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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Kenya General Elections Series: How to Win Party Primaries

The more things change the more they remain the same. These words are accredited to one Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a French journalist and novelist by profession. It best portrays the political system in Kenya after the hyped New Constitution of Kenya that was promulgated on 27th August 2010. But how does this statement relate to the current madness prevailing in the system? Check this out.

Hon. Kenneth Marende in an interview with one of the local dailies declared that the 10th Parliament broke legislation passing record. Among these pieces of legislation were the Elections and Political Party Acts. I thought we were ‘professionalizing’ politics with party hoping being initially capped, party primaries conducted in time among many other good things that were (as some were long amended) and are in the act. But after the primaries, I wonder what lessons we have learnt.

I observed the following as a winning formula and thus a reflection of some of our leaders:

Have Connections on the inside

How does one win a party primary and then the certificate given to the loser? It reminds me of those mlolongo (Swahili for queue) days in the KANU era. Supporters of a candidate would queue behind him/her and ideally the one with the longest line should be the one to clinch the post. Sounds simple doesn’t it? The only problem there was that the ones with the shortest lines were often declared the winners since these had more of ‘KANU blood’ running through their veins.

More than 20 years later plus a new constitution, not much has changed. Aspirants from various counties in Kenya are complaining that they have been unfairly and illegally locked out. Some of these won their primaries fair and square but only for the certificate to be handed to their opponents. That’s democracy working right there as the last shall surely be on the first on the ballot paper.

Buy lots and lots of Photocopying paper

If a candidate smells defeat coming from a far and is unwilling to let go, what does he/she do? They cannot create constituents loyal to themselves and even if they could they have to wait for them to reach the age of majority to vote (18 years in Kenya). Thus the other option available is to photocopy ballot papers and ensure their names are on every one of them.

The next task would be stuff these papers. This would not be an easy fete. However, since human beings are easily distracted, create commotion and ensure that it lasts for as long as you need to elect yourself. Alternatively you can have party officials and presiding officers in your pocket. This route will be smoother as many of these agents callously suggest particular candidates as they ‘help’ senior citizens and those illiterate exercise their political right.

Have an Exit Plan

Those who live by the sword must die thereby. It may very well be that you might use these tricks but your opponent would take the better of you. Thus there must be an exit strategy. Always have a certificate from a smaller party waiting to be signed. However you must be careful that this party is registered as the laws passed are serious on this. As soon as you reach Parliament, do something about that law. I mean the education requirement for members of Parliament was watered down to benefit them why not do the same for this requirement?

Take Vocal Lessons

Do not confuse the title with singing. Well you will do some amount of singing to woo unsuspecting voters but these lessons are more on how to shout successfully. Party primaries are often acrimonious and do at times degenerate quickly into shouting matches. Thus he who shouts the loudest must have been aggrieved and therefore must have been the winner. Isn’t it simple logic?

If you stick to these simple rules, you will have earned the title mheshimiwa (Swahili for honourable) and thus the ‘right’ to steer your constituents and the country to greatness. Congratulations, we are proud of you.

Kenya General Election Series: Ethnicization of Kenyan Politics

Kenyans have for a long time been described as an ethnic minded people. Proponents of this notion often point to our political culture as proof. They say Kenyans become more polarized along ethnic lines when politics is involved and usually during elections. But I think that they may be missing the bigger picture while focusing on the pixels. I hereinafter state my reasons for this proposition.

When talking about any country in Africa, analysts (both African and non-African) use colonial history as the starting point for their analyses. The Kenyan situation, I believe, is no different. The colonial history of this country is based inter alia on discrimination and separation of the African folk; a policy known as divide and rule. As long as the Africans were divided, there would be no meaningful opposition to the establishment.

Division brought with it marginalization which a predominant theme in Kenyan political history. The divide and rule policies of the British Empire planted the seeds of discord among Kenyans as some regions were favoured more than others. However successive governments put the fertilizer and provided the necessary conditions for the so-called negative ethnicity seeds to flourish and take root based on how resources were distributed.

Throughout Kenya’s political history, one community has been pitted against another at one point in time. For instance, the perceived animosity between the Luo and the Kikuyu is as a result of the former perceiving the latter as megalomaniacs. From the assassination of Tom Mboya and the tribulations of the erstwhile vice-president turned opposition leader to the bungled elections of 2007, events have further conspired to fan these perceptions.

Whereas I cannot deny with a clean conscious that there were no schemers of such machinations, I cannot in the same breath say that ALL Kikuyu’s are megalomaniacs. This is just one example of the many complex political conflicts that exist in the country. Surprisingly, if one looks hard enough he/she is bound to find the distribution of resources as the bedrock. I therefore agree with one Murkomen, who on an interview aired on Aljazeera English (Inside Story) on Wednesday 16th January at 2030hrs (local time) stated that political violence on Kenya can be traced to marginalization and distribution of resources.

In addition to the foregoing, there’s a fact that often skips the minds of many. In 2002 Kenyans voted side by side without any issues. At this point we all wanted a change from the KANU (Kenya National African Union) rhetoric since independence. Tribes that were erstwhile mortal political enemies supported a common candidate. In these elections, two tribes that were engaged in acrimonious violence are together again or so it seems. In my view, these events do not depict a people that are inherently ethnic.

What is my point? Scarce resources, growing population, inequitable distribution of resources are among the issues that drive Kenyans into ethnic shelves with slogans such as ‘it’s our time to eat’. Leaders often have used these issues to create tribal bases wherefrom they can negotiate with the powers that be for a slice of the national cake. But in true Machiavellian fashion, they betray the expectations of their people once they get into positions of power.

Therefore, one of the principal reasons for decentralization was equity in distribution of resources. Looking at the counties created, one can almost trace tribal boundaries although the law does still provide for ethnic balance in each county government. By this, I hope, people will be keener on their governor than their president. Consequently, Kenyans will not be easily divided into ethnic shelves by presidential aspirants seeking to sweep into power. However, I am not sure I can say the same for the gubernatorial office.

In conclusion, bad governance is the reasons Kenyans behave as they do. Frustrated that the independence of the nation was hijacked by a few excited chaps, Kenyans came up with a defense mechanism. That defense mechanism was ethnicity wherein through regional balancing they could at least get a slice of the cake. Perhaps a study on the same would vindicate my position on the role of ethnicity in Kenyan Politics but until then, it remains an opinion.