When his father made his last visit to the lakeside town of Kisumu in 1969, it concluded with deadly gunfire that left scores dead, the detention of opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and many of his key lieutenants, and banning of the Kenya People’s Union, making Kenya a one-party state.
President Jomo Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have long since left the scene, but when President Uhuru Kenyatta is hosted by ODM leader Raila Odinga in present day Kisumu, he receives a heroic welcome.
The two men, who now famously call each other ‘brother’, inherited the dynastic political feud of their fathers and fought two bitterly-contested elections in 2013 and 2017, but made a peace that impacts not only on them, but on the deep political divide that for generations has been a blight on Kenyan politics.
In 2002, the independence party, Kanu, was in self-implosion mode following President Daniel arap Moi’s decision to anoint Mr Uhuru Kenyatta as his preferred successor, the political rookie jumping the queue ahead of many experienced politicians who had been waiting in line.
It was a relative newcomer in Kanu, opposition stalwart Raila Odinga who had struck a pact with Mr Moi following the 1997 elections, who led the mass exit in protest, and ensured a resounding defeat for Mr Kenyatta at the 2002 presidential election.
Kanu was still trying to pick up the pieces when on September 27, 2003 I had a chance to interview Dr Njoroge Mungai at his Magana Farm on the outskirts of Kikuyu Town.
Dr Mungai was an uncle of Uhuru Kenyatta and key member of his kitchen cabinet. He had also served Jomo Kenyatta both as powerful cabinet minister and personal physician.
The younger Kenyatta had taken his place as Leader of the Opposition following his loss to Mr Mwai Kibaki at the elections, but Mr Moi had just relinquished his position as Kanu chairman, leaving the party rudderless.
I was then stringing as a political analyst for the Sunday Nation and my editors Khakhudu Agunda and Joe Mbuthia wanted me to get an interview with Dr Mungai.
The story I was following that day was on Kanu and its uncertain future with the Moi exit. I then veered from the script of asking about the future of Kanu and took him back to 1960s, especially the period around what came to be known as the Kisumu massacre, followed by the assassination of the flamboyant Tom Joseph Mboya.
Dr Mungai would not be drawn into the conversation and instead answered with a vague, “let bygones be bygones”.
In the minds of elderly members of the Luo community, Dr Mungai was evil personified. It was said that he was the one who started the shooting at the charged showdown in Kisumu between President Kenyatta and his former Vice President Oginga Odinga, the man the late Stanley Oloitiptip once derisively described as ‘the God of the Luos’.
‘Persecution’ of Luos
It is not clear when it started but historians and political analysts have long concluded that the events that took place on that day on the occasion of the official opening of the Nyanza Provincial Hospital, better known to locals as Russia because of the Soviet aid in its establishment, escalated the Luo-Kikuyu animosity to the hilt.
Mzee Kenyatta never set foot in Luoland after that until his death on August 22, 1978 and some of his detractors claim that he either actively encouraged or chose to look the other side as the perceived ‘persecution’ of Luos in his administration took centre stage. There were allegations of careers snuffed out and development projects aimed at Luoland taken elsewhere.
Former US President Barack Obama in his book Dreams from my Father admits so. He wrote of his father Barrack Obama Sr: “He may have had political ambitions, and at first he was doing well in the government. But by 1966 or 1967, the divisions in Kenya had become more serious. President Kenyatta was from the largest tribe, the Kikuyus. The Luos, the second largest tribe, began to complain that Kikuyus were getting all the best jobs.”
Some Luos began to increasingly criticise and protest against the Kenyatta administration. Government police cracked down and some people were killed, Obama writes, causing more suspicion from his father.
“Most of the Old Man's friends just kept quiet and learned to live with the situation. But the Old Man began to speak up. He would tell people that tribalism was going to ruin the country and that unqualified men were taking the best jobs,” Obama wrote.
Life has gone full circle. Jomo’s son Uhuru, in the last days of his presidency, has teamed up with Jaramogi’s son Raila, and embarked on repairing the damage between the two communities that played the biggest role in agitation for Kenya’s independence from the British colonialists.
Ever since his ‘Handshake’ with his political nemesis, Raila, Uhuru has set the record for the number of visits by a Kenyan head of state to Luoland. The many projects he has initiated in the region has hoisted him to a hero status among the area residents and he is assured of getting a near veneration when he visits the place for the last time as president.
Bromance began in 2018
Also making things rosy for him is President Kenyatta’s deliberate move to back Jaramogi’s son to succeed him as the next commander-in-chief, something many did not believe would actually become a reality when their new-found bromance began in 2018.
Most of these visits have been in the company of Mr Odinga but the president has made several unaccompanied cameo visits especially when he was inspecting the upgrading of Kisumu Port and the rehabilitation of the ship with which he shares a name, MV Uhuru.
Whether these visits and rapprochement with Mr Odinga will translate into slaying the perceived animosity is hard to tell because to many diehards on the different sides of the fence, it has almost become a culture and cultures are not cast away in one fell swoop.
The Bible talks of God visiting vengeance to children for the sins of their fathers but President Kenyatta seems to have set out to buckle this verse by trying to rectify the wrongs allegedly committed by his father.
All said and done, he will leave office with much higher ratings among the Luo than his father before him.