Since independence in 1963, Kenya’s politicians have fed and manipulated ethnicity to win elections.
With some 40-odd ethnic groups, Kenya is a country of ethnic minorities – it has no single dominant community. During elections, political parties and candidates do raise policy issues, but ethnicity, or tribalism as it’s popularly called in Kenya, is the default vote-hunting strategy.
With few deviations, voting is akin to an ethnic census. Leading presidential candidates are usually from the populous ethnic groups. Of Kenya’s five presidents – three have been Kikuyu and two Kalenjin – come from two of the country’s biggest communities. This has raised issues of exclusion and fanned ethnic animosity.
My research into ethnicity in Kenya has found that it is central to political power. The two have a symbiotic relationship. In my view, ethnicity is not an expression of cultural identity or a reservoir of talent for nation building. It has been politicised and is linked to social status. It determines people’s fortunes, making it integral to social mobility, stagnation or regression.
Since no single ethnic group is populous enough to politically impose its will on others, winning presidential candidates have had to build alliances with other ethnic groups. Political elites have built ethnicity into the system of governance and administration.
For self-preservation, successive governments have arbitrarily created more ethnic groups. They have cemented ethnically based administrative units and emphasised ethnic differences.
This has normalised the exploitation of ethnicity for political and economic gain. The populace buys into ethnic politics under the false hope that their respective ethnic leaders will help them better their lives.
How ethnicity plays out
Throughout 60 years of independence, Kenya has held inconclusive elections marred by rigging and executive interference. The transitional elections held in 2002 and 2022, however, were exceptions. Electoral disputes are often protracted. They can degenerate into inter-ethnic violence.
Ethnic politics in Kenya manifests itself in four major ways.
First, the Kenyan state is colonial in orientation. It is extractive, discriminatory and oppressive. It is also insidiously ethnicised, elitist and classist. Successive Kenyan presidents, starting with the first, Jomo Kenyatta, anchored the state to ethnicity.
Second, historical land injustices in which communities and individuals have been dispossessed of their ancestral land – first by colonialists and then the post-colonial elite – manifests in ethnic politics and electoral violence. A lack of justice across the board, and especially for victims of state-instigated ethnic violence, has also contributed to ethnic consciousness.
Third, institutional disregard for the rule of law makes ethnic politics attractive, with the political elite evoking it to evade accountability. Their deliberate effort to erase memory and distort Kenya’s contested history fuels ethnicity, too. So does a lack of trust among the people, and between the people and the government.
Fourth, ethno-regional political figures – essentially, personality cults – have an outsized influence on Kenyans’ psyche and political choices. This comes at the expense of civic identity, personal agency and a pursuit of collective aspirations.
Ethnicity often determines party loyalty. Individuals form political parties under the assumption that members of their ethnic group will rally behind them. Further, since independence, the president’s co-ethnics have disproportionately held state positions.
Ethnicity has been on the upsurge with urbanisation in Kenya. Contrary to popular belief, the Kenyan elite are fixated on ethnicity – not the masses – since it determines access to the benefits of modernity. The elite tend to advance their political and economic interests through ethnicity. This has made it pervasive in the media, academy, politics, religious formations, civil society and state apparatus.
There is a link between ethnicity, elite ambitions and the impact of modernisation. Missionary education and the spread of infrastructure affected Kenyan communities differently. So did nature, which gave some communities arable land and others harsh environments. Disparities in development provide a basis for ethnicity.
Kenya’s 2010 constitution sought to neutralise ethnicity. It requires that state appointments reflect Kenya’s diversity and enhance inclusivity. It also seeks to streamline political parties to enhance national cohesion and harmony.
The constitution also provides for the devolution of power and resources through county governments. This aims to cure winner-take-all politics, which has fuelled resentment and animosity.
The constitution, however, is only as good as society’s political culture and norms. It cannot transform Kenyan society by itself. Governance shortfalls and excesses that have undermined the state for decades persist.
Ethnicity hasn’t always been Kenya’s bugbear. In elections held before independence in 1962, for instance, candidates won elections on the strength of vision and national appeal. Tom Mboya, a Luo, defeated Munyua Waiyaki, a Kikuyu, in a Kikuyu-dominated constituency.
However, ethnic consciousness heightened after a fallout among the post-colonial elite. The quest to monopolise political power and control national resources raised the stakes. This resulted in political assassinations, authoritarianism and a constriction of the political space. Some politicians abandoned policy-oriented programmatic politics and resorted to ethnic mobilisation to claw back receding influence.
Kenya’s inability to transcend the ethnic ideology has made it hard to devise alternative bases for political organisation.
Class vs tribe
Kinship ties and ethnic bigotry have trumped class-based national identities. In the lead-up to Kenya’s 2022 elections, opponents of class politics equated it to ethnic politics. They claimed it sought to incite the poor against the rich.
Unlike ethnic politics, however, class politics is programmatic. It is not based on primordial identities and differences. It affords people an opportunity to resolve social, economic and political concerns through the ballot.
William Ruto, as a presidential candidate in 2022, shifted the discourse from ethnicity to the economy through a “hustlers vs dynasties” ideology. He prevailed. Had Ruto designed his strategy solely around ethnicity, he would likely have been defeated – the opposition lived true to tradition and crafted a broader ethnic alliance.
While Ruto’s margin of victory was thin – just over 230,000 votes – it illustrates that Kenya is not impervious to class politics as an alternative form of political organisation.
Moving away from ethnic politics requires an overhaul of the Kenyan state to ensure social justice, the rule of law and access to opportunities for all. This would begin to dismantle ethnicity as an operative ideology.
It requires decolonising the state to rid it of oppressive, extractive and predatory inclinations. This has to start with an overhaul of the education system to make it relevant to Kenyan society. There is need to empower the minds of citizens by instilling in them a sense of national pride and consciousness.
The trouble is that the political elite have no incentive for such reform – it would render them vulnerable to a conscious citizenry.