The Fragmented Gikuyu Finally Caught Flat-Footed in Kenya

Jomo Kenyatta

The Gikuyu – commonly pronounced Kikuyu – people have traditionally been deprived of central political leadership. The resulting community’s fragmentation is responsible for the growth of chieftainship.

The Chief’s authority was limited to a geographical area such as a ridge, or a clan or group of clans. Only some non-political leaders’ authority, such as that of seers, transcended the fragmentations.

The British colonists, who have had the greatest recorded impact on the Gikuyu, took advantage of this fragmentation to penetrate the community’s territory as one chief after the other fell for the colonists’ deceptions and bribes in return for loyalty.

The Gikuyu leaders arguably sold their peoples’ freedom for a song. By the time they woke up from their nightmare, it was too late. With the freedom already gone, the community was awed by the muthung’u.

The white man’s immense efficient use of land for production was a far cry to what the native Gikuyu farmer had ever dreamt of. The Gikuyu’s admiration of the White man is evident in their subsequent adoption of the western culture up to this day.

Whereas some western practices – for example, the political empowerment of women such as the legendary dictator Wang’u wa Makeri who used to rule while seated on the back of men – were consonant with the Gikuyu culture, a lot more were not.

Essentially, the chief in the Gikuyu culture is a charismatic leader. In the absence of charisma, the Gikuyu community is deprived of leadership.

From Jomo and Uhuru, and Kibaki in the postcolonial era to Waiyaki wa Hinga and Wang’u wa Makeri in the pre-colonial era, the Gikuyu love their leaders charismatic.

The strong influence of the community’s social thread developed out of the desire for self-preservation from common enemies such as the Masai and later the British. 

As a result, and in the absence of centralized political leadership, the Gikuyu community’s pulse was – and is – open to charismatic influence.

History shows that no matter your economic muscle, the Gikuyu will not adorn you with the crown before you demonstrate charisma. 

Former president Daniel Moi’s attempt to push for Uhuru Kenyatta’s rise in the community failed until Uhuru demonstrated his charisma ten years later after the initial push in 2002.

On the other hand, the community readily supported economically-disadvantaged but charismatic leaders, such as Jomo Kenyatta, whose family of birth had no political influence. 

Currently, the leadership vacuum is evident by the fact that no Gikuyu individual has demonstrated the needed level of charisma to win the community’s universal backing. The few available are, well, chiefs.

My belief is that Kenya is better off with a non-Gikuyu leader. In the early to mid-nineties, as a student of Maseno University, then a constituent college of Moi University, I remember one senior colleague wondering at our indifference to campus politics.

“If you allow a non-Kikuyu to be elected student leader,” he cautioned, “you will cry with one eye.” Apparently, only Gikuyu student leaders had previously held the position. 

Two of my colleagues took the gauntlet and announced their candidatures. Their lack of preparation saw them lose terribly to a Luo candidate who went to perform so well that for the couple of terms he was in control, there was no single student strike.

I was impressed by the charismatic Luo candidate’s swagger – close to Obama’s – and genuine concern for student’s welfare. 

If my friends had won, I am pretty sure that it would have been a tumultuous one-term reign that would have been the fodder of the bar talk on the night of losing.

Think about that.




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