rift Valley and Central (1965-79). Gusii, son of chief


  • Ephantus Gakuo — Director-general of East African Railways (later Kenya Railways), 1987-1970s. MURANG’A
  • Bethwell Gecaga — Chairman, Industrial Development Bank (1976-9). MURANG’A
  • Julius Gecau — Managing director, East Africa (later Kenya) Power and Lighting Company (1970-84). KIAMBU
  • James Karani Gitau — General manager, Kenya National Trading Corporation (1969-79). KIAMBU
  • Stanley Githunguri — Executive chairman, National Bank of Kenya (1976-9). KIAMBU
  • Charles Karanja — General manager, Kenya Tea Development Authority (1970-81). KIAMBU
  • John Matere Keriri — General manager then managing director, Development Finance Company of Kenya (1972-82). KIRINYAGA
  • Peter Kinyanjui — Chairman, East African Harbours Corporation (later Kenya Ports Authority) 1970-80. KIAMBU
  • John Michuki — Executive chairman, Kenya Commercial Bank (1970-9). MURANG’A
  • Philip Ndegwa — Chairman, Agricultural Finance Corporation (to 1974). KIRINYAGA
  • Matu Wamae — Executive director, Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation (1969-79). NYERI

Kenya: A History Since Independence (Pages 254-258) By Charles Hornsby (2012)

Jared Odero


Posted by on May 21, 2014 in Politics


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