Politics in Kenya: Ethnic Group Identity, Privilege and Perception

I had coffee with a friend of mine some two months ago. We discussed a number of issues canvassing a myriad of national and international matters. One discussion that left an impression was the role of ethnicity in Kenya’s politics. I thought, at least at the time, that it is temerarious to think that since there is a Kikuyu president, all Kikuyus are privileged and thus have better access to resources. Turns out that I missed two important aspects in my analysis: group identity and privilege.

My interlocutors were gracious enough to patiently listen to my argument. I vehemently rejected the notion that someone could simply lump a group of people to one person and tie the status of the former to that of the latter. I cited a plethora of historical events to support my case such as the curious case of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki. To avid readers of Kenyan political history, J.M. – as he was popularly known – was once a favourite of the establishment, having served as Kenyatta’s (Senior) private secretary and later as assistant minister in the Agriculture and Tourism dockets. But somewhere along the line, he fell out of favour with the establishment; death was the final culmination of his story – a recently released book by Prof. Daniel Branch examines this point in history under a chapter aptly called ‘the fallen angel’.

That a Parliamentary select committee would be tasked to find out who killed Kariuki would come up with two reports – one mentioning a long time Kenyatta ally Mbiyu Koinange and the other without the name – raised and still raises eye brows. In the party (KANU) there were only two factions. Those that had and those that did not have or had but were sympathetic to those who did not have. Kariuki fell in this later category.

The point here is that J.M. was (still is, depending on whether your ethnicity ceases upon demise) a Kikuyu. He died, though we may never know for sure, at the hands of the establishment; an establishment that was dominated by the Kikuyu. If indeed the fortunes of the group is attached to that of the ruler, how then could J.M. have died at the very hands of the ruling elite many of whom were Kikuyu?

Group Identity and perception is the answer, as I was informed. Through out the history of the country there has been perpetual disenfranchisement of those outside the ethnic group of the president. Development, civil service among other ‘perks’ – assuming state resources and positions belong to anyone individual or groups of individuals – immensely favoured those who belonged to the ethnicity of the establishment, or so it seemed.

Even in heart of Kikuyu land when Kenyatta was still president there were squatters from among his tribes men. As J.M. put it, we were on the verge of becoming a country of ‘ten million beggars and ten millionaires’. Few people became wealthy merely by coming from the same ethnic community as the president; privilege. Therefore this point alone cannot be used to justify the connection between privilege and group identity if one does not look at perception. (I however conceded that it would be easier to access resources if you were in the same group (ethnic) as the president than if you were not.)

Kenyan politics, and politics in general, are shaped by perception. The conjecture that things are as they seem without further cogent evidence or analysis to support such a position. Machiavelli, and to a larger extent Robert Green – in the 48 Laws of Power, ascribes this to human intellectual indolence – that man would prefer taking things at face value instead of ruminating on them to come up with a reasoned conclusion. Here the position (or more appropriately, perception) is all Kikuyu’s must benefit from a tribesman at the helm.

Tying all these things together is the tumultuous political history of Kenya since independence. The progressive disenfranchisement of the many being forced into subservience by the few has led, in my thinking, to the hardened positions that accentuate many a political debates. I learn not to take offence when some shouts at me ‘you people are the ones stealing state resources’ whereas we share the same matatu going home. I learn to recognize that their statements are not driven by sheer ignorance but by perceptions that have been shaped by events far older than my age.