Politics in Kenya Series: Are Kenyans Inherently Ethnic?: Politics of Marginalization and Redistribution

I have always agonized over a question that I think may hold the key to end ethnic animosity in Kenyan politics. Are Kenyans inherently ethnic? There are those who believe that the answer is an obvious yes but I am not yet convinced that this is the case. This post argues that there is a connection between resource allocation and the animosity between and among Kenyan tribes that has punctuated our voting patterns since independence.

The story inevitably begins before the creation of Kenya (I say creation because before 1920 there was no entity called Kenya). In or around 1918, the British saw it fit to implement the divide and rule policy that saw the creation of the idea of ethnicity. This in itself was not the root cause of animosity as I imagine that those who inhabited that territory must have noticed that they are different from each other. The problem began with the creation of the state and the subsequent loss of the indigenous populations’ autonomy.

In those days each group had its own center of power; political autonomy/sovereignty if you may. Thus each group had, from my readings, their own system of devolving resources for the good of the community.  However these systems were irrevocably destroyed with the creation of the Kenyan state. The consequence of this was the creation of not a nation state but a state of nations.

Marginalization was the ramification of the divide and rule governance adopted by the colonialist. Those that advanced the interests of the colonial government were rewarded while those who opposed it were disenfranchised. This created disparities among the erstwhile independent/autonomous ethnic groups living in Kenya – who in addition of being forced to be part of a state, had to contend with other groups for political power. There is confirmation of this in Prof. Colin Leys book Underdevelopment in Kenya to the effect that the Kikuyu’s were the most integrated tribe in the colonial economic system.

At independence the scene did not change. Whereas there was a section of the political elite that expected redistribution to be a serious Government agenda, there are those who viewed this as a threat to the status quo in which they stand to lose if things changed. From the Kenyatta to the Kibaki regime, ethnicization of the presidency and entrenchment of patrimonialism and clientalism systems of governance in Kenya became common place.

As those ethnic groups close to the center of power aggrandized their power through pork barrel political machinations, those in the fringes were kept out of development as evidenced by the unequal development in different areas of the country. This invariably contributed to a growing sense of disenfranchisement and anger between the haves and have nots. The presidency was seen as a way for improving the lot of one’s ethnic group.

Sensing this, politicians stoked the flames of perceptual hatred to win public support and guarantee  their political supremacy. Many a politician are on record claiming that other tribes must go back to their ‘homes’ a vague reference to their areas of origin. This exacerbated the hatred between and among tribes in Kenya.

With this in mind, I turn to the point on ‘inherentness’ of ethnicity in Kenya. I like to use a comparison between ethnicity and racism to bring out my point. In contradistinction to ethnicity, racism is based purely on hatred of a race that is different from one’s own. It is actuated by a malicious ideology of intellectual and cultural supremacy of one race over another. Ethnicity in Kenya, on the other hand, is not fueled by the deep seated hatred of other ethnic groups for its own sake, rather it is actuated by years of perceived and actual marginalization wherein one tribe views members of another as the reason for such marginalization.

I therefore believe that Kenyans are not inherently ethnic; that the issue lies at the heart of redistribution politics is my thesis thus far. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o once stated (after being released from detention in 1979), Kenyans have the right to interrogate how wealth is made in the country, who makes it and how it is distributed. The lack of exercising this right for a long time must have made other ethnic groups resentful and wonder whether this was the reason they fought for freedom so hard (see Oginga Odinga (1968) Not Yet Uhuru and Joe Khamisi (2011) Politics of Betrayal).

Once one understands this, we can place land clashes and the post election violence in perspective. Many of those evicted from their homes because they belong to a different community were seen to represent those greedy few in power bent on personalizing state power. Even though they never held elective posts or other position of power, their ethnic linkage to these gluttonous individuals sealed their fate.

To curb ethnic violence, the issue of redistribution must be carefully considered. I think that in part the county system – if properly implemented – will go a long way to ensure these issues will be resolved. However it may take decades if not a century for these inequalities to be narrowed and eventually done away with, if that is even possible (I am exercising cautious optimism here). However the perception of fairness in redistribution may be the key to end ethnic violence in Kenya once and for all.

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