Ethnicity in Kenyan Politics- The Reality

As Kenyans go to a general election on August 8th, the voting patterns will mostly be along tribal lines- over 50 years after independence .

But why has this trend continued for too long?

Before independence, many Kenyans were united against a common enemy — the white British rule. The resistance movement against the colonial rule was experienced in various communities spread across the country.

When the British ended their rule in 1963, Jomo Kenyatta (from the populous Kikuyu tribe) and a few other freedom fighters were incarcerated at a prison in Lodwar. Jaramogi Odinga (from the Luo tribe) was given the mantle to be Kenya’s first independent Prime Minister. Jaramogi refused the position in order to allow Jomo Kenyatta to lead. Six months later, Kenya became a republic and Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first president and Jaramogi became Vice President.

What followed set the trend to the problem of negative ethnicity and sense of entitlement that controls the political mindsets of the ruling mafia in Kenya. Kenya missed its first opportunity to create a progressive country where tribe did not matter.

Jomo Kenyatta quickly degenerated into a ‘tribal king’ — dishing out public resources to his friends and cronies. This started a dangerous trend of unequal distribution of public resources. His friends, cronies and himself soon became the ‘economic mafia’ that controlled Kenya’s vast resources. The elites from many other tribes were forced to toe the line or disappear into political and economic oblivion. The ruling Kikuyu elite mafia embarked on an exercise to instill a sense in their tribesmen that power belongs to them and the Luo and other tribes who opposed them were enemies and should not get into power. It was like an oath that is supposed to be passed on from generation to generation.

Jaramogi and a group of his allies dared to stand up to the regime then, and hence they were viewed as enemies of the Kikuyu tribe, even though their differences with the ruling regime were mostly ideological.

Then came President Moi (from the Kalenjin tribe) after the death of Jomo Kenyatta. He perfected the art - accumulating resources for his family, friends and cronies. Most state corporations and agencies were turned into ‘Kalenjin corporations.’ Moi however was clever to maintain persons from other tribes as figureheads in critical government ministries, but they were only his robots. Some of the senior officials in his government would walk into government-controlled banks and take up huge loans and openly refuse to repay. During Moi’s rule, he would get overwhelming votes from all other tribes except the Kikuyu tribe. The negative ethnicity was continued and perfected.

Some who dared question Moi’s rule were assassinated in cold blood. It was truly a mafia state. However, again, Jaramogi and other allies including some from the Kikuyu tribe remained critics of the regime.

In 2002, President Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta both from the Kikuyu tribe vied. Euphoria swept through Kenya- a supposedly new dawn. Raila Odinga (Jaramogi’s son) became Kibaki’s key campaigner and literally delivered the presidency to him. Kibaki was elected even though, the Kalenjin community mostly voted for Uhuru, a ‘Moi Project’. Apart from the Kalenjin, all other tribes voted overwhelmingly for Kibaki. No one cared that he was a Kikuyu.

After the elections, Kibaki and his cronies degenerated again into ‘tribal kings’ — his friends and cronies accumulating wealth at the expense of other people. Government jobs were mostly pegged on the tribe. Raila’s side was sidelined despite having contributed immensely to Kibaki’s win.

And just like that Kenya missed another opportunity to kill negative ethnicity. The negative ethnicity was perfected even more. It became worse since Kenyans were more informed and aware of what the regime was doing - they started to question more. Kibaki was credited for developing a few infrastructure projects, but he definitely disappointed many and failed miserably in killing negative ethnicity.

In the disputed 2007 elections, again, mostly the Kikuyu tribesmen voted for Kibaki while Raila Odinga got votes from all other tribes except the Kikuyu tribe. In 2013, again, the Kikuyu tribesmen voted for their ‘own’ , Uhuru Kenyatta with support from the Kalenjin community. Majority of the people from other tribes continue to feel secluded from power, with apparent state jobs and resources favoring the two tribes in power- the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin.

Whoever, since independence, the unequal distribution of resources has not benefited majority of the tribes from where the Presidents have come from. Only the few well connected ‘mafia’ from these communities have continued to enjoy accumulation of wealth and power at the expense of other citizens.

Clearly, other tribes have shown that they have no problem with the Kikuyu tribe and can support them. However, majority of the Kikuyu have clearly resisted and shown that they can never support any other tribe. Majority of them have a sense of entitlement to power. The problem of negative ethnicity is therefore often perpetuated by some elite ‘Kikuyu mafia’ who continue to instill the same in the generations that come. A good number of people from the Kikuyu tribe have no problem with supporting persons from other tribes, whoever majority have been enslaved by a sense of fear that is instilled by the few elite ‘mafia’.

What is surprising is that even some of my friends from the Kikuyu tribe who are well educated and respected in their professions both locally and internationally, still continue to perpetuate this unfortunate and blatant lie. Even more surprising is the very young people born recently in the 1990s and 2000s who continue to live by this fear of other tribes- especially the Luo. On the surface they think it is wrong, but deep down, it is like an oath that they cant go against.

Why do we need to end this?

From Kibaki’s government to the current Uhuru’s government, many Kenyans have seen the focus on building infrastructure projects but fundamental underlying social, political and economic issues are sidelined.

History has shown that some countries that had some of the best infrastructures and high economic growth can be destroyed when underlying issues are not addressed.

The focus is on the hardware and not the software of the country. But even those in the technology world will tell you that the best hardware requires the best software in order to perform at its peak.

No wonder unlimited peace campaigns are bombarding TV and Radio stations at this electioneering period. That should not be the case if the software of the country is addressed effectively.

So what can we do to end this?

We may spend a lot of money doing media campaigns against negative ethnicity, but the bottom line is that this cannot work and solve the issue. We need a fundamental change in our politics and socioeconomic fabric.

Can we have a government that is seen to equitably distribute resources, including public appointments?

Can we have a new crop of politicians who continuously instill a sense of inclusivity in discharging public duty irrespective of tribe and race?

Can we encourage inter-marriages between various tribes and races even if it means incentivizing it?

AND most importantly.

Can we ever see a majority of the Kikuyu tribe supporting a candidate from any other tribe?

IF WE DO THIS, we shall in deed end negative ethnicity without any hypocritical media campaigns, and allow Kenyans to focus on issues in deciding their political leaders.

The writer is a social entrepreneur and development expert based in Nairobi, Kenya. Twitter @evanswadongo