CHESANG: Kenyan politics has no cause beyond the capture of power


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If one were to rely on what Kenyans say about their own politics, then the conclusion would be that it is a secular religion whose deity is an evil genius that visits a lucid moral revelation on what is wrong with Kenyan politics, but also induces a paralysis of agency.

Politics becomes a monstrous externality that has invaded a presumably “normal” society.

In this world, “Kenyans”, apparently an alien species that we live amongst, are to blame for invariably voting for the same proto-politician – a shameless, myopic klepto-tribalist ignorant of common social good.  

This predicament is no occult charm. It is an observable national political psychosis, whose explanation is straightforward.

Typically, (groups of) individuals strive to capture power in order to use the say-so it affords to realise a broader political agenda beyond tenure of power.

The problem with Kenyan politics is that is has no cause beyond the capture of power.

This is what the presidential race between frontrunners Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga is.

Neither man has a political agenda whose realisation is not entirely dependent on capturing the presidency.

Either wants to be president because they are able to command a bloc ethnic vote.

These bloc votes are the leverage used to craft alliances with political subordinates.

Both have been able to command monolithic ethnic support by evoking a dynastic post-independence rivalry about a substantive national fault line that runs deep to date.

The facts are that Jaramogi Oginga Odinga stood up to Jomo Kenyatta’s ethnic kleptocracy.

In the founding president’s name, a pack of cadets went savage, transmogrified a banal political disagreement into a terrifying millenarian narrative of Luo political ambition.

They then used the narrative to legitimise a savage pogrom — including assassinations, detention and decapitating an entire class of elite Luo professionals from the state system, economically marginalising an entire community and distastefully stigmatising the very idea of belonging to that ethnic group.

The victims and perpetrators were young men in their 30s, and would live ever after in mutual resentment, a fact that today undergirds the misperception that this is an abstract Luo-Kikuyu elite faceoff.

The truth is that the clash of these elders was in fact an expression of deep-set anxieties by sub-national, ethnically defined groups that are forced to exist in a national political framework without a determinate formula for the distribution of national resources.

The fault lines in every major political episode have all been defined by this anxiety – from the Lancaster talks, the competition between Kadu and Kanu in the 1960s, the original Luo-Kikuyu rivalry itself, the 1982 coup, Daniel Moi’s onslaught on Mount Kenya capital in the 1980s, the land clashes around the 1992 and 1997 elections, the 2005 constitution referendum and the 2007/2008 post-election violence.

However ugly, the 2007/2008 post-election violence is what forced the 2010 Constitution which, properly interpreted, is the milestone that re-starts a national political process to resolve the anxiety the clash of the elders distracted the nation from.

Stunningly, whether it is because of moral cowardice, denial or plain lack of imagination, the political elite has rather treated the milestone as the end of history.

ODM, and its current re-incarnation, Nasa, is the product of a federalist revolt against Mwai Kibaki’s government between 2005 and 2007.

Rather than harness the revolt into a meaningful campaign, the coalition opted for the lower road – populist ethnic political mobilisation.

The dismal residue of this strategy is populist anti-Kikuyu rhetoric, which lingers even today.

Jubilee is itself largely a suspect alliance of two ethnic groups that harbour deep mutual suspicions.

The Kalenjin identity is a construct of independence era anxieties about domination by the “big tribes”.

It is a suspicion that has driven hostile political accommodation between the two communities, from the 1980s Nyayo purge of Central Kenya influence in the state, to the 2007/2008 post-election violence. 

How Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto mobilised their communities into the Jubilee electoral machinery is testimony to the duo’s political genius.

But now that the International Criminal Court ogre is out of the way, there are issues to square, not least, how to keep the Rift Valley electoral support for Jubilee.

The idea that voting for Kenyatta in this election will translate into a reciprocal Mount Kenya vote in 2022 is at best cloudy.

The Jubilee affair is pork-barrel politics and, to many in the Rift Valley, Jubilee is yet to bring home the bacon. 

The issue remains how to coalesce disparate sub-national groups into one political community.

Dr Chesang is a political scientist based in South Africa @kiprono.chesang

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