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Kikuyu / Gikuyu

The Kikuyu Kenya's largest ethnic group, number about 22% of Kenya's population while the Meru account for 6% and the Embu 4%, giving Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association [GEMA] a very considerable 32% of the country's population. The Kikuyu are Kenya's best educated, most commercially active and most dispersed community. They have a strong cultural imperative to acquire land. They are often resented by "locals" when they acquire land, businesses and jobs outside their home districts. Kikuyus have a linguistic and cultural affinity with Kenya's other Bantu ethnic groups. Together, the Bantus make up 67 percent of Kenya's population. Anti-Kikuyu sentiments are less pronounced among their fellow Bantus than among the Nilotes (Maasais, Luos, Kalenjins and others).

The Mau Mau violence of the 1950s was largely a Kikuyu uprising against the injustices of colonial rule, although other groups participated. The forcible removal of Kikuyu from urban centers and the prohibition of Kikuyu leaders from political activity during the conflict enabled other groups to obtain government and political posts that the Kikuyu would otherwise have filled. After the decline of Europeans and Asians, however, the better educated Kikuyu were soon able to become strongly established in the state apparatus and the universities and to control the government-owned corporations. Kikuyu domination of the upper civil service ranks was very pronounced. Kikuyu also filled the majority of middle-level posts in the modern business sector, but in those parastatals and other firms over which the government had some control, efforts were made to ensure an ethnic mix on their boards of directors.

Since independence the Kikuyu members have usually composed slightly over 30 percent of the cabinets, although their proportion of the population was slightly over 20 percent. Having enlarged the cabinet and named additional assistant ministers, Moi was able to announce in 1980 that each of the 40 districts was represented in the central government, either at the ministerial or subministerial level. By 1983 Kikuyu representation had been reduced to less than 25 percent (seven of 27 ministers).

The southern Kikuyu who are concentrated in Kiambu District near Nairobi include many of Kenyatta's former collaborators and kin. The most powerful cabinet ministers under Kenyatta were from Kiambu, and they were disproportionately represented in higher civil service and government corporate posts. The northern group of Kikuyu of Nyeri District, as well as of the neighboring districts of Kirinyaga and Nyandarua, did not enjoy the patronage available to those having close access to Kenyatta. Relations between the northern and southern Kikuyu were further disrupted by the assassination in 1975 of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, a charismatic figure among the Nyeri group. Although his murder was never solved, the Kiambu were widely suspected because of Kariuki's stinging attacks on high-level corruption and favoritism.

The Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association [GEMA] had immense influence during the Kenyatta era, but lost much of its political clout during the Moi years. GEMA at times used strong arm tactics like forced loyalty oaths and political violence to ensure that the people of Central province supported its political positions and preferred candidates. Today these three closely related peoples still tend to vote as a unit, although there is always some hard bargaining over the share out of patronage positions.

Most Africans were barely touched by the colonial economy and society. But the Kikuyu, the most numerous of Kenya's African peoples, became an important exception to this general pattern because of their proximity to the main areas of European settlement in the highlands and Nairobi, the capital city. In the aftermath of the Great War, African interest in the local political process emerged tentatively, especially among the Kikuyu in Nairobi but also among the second largest ethnic group, the Luo. Awareness of their perceived inferior status and a growing determination to alter it were sparked by the harsh wartime experience, continuing losses of land to white settlers, intensified tax and labor demands by the European society, and the spread of education by missionaries.

Direct political participation was not achieved until 1944, when the Kenya African Union (KAU)—the colony's first source of real African nationalism—was formed. Founded as a vehicle to attain the common goal of a united African majority, the KAU never achieved much popular support except among the Kikuyu, whose strong cultural unity had already marked them as the first of the indigenous African ethnic groups to regard themselves as one people. Although the KAU's political approach was generally moderate, its eventual demand for African access to their lost lands—the fertile "White Highlands"—became a revolutionary issue. Because the government was dependent on the production of the white settlers to attain economic development of Kenya, the KAU's demand received little consideration.

After World War II, African political awareness grew, and dissatisfaction with the social, political, and economic order intensified. In the postwar years, when demands for independence swept the continent, the Kikuyu provided most of the leadership, the participants, and the victims as African discontent erupted in the Mau Mau move ment, an event of international concern that left an enduring mark on Kenyan society. Generally interpreted as a rebellion against British colonial rule, violence against the colony's Europeans was insignificant compared with that leveled against fellow Kikuyu in response to the growing disarray of the traditional system of land tenure generated by rapidly increasing population pressures.

It is only in certain circumstances that an ethnic group is cohesive. Given the degree of differentiation in power, wealth, and status among the Kikuyu, intra-Kikuyu conflict—couched in sectional terms, e.g., between the Kiambu and other Kikuyu, or in class terms—has been as salient or more so than conflict between the Kikuyu and others. Other groups are perhaps not so pervasively stratified as the Kikuyu, but there are differences that occasionally make for conflict. Sections of specific ethnic groups often find themselves in competition for one advantage or another — where shall the new hospital or secondary school be built? — and may demonstrate solidarity with one another only intermittently.

Many Kikuyu were dispossessed of their lands in the 1990s through violence and intimidation organized by President Moi (an ethnic Kalenjin), yet there is very little appetite among the Kikuyu political elite to redress this injustice. Elites fear an across-the-board review of the land issue, such as in the commissioned, but never implemented, Ndungu Report. Several Kikuyu land barons, whose acquisitions date back to the Kenyatta era, could be threatened by such a legal review. Revisiting the land issue is widely considered by the Kenyan elite to be "dangerously destabilizing."

Kikuyu culture places a high value on land acquisition (just as other groups value cattle acquisition) and material success generally. Their perceived predominance in business, the professions and government attracts resentment of many other Kenyan communities. The Kikuyu-led government of Mwai Kibaki was massively popular among GEMA voters, although opposition leader Uhuru Kenyatta also had some support.

During Moi's 24 year rule, there was systematic discrimination against the Kikuyu in government employment. The end of such discrimination under the Kibaki administration resulted in Kikuyu numbers at the top of the GoK reaching, but not significantly exceeding their share of the general population. This reappearance of Kikuyus in government after a long absence may account for the public perception of "Kikuyu dominance."

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Page last modified: 07-05-2015 19:09:06 ZULU