NAIROBI — A third generation of leadership is emerging in post-colonial Africa, and with it a trend of sons being made to answer for their fathers. During Kenya's first-ever presidential debate, held three weeks ago in Nairobi, the moderator accused the two leading candidates of subjecting Kenya to a family rivalry that their fathers started a half-century ago and that the country needs to get past. The leading candidates are Raila Odinga, the prime minister, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the deputy prime minister. Their fathers were Jomo Kenyatta, the first president, and Oginga Odinga, his aide de camp and vice president -- before they came to detest one another.
Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed the moderator's charge breezily. As a politician, he knows to always keep to the future, and as a Kenyan politician he knows to avoid the past at all costs: Jomo Kenyatta, while an icon, also enriched his family and his loyalists beyond measure at the state's expense. (It's commonly said that the Kenyattas own a province's worth of land. That the claim can't be verified or disproven, such a mess are land titles in Kenya, only adds to its mythical quality.) Raila Odinga, however, couldn't resist the chance to deliver a history lesson. He reminded viewers that if not for his own father, his rival wouldn't be worth mentioning -- might not even exist. "If you go down the memory lane, my father spearheaded the trial for the release of Jomo Kenyatta from prison," he said, somehow managing to comingle (maybe a rhetorical first) nostalgia and peevishness in the phrase "memory lane."
It was a lesson no one needed. Kenyans are only too aware of the historical weightiness of this election. They have it shoved in their faces by their own press and foreign journalists every day. It's followed on by reminders of the last election, in 2007, which Odinga lost, probably fraudulently, leading to two months of chaos. In the Nairobi bar where I watched the debate, someone remarked: "Kenyans don't want to hear about the past anymore."
They don't have the choice. Odinga, who spent nearly a decade in prison for his political activism, is a walking reminder of Kenya's past. He seems to carry it in his bovine gait and breathless rasp of a voice. He's been a fixture of public life for 30 years, a member of parliament for 20. He's founded parties and disbanded them. The office of the prime minister was created for him, and it will be done away with when a new constitution, mostly of his making, is implemented. And while even his critics concede Odinga and his father must be remembered for what they've done for Kenya, his trip down memory lane came off as so much gloating. It also made him sound wistful, never a good note to strike on the campaign trail. He appeared to want to be alone with his reveries during most of the first debate, and a good deal of the second, this past Monday. Halfway through the latter he actually employed the analogy, "you cannot allow a hyena to protect your goats," while discussing the (hugely contentious) issue of land reform. Meanwhile, Kenyatta came off as swift and witty (his critics would say unctuous).
Odinga usually has an abstracted air about him. Still, it would have been indulging in denial not to come away with the suspicion that he has, like John McCain or Yuri Andropov, wanted to be head of state for so long he believes Kenya owes him the position, despite signs of his decline. (Sixty eight as of January, he is 17 years Kenyatta's senior.) This happens to be precisely the point on which he should be distinguishing himself from his rival. Everyone knows Kenyatta thinks the presidency is his birthright; he first ran for it as a feckless 41 year-old, having been inserted into parliament because of his name a year before. But not long ago, Odinga was thought to be above this kind of entitlement-chasing. Arguably no one has done more to reform the government than Odinga, as much a living martyr to the cause of Kenyan democracy as the country has.
So how did this old king -- whom the political analyst and former anti-corruption czar John Githongo described to me as "the gravitational center of Kenyan politics" and the "alpha male lion" of Kenyan public life -- get to fumbling on this lonely last-act heath? Destiny, first off. As with all statesmen of serious consequence, and tragic heroes, much of Odinga's story is not his own.
It would be difficult to overestimate how much Jomo Kenyatta's and Oginga Odinga's feud, one of the great forgotten power struggles of the Cold War in Africa, shapes Kenya to this day. While Kenyatta won the favor of the West by creating a market economy with small but highly productive land-holding and merchant classes, Odinga, supported by Moscow, held out hope for socialism. He couldn't deny Kenyatta's success in avoiding the growing pains of other African republics -- within a decade of independence, Kenya was among the most prosperous countries on the continent -- but their visions could do nothing but collide. After Odinga served as Kenyatta's vice president, in 1966 he ran against him for the presidency. No sentimentalist, Kenyatta in turn barred Odinga's party from meeting and the media from covering it, and won. In 1969, the president travelled to Kisumu, the Odingas' home on Lake Victoria, to address a gathering and affect a rapprochement with his old friend. Odinga loyalists jeered Kenyatta. He got incensed. "Those creeping insects of yours are to be crushed like flour," he said, looking at Odinga. "I have left you free for a long time because you are my friend. Were it not so, you yourself know what I would have done." A riot ensued, Kenyatta's agents shot into the crowd, and the president barely escaped. He had Odinga placed in detention for close to two years.