Uhuru and Ruto have laboured mightily to create – in their new Jubilee Party – a broad-based political coalition in which just about anyone, from any corner of the country, can feel at home
The end of tribal politics?
If you have been keenly following the extraordinary political spectacle of the race for the US presidency, featuring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a phrase you will have come across over and over again is ‘America has gone tribal’. By this the commentators mean that Trump’s candidature has revealed the US to be split into two irreconcilable groups, largely on the basis of “identity politics”. On the one hand there are those whose contempt for Trump is of such depth that they simply refuse to consider the possibility of a Trump presidency. And on the other hand there are those who will stick with Trump, come hell or high water: They believe that he represents their interests, and are willing to forgive him even the most outrageous mistakes that he may make.
Two tribes; two irreconcilable worldviews; two viciously opposed narratives: that is the US presidential election in a nutshell.
Well, here in Kenya we have long struggled to put an end to our own tribalism, which is far more toxic than anything that Americans have ever seen. But there is a distinctly Kenyan twist to the way in which the tribal factor plays out in elections:
First, bear in mind that although Kenya is technically a ‘middle income nation’, the day-to-day experience of a clear majority of our people is one of unrelieved poverty. In this context, the gap between what is promised at election time and what happens thereafter is enormous. And so this makes the work of an opposition coalition seeking power rather easy, in the matter of creating a political narrative that will pull a clear majority to its side.
This narrative, seen in every election where there was a serving president seeking a second term, is simply this: The president and his tribesmen have “eaten alone”. This is the Kenyan way of alleging that the benefits provided by the central government have all gone to just one community, or one region.
You would think this would not be an easy narrative to sell in the era of devolved government, where each region gets its share of whatever is to be “eaten”. But that is not the case.
Kenyans in general know as little about regions outside their own as they do about foreign nations. So if, for example, you tell a poor farmer at the Coast that there are many equally poor people in the Rift Valley, he will not believe you. Instead he will point out the orgy of “land allocations” during the presidency of Daniel Moi, which was largely undertaken at the expense of the coastal communities – and of which Moi’s Kalenjin community were the primary beneficiaries.
But on this issue of tribes we must concede that a huge step was taken towards inclusive politics last weekend. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have laboured mightily to create – in their new Jubilee Party – a broad-based political coalition in which just about anyone, from any corner of the country, can feel at home.
But their principal rival, opposition leader and former PM Raila Odinga is in fact ahead of them in this: He is perhaps the only Kenyan presidential aspirant who could be said to have “fanatical support” outside his own tribal community.
So, even as the US struggles with this newly revealed tribal factor in its politics, on our side the question is: Have we at last succeeded in ending our tragic pattern of tribe-centric voting?
For example, in the March 4, 2013, general election, Raila got far more votes from outside his Luo community than those cast for him by the Luo. While the bulk of Uhuru’s votes were from what are traditionally called the Gema communities – the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru.
So will Uhuru, in 2017, get more votes from outside the Mt Kenya region than those cast for him in his own political backyard?
The answer lies in yet another question: Did all those opposition politicians who “crossed over” to the Jubilee Party last weekend actually take their supporters with them? Or were they involved in a solitary “walk of shame” which will soon see the end of their political careers?
RAILA IS AHEAD OF THEM: HE IS PERHAPS THE ONLY PRESIDENTIAL ASPIRANT WITH “FANATICAL SUPPORT” OUTSIDE HIS OWN TRIBAL COMMUNITY