Kenya’s dilemma: What shall we do with this ethnicity?

Kenyans hear most of ethnicity once in four years. That is when election fever starts as the government launches into its electoral campaign. It thus starts the campaign by breaking the law and conventions governing elections. The opposition, such as it is, then gears up for the long and tedious process, which cannot really be called an electoral competition. There is no dialogue between the candidates and the voters;

for the most part the candidates condemn the opposition and end with a few promises which they have little intention to fulfil.

A characteristic of Kenya elections is the invocation of ethnicity by parties and politicians in order to get the votes of members of their tribes. The only tribal leaders who are likely to benefit from the votes of their tribes (variously calculated as 44 to 41 ), are those who belong to the large tribes, called the Big Five, though the office of the presidency so far has been restricted to three Kikuyu and one Kalenjin (the latter having gained the office because, for tactical reasons, the Kikuyu supported him). But this does not mean that leaders of the other big communities are marginalised. Most of them expect (and negotiate) other senior positions, starting from the Deputy President onwards, and including also public services (and still rarely, place in the economic order). Some negotiate simultaneously with the candidate-leaders of the two largest tribes, which means that policy issues do not appear in their conversations.

The emphasis on ethnic appeal means that few national issues are debated in most public or private meetings. Paradoxically, constant references to ethnic politics show the fragility of ethnic politics. It is, of course, a particular difficulty for presidential candidates since they have to broaden their appeal beyond their tribe. They run with a Deputy President candidate (inevitably from another tribe), which helps to broaden their appeal. Consequently, national elections are more ethnically based than constituency campaigns, since, for the most part, constituency populations belong to the same community. As far as I know, there has been little study of how voters in constituencies or wards with ethnic diversity vote.

It is not only the big-tribe politicians who benefit from invocation of ethnicity. The elite in the community especially bureaucrats and businesspeople do certainly benefit, but the effect is towards class formation rather than the general welfare of the community. When Daniel Moi (as leader of minority tribes in Kadu) led the movement towards majimbo at the time of Independence, his argument was the protection of minorities (more precisely, the larger minorities). When sometime later, Jomo was out to kill democracy by creating a one-party state under Kanu, Moi willingly moved over to Jomo Kenyatta/Kanu, thus destroying the institutions and benefits of the larger minorities; his sole interest was his own benefit (though it was clear that the members of his own and related tribes were likely to suffer from the new arrangements).

That Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka did not acquire all their ethnic votes suggests that individual driven motivation is still of some force, as learnt to their cost in the August election. Even the politician who, abandoned by his/her own tribal-party, offers to shift to another party must demonstrate, or pretend, a degree of control over the tribe.

But even leaders with little influence over their own people will be welcome because their defection would embarrass the leader of the party they are quitting. In these circumstances, politics become even more of a charade than normal. Fundamental issues that should govern the people’s electoral choices are completely lost sight of.

With this introduction, I turn to some key issues regarding ethnicity in politics.


In most countries, ethnicity connotes a community that is distinctive from the rest of the people. Language or religion is usually the criterion (though historically race has also been a factor). In most countries where ethnicity is an issue, the major concern is with the rights of the minorities (eg, Indigenous and Dalits/India Tamils/Sri Lanka, Buganda/Uganda (once upon a time), Tibet/China, and Oromo, etc/Ethiopia).

A common legal attempted solution is for minorities to share in government or federalism/devolution (where government powers are divided geographically). Often, the issue of ethnicity arises when there is uneven development, requiring special efforts to bring minorities to national standards.

In Kenya, however, disadvantaged communities do not invoke ethnicity around elections, or other times — they ask for their lawful rights (which now the Constitution recognises). It is the larger tribes, already well endowed and developed, who raise the issue of ethnicity (as a means of getting additional votes and benefits).

This means that issues of fundamental justice, like equality, health, education, food, and housing, are ignored because they are especially the concerns of smaller communities. It also means that those in power indulge massively in corruption, thus establishing a link between ethnicity and corruption.

Another Kenyan feature which distinguishes ethnicity here from the general understanding is language, religion, or culture. Most Kenyans are Christians, speak English and Swahili fluently, and enjoy a quickly developing common culture. These features, which divide people of many other countries into “ethnicity”, are sources that bring us together — language, religion and culture. You might think that if our politics are ethnicised, so will these factors. And sometimes it does appear as if the Elders are back and taking over the affairs of tribes, through an ethnically driven political process, but politicians merely use them to promote their case, they are not so foolish as to pass power to the Elders.


People must realise, as increasingly they are beginning to, that our future lies in unity, not division. And curiously, it lies in diversity. The framers of the Constitution were well aware of the problems that had bedevilled the country and sought to resolve them. The Constitution carefully and sensitively balances unity and diversity. We are all Kenyans with a common interest when it comes to politics; we also enjoy the diversity of the cultures of our communities. The Preamble is much quoted: Proud of our, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, and determined to live in peace and unity as one indivisible sovereign nation.

Much of the Constitution is devoted to this pursuit, the promotion of the diversity of our cultures and religions on the one hand and our unity as one people, a nation. Our politicians (including Presidents) have either not understood the primary objective of the Constitution or have chosen to ignore it. This is abundantly proved by their behaviour about elections, knowing full well the damage they are causing to us as a united nation, with high political ideas, all feasible if the will is there. Any will is overridden by the lure of money.

The primary objective of elections has become the capture of the state and then the looting of the resources of the state and the people.

Our first two Presidents enunciated this goal, and their successors have pursued it. Our governors, MPs, MCAs, senior bureaucrats and their business friends have taken up the tradition with gusto.

Their greed has bankrupted our state and country. The levels of poverty have increased beyond imagination. We have indeed become a nation of two ethnicities: The rich and the poor.

Katiba Institute, with the support of the Global Centre of Pluralism, has been studying how far the Kenya Constitution has been able to promote within our state and society the kind of pluralism that is our mandate and duty under the Constitution.

Look out for the websites of the two organisations and the occasional Katiba Corner for our research.


By Prof Yash Ghai


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