NAIROBI (Reuters) - Hang out with Kenyans for a while, and you will soon start hearing tribal jokes.
Luos drive expensive cars, but live in the backseat.
Kikuyus own junk cars, then drive home to posh farms.
Maasai sell their cars -- for cattle!
Such are the tribal stereotypes and jokes that Kenyans can rattle off good-naturedly in ethnically mixed company.
But the underlying prejudices can take on a nastier tone during elections fuelled by power-hungry politicians.
Analysts say tribal alliances among Kenya’s more than 40 ethnic groups may determine the December 27 national election.
President Mwai Kibaki is from Kenya’s largest and arguably most prosperous tribe, the Kikuyu, while his main opponent, Raila Odinga, is from the smaller rival Luo community.
Recent opinion polls have mainly put Odinga in the lead in what analysts say is a show of solidarity by most of Kenya’s tribes against yet another term for a Kikuyu president.
The east African country has had three presidents since 1964, two of them Kikuyu. The first two -- founding President Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and successor Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin -- were accused of fomenting tribalism to stay in power.
Most Kikuyus are expected to vote for Kibaki, partly because of tribal sentiments but increasingly because of economics.
“Raila is a populist and if you are a populist, you will hurt the upper and middle classes to please the lower ones,” said Bob Kariuki, a Kikuyu businessman.
Another stereotype, attached to Kikuyus, is that they will not see a plot of land they will not want to buy. If not belonging to whites or Kenyans of Indian descent, most business and real estate belongs to Kikuyus, the label continues.
Historians say distrust between the two groups begun when Kenyatta sidelined Odinga’s father -- Oginga Odinga -- after independence although he helped propel Kenyatta to power.
The son, Raila Odinga, was detained without trial for nine years by Kenyatta’s successor Moi, who is backing Kibaki.
Odinga later fell out with Kibaki when the president allegedly broke a promise to create a prime minister’s position for his former ally, yet it was Odinga who led Kibaki’s election campaign after he suffered a near-fatal car accident in 2002.
“Raila will be vindictive if he wins. He will try to right the wrongs done to him and his father,” said Wanja Kamore, another Kikuyu. “His supporters will walk on our heads.”
Analysts say many tribes want a change so their communities too can “eat” -- or profit from lucrative opportunities that previous leaders have often doled out to their ethnic kinsmen.
“Raila needs to be tribalist to get anywhere. Moi and Kenyatta supported their people. We also need to be supported,” said Petronilla Chama, a Luo farmer.
Historically, Kenyan ethnic groups were separate nations with individual identities who often warred against each other.
The emblematic Maasai herders and their cousins the Samburu, constantly raided neighboring communities for cattle.
The Meru, Embu and Kikuyu farmed around Mount Kenya while the Mijikenda and Swahili, whose cultures were heavily influenced by Arab traders, fished the Indian Ocean.
Leaders have routinely exploited cultural variations.
For example, circumcision for most Kenyan communities is a rite of passage from childhood to maturity and political leaders from tribes that do not practice it, such as the Luo, are often ridiculed as being boys unfit to rule.
Kenya has remained at peace when most of its neighbors had wars, but ethnic flare-ups are commonplace around elections.
The worst incidents were in 1992 when some 1,500 people died in land clashes and in 1997, another 200 were killed in fighting in the resort town of Mombasa.
This year, scores have died in clashes in the west that residents say are politically instigated.
Observers say they are disappointed that tribalism is still latent 44 years after independence from British colonialism.
There is however a growing minority that may vote across tribal lines because of economic reasons.
“People think all Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people will vote Kibaki. But I know of others that want Kibaki because of tangible things they see,” said Caroline Mugadi, a local banker.
Many Kenyans say he failed to make a clean break with Moi’s corruption-ridden era but most are happy with economic reforms.
The 76-year-old economist has managed to turn the economy around and is promising expansion of more than 7 percent in 2008.
But analysts say Odinga’s policies will not be far from Kibaki’s though he studied in former East Germany, called his first son Fidel Castro and had a socialist-leaning father.
Wildly popular in his Langata constituency that includes Kenya’s biggest slum, Kibera, observers expect many to vote Odinga, despite years of living in squalid conditions.
“Ethnicity has reached its zenith under Kibaki’s administration,” Odinga told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Juliana Adhiambo, Duncan Miriri and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Caroline Drees