Tribalism: Heart of Kenya politics?

Politicians and their sycophants are obsessed by “ethnicity” or rather the mobilisation of ethnicity—as the primary basis of politics, apart from dishing out money and jobs, which rightly belong to the state, not the president, vice president, and governors. Intellectuals on both sides of the political divide justify “ethnicity” as central to traditional culture, and seek the framing of the party and state around it. On Monday of this week, two publications on politics prompted me to write this article. The first is a cartoon about Jubilee Party and its leaders, Uhuru and Ruto, by Africa’s most distinguished and imaginative cartoonist, Godfrey Mwampemwa (“Gado”, exiled from the Nation for his integrity and now gracing the pages of the Standard), and the other by the Star’s regular political correspondent, Ngunjiri Wambugu, steeped in politics for a while.


Ngunjiri, today an ardent supporter of Uhuru and Ruto, was not always so enamoured of them. In fact in 2008 he recruited me as one of his honorary lieutenants to collect the famous one million signatures, in village markets and urban malls, to ensure that Uhuru and Ruto were sent to the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity. He and I also lobbied (sometimes together) for the Yes vote in the constitutional referendum. We also collaborated in encouraging the formation of an informal consortium of independent candidates for national and county assembly elections (he even declared his interest in being a candidate) but for some reason, he pulled out of this plan and instead joined Raila’s party as an adviser and activist. When Raila lost, he shifted his energies to the cause of the Uhuru government.

In his latest column he justifies, somewhat contradictorily, both tribalism and the establishment of Jubilee as a nationwide political party to counterbalance tribalism and create a nation. That Uhuru with “his” Kikuyu and Ruto with “his” Kalenjin have entered an agreement of convenience, constantly now being challenged by leaders of both tribes, is a possibility that does not enter his thoughts—or he does let these intrude into the public domain. Few would believe him that before the elections, Uhuru and Ruto got together in earnest discussions on how to save the nation, and hit upon the idea of a coalition, thus fighting off “decades of mistrust and animosity”. I know from my several discussions with him over the years on politics that he is too astute to fall for this fallacy. Nor can I give much credence to his prediction, qualified though it is, that “JP will become a political umbrella under which all our Kenyan communities can speak candidly about each other and through which they can propose and execute viable (political) solutions to solve our historical and future inter-ethnic conflicts, amicably”.

So far of course the attempt at a national level party level threatens the reverse. The smaller minorities (the majority of Kenyans) are afraid of being swallowed by the “five big”; dissentions have arisen within the larger tribes; JP is not a national movement but one engineered by a handful of politicians. It has promoted no debate about national, social, and economic policies. Gathering and exchange of money is a critical element, aiding the already high degree of corruption, which prevents rational debate on what is good for the country. Key politicians, worried about their own future under the threat of what they see as the monster of JP, frequently shift from one party to another, displaying total absence of political loyalty. Many, for good reasons, given the free use of violence by the state, fear the return of a one party state.


Let us turn to Gado’s cartoons, more credible and infinitely more entertaining, if (because?) harsh, as guide to Kenyan politics. But a personal note first. During the dark moments, and they were many, of drafting the national constitution in the CKRC and its passage through Bomas, there was nothing that cheered, and restored some balance within, me like Gado’s daily cartoons. He continues to both cheer us and make us reflect on our grim national situation.

One recent cartoon takes the form of a Coat of Arms, with Uhuru and Ruto on the edges, as supporters, in the form of lions, each holding a sharp spear. Between them is the shield, Moi in its middle, as a hybrid man/cock, his lower part the symbol, no doubt, of the revived KANU, and wielding an axe. We are reminded that —despite their talk of democracy— Uhuru and Ruto are both disciples of Moi, likely, perhaps, to emulate his behaviour in the days of one party rule. The Coat of Arms shows that they saved themselves from the ICCR, with the remains of shackles on their feet (feet here in the form of sharp claws), perhaps showing contempt for the law. Uhuru wears a crown, (planning, like a king, to rule for life? Ruto is turbanned, reminding us of corruption and the ability to throw blame on others (recall Gado’s cartoons during the Weston hotel episode).

Further symbolism is the motto at the bottom, “Kuimba tu” (meaning “only singing”, but I am told it is a pun for “Kuiba tu”, meaning “only stealing” if spoken by a heavy Kikuyu accent). Wanjiku, always very perceptive, says, from a corner, “With their new symbol, … it is going to be very hard to beat this Jubilee Party”.

The second cartoon shows a double decker bus, with signs of Jubilee Party all over, driven by Uhuru; Ruto sits next to him, but it is unclear whether Uhuru is trying to push him off the bus. At the same time Uhuru is throwing money through his window, which Kenyans stoop to pick up. Uhuru’s guests in the bus are the usual Gado wealthy and corrupt (or should I say corrupt and wealthy) characters, some with the head of Gado’s famous animals, not showing much regard for the people outside. On top of the bus are a number of young people dancing, usually to entertain politicians and draw spectators, this time precariously, as indeed is their fate in political rallies: another example of the rich exploiting the poor. A civil society member is being arrested and taken off the scene. A member of the press is running towards the bus, trying no doubt to interview Uhuru, showing no interest in the arrest of the civil society person. Most of worrying of all for me, is that there is no Wanjiku. Perhaps she has heard Uhuru’s loaded warning, “You either get in the bus or we will get you under the bus”. Has the last hope of perception, wisdom, sense of humour, the voice of the people, given up the struggle? I cannot bear the thought of it.

Back to ethnicity and democracy

The Constitution says a great deal about this topic, which I have often written about, and which few politicians care about. Don’t let them highjack us, as Gado warns. There are few communities in Kenya whose culture, religion, aspirations, are completely different from those of other communities. Society in Kenya is changing rapidly; inter-ethnic contacts are increasing; and ideas, morals and aspirations are coalescing—as indeed are our vulnerabilities. So let us not build artificial barriers between our communities or prevent the emergence of common ideas, loyalties, languages, etc. Not only will such barriers continue suspicions and worse, distrust, among communities, but will prevent the spread among our communities of the richness of our cultures and the rise of Kenyan identity and unity.

The author is a director of the Katiba Institute


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