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Kenya’s ethnic diversity is both a blessing and a curse. Whereas the diversity is a great heritage to celebrate, ethnicity has been used to create division for political ends. The country goes into elections on 8 August sharply divided along ethnic lines. Kenyan voters will do well in this election to elect leaders who are dedicated to serving the whole country, not sections of it.

31 December 2016 is remembered as the day Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi, now a principal of the oppostion National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition, was enthroned the leader of the Luhya community in Western Kenya. This was a deliberate attempt to fortify the much-desired Luhya unity ahead of the 8 August 2017 general election. It was a move to fill the blank in community leadership left by the late Christopher ‘Kijana” Wamalwa, galvanize the Luhya vote into one basket and give them the bargaining power for a larger chunk of the national cake. While it is easy to condemn the “Mulembe” nation, this is the norm rather than the exception in Kenya. Their neighbors from the Lake region to begin with understand well the concept of ethnic mobilization. The Luo have been a political flock shepherded by Raila Odinga for about two-and-half decades now. The Luo-Nyanza ethnic constituency seems to have hereditarily passed from father to son.

This story is replicated in the lower eastern region with Kalonzo Musyoka as the benefactor of the Kamba vote. Things are not different in the Rift Valley as the Kalenjin community -once the force behind President Moi - today gravitates around the Deputy President William Ruto. Lastly, a copy-and-paste scenario can be said of the Mt. Kenya region firmly behind their son, President Uhuru Kenyatta. As the 2017 general election draws near, the battle lines are drawn as one merger of communities forming NASA goes up against another merger of other communities in Jubilee. Why this? Why are political contests in Kenya centered on ethnic groups and not issues that affect the people? This article attempts to give answers to these questions.

Centrality of ethnicity as a social-economic construct in Kenya

In order to understand the reasons for and effects of ethnic mobilization in Kenya, there is a need to conceptualize ethnicity and to synthesis its origins as a political idea in Kenya. Ethnicity is loosely defined as the state of belonging to a social group usually characterized by common national or cultural traditions. In Kenya, ethnicity defines life. Tribal cultures define nutrition, architectural choices, families, marriages, religion and therefore it is not strange that ethnicity is at the center of politics. The different ethnic groups also practice different economic activities mostly determined by the area of residence within the country. 21st century Kenya, however, presents a situation that calls for a delicate balance on issues of tribalism. While on one hand community and culture are part and parcel of Africans, ethnic-based discrimination, segregation and nepotism are largely frowned upon.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010, which is the ultimate social contract document, illustrates this delicate balance. Starting with the preamble, Kenyans are very proud of their ethnic, cultural and religious diversity as they strive to live in peace as one indivisible sovereign nation. Article 7 defines both the national and official languages in Kenya, which are unifying factors by design, as it also protects the diversity of languages. Article 11 highlights culture as the foundation of the nation. It calls upon Kenyans to promote all forms of cultural expression. Article 10 on the other hand insists on national unity and inclusivity. The supreme law frowns upon discrimination on the basis of tribe, language and ethnicity while Article 44 promotes the right to language and participation in cultural life. Thesw articles are compounded by Articles 32, 33 and Article 36 which allow citizens to form associations of any kind.

Article 45 on marriage and family also recognizes African marriage, another aspect of culture and diversity. Article 159(3) proposes traditional dispute resolution mechanisms where they are not in contravention with the Bill of Rights. This, in a way, acknowledges the role elders play using customary law which is ethnic-based.

Article 91 of the constitution demands that political parties should embrace a national character. This is intended to build a united nation as opposed to an ethnically scattered one. Article 63 is, however, centered on community land, which is purely an aspect of ethnicity. Article 100 insists on affirmative action to ensure inclusivity. Article 94 (2) brings out parliament as a body that represents national diversity. The same requirement is made of the president when making appointments in accordance with his/her functions in Chapter 9 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Lastly, the issue of devolution in Chapter 11 adds to this running theme with finality. The idea of the people of Kenya seeking devolved units of governance must be due to realization that, although they are a sovereign nation, they are made up of smaller units with different needs and by extension ethnic backgrounds.

Having discussed these, the idea is quite clear that while Kenyans embrace cultural and ethnic diversity, national unity should not be compromised, hence the need for a delicate balance. How does all this play out in politics and elections in Kenya?

Sins of the fathers…

Kenya’s pre-colonial history is the place to start to get a proper grounding on this issue. Records paint a picture of communities with different leadership structures, ways of life, economic activities, languages and aspirations. There were communities in Kenya with kings, famously the Wanga; others had chiefs, while there were those who used the council of elders in running community affairs. Politics was all about keeping the customs and protecting the interests of people in these communities. The colonial masters came with a formal institutionalized government that was meant to help them colonize the people. They came with a new religion meant to change African culture, new laws and a system of marriage. The introduction of Western culture into Kenya still plays a big part in our social-cultural dynamics.

The point of this historical journey, however, becomes clear when the natives wanted independence from the colonial masters. British colonialists were clever enough to ban any national political organization, hence forcing the people to come up with ethnic and regional political parties to push the independence agenda. After independence, President Jomo Kenyatta and the independence-era leadership came together in the name of national unity, dissolved Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) and formed a national mass party, KANU. However, the national unity government was not to last long as political and personal interests among the leaders became greater than the love for country.

Historians points to the 1992 general elections as a victory for Kenya with regards to democracy because Kenya went back to a multi-party system, which had been banned by KANU. As much as that may be true, it is also the point at which the ethnically characterized politics truly came to the fore. The contestants were basically tribal lords who mobilized their people so as to get to power. The 2002 general elections brought a new element into elections in Kenya, which is formation of coalitions of tribes against others. Much as 2002 election was ethnic-based, the country generally felt that it was time for the people to break with the past. After getting to power, President Mwai Kibaki and his government tried to bring the people of Kenya together but it was not to be. Once again, political differences, betrayal and desire for ethnic supremacy were viewed as being more important than the unity of Kenya

The 2007 general election remains a big dent in Kenya’s political narrative. The highly contentious presidential election pitting President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga showed the ugly side of ethnic-based politics. It was tribe against tribe, with people killing one another on the streets, properties being burn and the police and other security forces unleashing hell on innocent civilians. Complete breakdown of law and order brought Kenya teetering on the brink of a civil war. One may argue that the 2007 conflict was just part of the turbulent growth towards democracy and political maturity but there is a view that the ethnic-based politics to date arises from Kenyans carrying forward the mistakes of the founding fathers.

Why ethnic mobilization characterizes Kenya’s politics

As stated above, politics of ethnicity seems to be part of Kenya from the pre-colonial period. Neither the colonial nor the post-independence governments have worked on bringing the country together as one nation. As a result there is very little of a national bond and whenever citizens have to make a choice, they often resort to their strong ethnic ties. Ethnic mobilization appears to be the only known and proven way to go. When politicians in Kenya consult with their councils of elders as is the tradition, they are never concerned about the competence of these leaders, they never seek their visions and dreams. For them (elders), what is important is that the politician understands the customs and is willing to protect the community. This view is held by a huge chunk of the electorate hence the need to use ethni-based politics to win elections.

There is also a need to maintain power and control over resources especially where the resources are scarce. Unfortunately, there are communities within Kenya that have always felt more entitled than others. They, therefore, seek to control resources and are paranoid over lose of control. This naturally creates politics of conflict, hence the need for ethnic mobilization

Low levels of civic education among many voters in Kenya is another reason why ethnicity flourishes. Kenya still has fairly high illiteracy levels and a worse record of civic education. It actually looks like civic education is often left to politicians who are always happy to play the tune of tribe and divisive politics rather than issue-based politics. It is hard to expect issue- based politics when the voters do not understand their true power and what their political representatives owe them. The flip side of the argument is also true, when the politicians are illiterate - and Kenya has witnessed quite a number - there is very little in terms of issues that can be expected from them.

Ethnicity flourishes because over the years there are a lot of Kenyans who have lost faith in political solutions. They feel disillusioned and therefore make their decisions purely on ethnic grounds because they do not care. Unfortunately for Kenya, these people are the middle class, the ones expected to set the political agenda for the country by pushing for issue-based politics.

Are Kenyans patriotic? Is there evidence to show that they hold to national ideas? What is it that holds the people together? It is true that Kenyans are an amazing people. They often come together in times of crisis; but it is also true that as a people, they lack a true national identity. Most Kenyans today do not find pride in the colors of our flag; they are too busy to be in solidarity with the aspirations of our founding fathers and mothers. The fallback position remains the ethnic cocoons.

Ethnic mobilization works best for the political class. When one gets to power primarily as a tribal leader, they perceive their responsibilities are limited to the needs of their community, not the nation. It is, therefore, much easier for them to form ethnic alliances or work for the interest of few ethnic than for the rest of the country.

Corruption in Kenya is often described as a cancer. It is a problem that appears to have no solution, morphing into different forms in successive government. What many people might not know is that corruption isn’t just an issue of personal greed. If one campaigns on an ethnic basis, it behooves them to reward members of the ethnic groups that put them in government. If Kenyans want to deal with corruption, they have to think of how they vote and try to kick out ethnicity as a major factor in elections.

The other effect of ethnically mobilized politics is the danger of civil wars. It is vital for Kenyans to remember that they are not any different from the citizens of Rwanda, South Sudan or even DR Congo, nations that have witnessed atrocious civil wars. Political games based on ethnic considerations have the capacity to burn down a country and leave it in ashes. Institutions and commissions are in place to ensure peace, but there is need to always remember that real peace, just like honesty, and patriotism, are not borne of legislation. They are built into people culturally.

Related to this are ethnic intolerance, hatred and segregation. On the surface it appears absurd that Kenyans can hate one another on tribal basis but one glance at the social media sphere paints a gloomy and worrying picture. Hate speech flourishes because of ethnic intolerance often manifest in crowds at political rallies leading to violence and even deaths.

How do we solve this? Kenyans can’t obviously do away with ethnicity. However, there is a need for the electorate to keep the debate away from tribe. The electoral wars need to be fought on other issues that affect Kenya and there are plenty of those to go round. There is also need for Kenyans to insist on fair representation as well as an accountable leadership.

* OUMA KIZITO AJUONG is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a person living with physical disability.



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