Strange but true: In Kenya’s eth­nic di­vi­sions may lie the coun­try’s sal­va­tion


The East African - - OPINION -

Which­ever way you looked at it, the re­peat pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Kenya was bound to be prob­lem­atic. For starters, there is the nov­elty of the ex­pe­ri­ence, in that we had never seen an African pres­i­den­tial elec­tion de­clared null and void by a court of law. (Of course, we are used to dec­la­ra­tions of null and void, but these usu­ally come from the los­ing can­di­dates and their sup­port­ers).

The an­nul­ment of the Au­gust 8 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was an ab­so­lute first for Africa, and the shock­waves it gen­er­ated will con­tinue to re­ver­ber­ate around the con­ti­nent over time.

Sec­ond, al­though the pre­sumed vic­tor in the an­nulled elec­tion, Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta, was am­biva­lent about the court de­ci­sion, at first seem­ingly ac­cept­ing the rul­ing with grace, he later shab­bily lam­basted Chief Jus­tice David Maraga who had presided over the ju­di­cial panel.

Third, the Au­gust elec­tion was an­other episode in an epic saga of po­lit­i­cal ri­valry span­ning two gen­er­a­tions and pit­ting ma­jor eth­nic for­ma­tions against one an­other. The marathon tus­sle be­tween the Odin­gas and the Keny­at­tas is the stuff of le­gend, one that has be­dev­illed Kenya’s pol­i­tics to this day.

Then you have the eth­ni­ci­sa­tion of pol­i­tics (or is it the politi­ci­sa­tion of eth­nic­ity?) that most Kenyan po­lit­i­cal (and other) op­er­a­tors swear by, so that some peo­ple in the re­gion will, some­times wrongly, de­ter­mine a per­son’s pol­i­tics from the sound of his/ her name.

Lastly, as ev­ery self-re­spect­ing African will tell you, elec­tions are for steal­ing, even when you know you can win with­out cheat­ing. You have to make “as­sur­ance dou­ble sure” just in case all the prog­nos­tics go awry. Elec­tions are not a mat­ter of life and death; they are much more im­por­tant.

On the con­ti­nent, as I have al­ways pointed out, los­ing an elec­tion is los­ing ev­ery­thing for you and your sup­port­ers – your liveli­hood, your eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, ev­ery­thing. That is why an African elec­tion be­comes a beall and end-all and why we Africans pred­i­cate all on them ev­ery time they come around.

But we know elec­tions need not be so im­por­tant, that there is life after ev­ery elec­tion, be­cause we know there has been life after ev­ery one of them. Kenyans surely know that there was life after ev­ery one elec­tion that they have had, even after 2007, which looked like a cat­a­clysm, but which, after all was said and done, came and went, and Kenya was still there.

I think that is what mat­ters most. It would be silly to pre­tend that all is well, be­cause it is not. Ev­ery time an ex­er­cise like the one Kenya has just gone through hap­pens, some­one gets hurt, and some­thing goes wrong. But that can­not be the end of ev­ery­thing. Lessons are gar­nered and ex­pe­ri­ences ac­cu­mu­lated.

It would be in­sen­si­tive to wish an­other 2007-08 on the Kenyan peo­ple, be­cause that was a hor­ror story that we all lived in tech­ni­color, but it would be stupid not to ac­knowl­edge the in­valu­able lessons from that grim drama. Kenya emerged from that tragedy with greater ma­tu­rity, hav­ing been forged in the fur­nace of the fury un­leashed by that other botched elec­tion.

It is all very well to be­moan the di­vi­sive­ness of the eth­nic mo­saic that in­forms Kenya’s pol­i­tics. We have too of­ten heard peo­ple talk of the in­fa­mous “tyranny of num­bers” and we have thrown our hands in the air, say­ing that there is noth­ing to cure Kenya of its “tribal” pol­i­tics. But I would like to of­fer a thought to those who dare take it: If 2007-08 meant, largely, that two ma­jor eth­nic for­ma­tions were at each other’s throats, caus­ing the death of more than a thou­sand peo­ple, and if it is true that those two eth­nic groups find them­selves to­day on the same side of the bar­ri­cade, does this not mean that a cer­tain rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, how­ever del­i­cate, has been reached?

It is in­ter­est­ing to note that the tyranny of num­bers is pro­gres­sively in­form­ing all in­volved in the elec­toral pro­cesses in Kenya. Ev­ery­one is busy mass­ing up the votes on tribal lines, rop­ing in the prin­ci­pal shak­ers and movers in ev­ery ma­jor eth­nic strong­hold.

Ev­ery­one is busy mass­ing up the votes on tribal lines... that was ex­actly the way Eng­land was built, with al­liances forged and re-forged

That may look like a back­ward and prim­i­tive sys­tem, but I have read some English his­tory, and I know that was ex­actly the way Eng­land was built. In the English nar­ra­tive, many bloody bat­tles were fought and many chang­ing al­liances forged and re-forged.

The in­cur­able op­ti­mist in me tells me we are prob­a­bly wit­ness­ing the craft­ing of such for­ma­tions in Kenya.

. Jenerali Ulimwengu is chair­man of the board of the Raia Mwema news­pa­per and an ad­vo­cate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail:

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