How Kenya could move away from the politics of ethnicity
In 1992 Kenya held its first multi-party election in 26 years. Since this re-introduction ofmultipartism, the “politics of tribe” has been blamed for the country’s political tribulations.This has led to a system under which leaders channel overnment resources to their ethnic supporters to ensure their political survival. In turn, their supporters begin to feel entitled to government resources.
The politics of ethnicity therefore becomes an inter-community competition, not merely for representation in governance, but for resources.This isn’t a problem exclusive to Kenya.Studiesshow that many African countries are finding it difficult to manage diversity, and particularly ethnicity.In other parts of the world such asYugoslavia,Burma, andSri Lanka, ethnicity has been politicised and has consequently played a major role in triggering violence.
In Kenya, tribal politics has given rise to rampant corruption, marginalisation, disenfranchisement of entire communities, andfull-blown violence.As the country goes into another general election this August, two questions are frequently being asked. Has anything changed since 2007 when violence broke out after a disputed election? And are there any real ideological differences between Kenya’s two main coalitions?
A stock take of the present ethnic reality shows that tribalism is more entrenched than ever.The two coalitionsare a cluster of parties that represent regional ethnic blocs.In fact they have split the country down the middle along a clear tribal fault line, with the populous Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes on one side and the Luo, Luhya and Kamba on the other.
The history of ethnic loyalties
But why are there such bitter contests every election cycle? It has everything to do with the possibility of attaining control of state resources and being in charge of their allocation.Kenya has been governed byfour presidentsfrom two ethnic communities since independence: the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. The 40 other communities now believe that it’s their turn to hold the presidency.
Kenya is home to 42 ethnic groups. The major ones are the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, and Kamba. Combined, they form66%of the country’s population.The behaviour of Kenyan voters has remained largely consistent over the past five multi-party elections. Regardless of where they reside,ethnic allegiancehas been the most influential motivator at the ballot.
This pattern of political allegiance based on ethnicity has a long history dating back to Kenya’s colonial past.In Kenya’s first independent general election in May 1963, the two largest indigenous partiesKANU, formed in May 1960, andKADU, formed a month later, both assumed an ethnic DNA.KANU represented the populous Kikuyu and Luo tribes and KADU represented the smaller Masai, Kalenjin, Luhya and Mijikenda communities.This was partly becausecolonial policybarred the formation of nationwide political movements. It only allowed the formation of district political associations.
The effect was to encourage ethnically homogeneous political associations to emerge across the country. As a result, parties have drawn their political legitimacy and capital from their respective ethnic bases since independence.AtLancaster House– where Kenyan delegates held a series of meetings to negotiate Kenya’s independence constitution – KANU and KADU leaders wore their ethnic hats.And in 1966 when Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odingaleft KANUhe retreated to his ethnic backyard and formed the Kenya People’s Union.So historically speaking, political parties have never really been divorced from tribal affiliations.
But the problem runs much deeper than tribal politics. In Kenya an ethnically diverse society is responding to an imposed political configuration which, thanks to itscolonial heritage, is a democratic competition for resources.
Fixing the problem
If we regard democracy as elastic rather than rigid, it allows us to recognise that it can be forced – or negotiated. Negotiated democracy can lead to stability whereas forced democracy can lead to instability and violence.A case in point is Zimbabwe where apower-sharing dealwas reached between Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change in 2008.At the time, the deal brought the country’s political and economic crisis to an end. Other African examples of negotiated democracies includeSouth AfricaandRwanda.
In Kenya, negotiated democracy can be reached by creating more executive positions beyond the president and deputy president to accommodate feuding tribes: mainly the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo and Luhya.Kenya has tried this model before, and it worked. Thepower sharing modelput in place after the 2007 election quelled the post-election violence.
Thenew structure, guided by thepeace accord, created three new executive positions – a prime minister, and two deputy prime ministers. This created a more ethnically inclusive leadership.Constitutionally, a power-sharing agreement may not be as simple to effect as the 2008National Accord and Reconciliation Act.In that case, a simple Act of Parliament was passed to create the positions of a prime minister and his two deputies. Today the government would need to call areferendumto create substantive positions.
But that shouldn’t be a deterrent. Changes like this could lead to a realignment of political parties. If representatives of a majority of Kenya’s ethnic groups were guaranteed senior positions in government, politicians would gradually move away from ethnicity as a tool for political mobilisation, and towards ideological campaigns that prioritise socioeconomic development.