Kenya's government is making a determined effort to stamp out tribalism, which it regards as an obstacle to genuine Kenyan unity. The move, spearheaded by President Daniel arap Moi, is a revolutionary political and social action, without precedent in East Africa. Kenya, after all , is a nation of many large tribes and dozens of sub-tribes, arranged for the most part in a regional pattern.
But tribalism in Kenya is beginning to be regarded as a brake on the country's development. It extends into every corner of political, economic, and social life. A man's tribal background can get him a job, get him turned out of one, or prevent him from getting one. His tribal background determines his acceptability -- or lack of it.
Nobody expects President Moi to break up such major Kenyan tribes as the Kikuyu, the Luo, the Kamba, the Abaluhya, the Masai, and scatter them to the winds overnight. It would be impossible, anyway. Each has its own language and customs, its geographic centers, and its leaders. Trying to eliminate them would be like telling the Scots or the Welsh to stop being Scots or Welsh.
What Mr. Moi wants to do is break up the various tribal power bases -- the big protection organizations that have been built up to extend tribal political and economic influence.
Mr. Moi's mandate comes from a Kenyan leaders' conference last July that was attended by politicians civil servants, Cabinet ministers, department heads, Army and police officers, and others in the government establishment. All, somewhat surprisingly, decided that tribalism must go.
Armed with this mandate, the President and his ministers have put heavy pressure on formal tribal associations to disband themselves voluntarily. And this they now are actually doing, with surprisingly little opposition and grumbling.
Mr. Moi's strength in this campaign lies in being a member of a small clan, the Kalenjin, who have no special influence in any field except that of producing top athletes. But he has the strong support of many prominent Kikuyu -- the largest and most powerful tribe -- including Charles Njonjo, minister of home and constitutional affairs, and the vice-president and minister of finance, Mwai Kibaki.
Support for Mr. Moi also has come from prominent Luo, Kamba, Masai, and other tribes.
The hardest tribal nut to crack is the Kikuyu, whose powerful base since independence has been Gema, (the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru Association). The Embu and the Meru clans are closely related to and identified with the Kikuyu. Gema has a large number of members, great influence, and considerable financial strength through Gema Holdings Ltd., a public company, which owns land, property , farms, and business concerns on a big scale.
It is freely admitted here that Gema has had a very big stake in keeping the Kikuyu on top of the pile.
Not so freely admitted, but generally known throughout Kenya, is the fact that Gema, or certain sections of Gema, was influential in the abortive move, before the death of the late president, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, to prevent his non-Kikuyu vice-president, Daniel arap Moi, from succeeding to the wanted to keep the top post in Kikuyu hands.
There was a move to change the Constitution by a parliamentary amendment, a move that was thrown out, largely due to the influence of Mr. Njonjo. He had the backing of Mr. Kenyatta, who disliked tampering with constitutions, but not the backing of the Kenyatta family, which feared (correctly) it would lose its influence if Mr. Moi became president on the passing of Mr. Kenyatta.
Despite a great deal of resistance from its members, Gema has decided, in company with other tribal unions, to disband itself. Branch after branch is in process of dissolution, including the Gema women's wing in Nairobi. It is not certain yet whether Gema Holdings will break up, the argument against being that it is a public company.