Our Tribes, Our Political Identity



By Kenyatta Otieno

Some time back, political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi made an illustration that has stuck with me. He noted that the Moi regime, made up predominantly of the Kalenjin, governed in a pastoralist manner while the Kibaki regime, comprising of his Kikuyu henchmen, was governing like agriculturalists, in relation to corruption. As a Kikuyu married to a Kalenjin, Mutahi Ngunyi seems to have coined this with the benefit of insider information.

According to Ngunyi, the Moi regime was an open-field grazing land where outsiders could stray in, make a kill and move on. On the contrary, the Kibaki regime was a fenced plot of land, cultivated by its owners, and only a few vetted people were allowed in to harvest. A close look at his observation proves that our cultures determine how we conduct our politics and relate to authority.

Agricultural societies like the Kikuyu tend to have a permanent base, with relatively good houses, living near their kin, as part of a small community. In the olden days, farming required the help of many people, usually children and kin, who cooperated to cultivate crops. Studies have found that children in agricultural societies are taught to be responsible, patient, and obedient, to respect their elders and to observe social hierarchy. 

On the other hand, pastoralists move in search of pasture and water. This means that they do not have permanent homes, but temporary shelters. The small nuclear family adapts to survival under these ecological restraints in a communal land setting. Children in pastoral societies tend to be self-reliant, independent, and achievement-oriented. A successful cattle herder of any age is respected for his competence, which is different from the hierarchical structure of the agricultural society.

In our quest to reduce and even eliminate negative ethnicity in Kenya, we should not forget to harness the strength of our diversity. How I wish other tribes could do stints in State House so that we can see how they govern in line with their way of life.

James Webb in his book Born Fighting, writes about the Scottish and Irish cultural identity of individualism, military tradition and dislike of aristocracy. This is derived from their history of wars in the formation of Scottish State and warfare along the border with England, and later in the bitter settlements of England’s Ulster Plantation in Northern Ireland. 

It is believed that between 250,000 and 400,000 Scots-Irish migrated to America in the eighteenth century. They took with them their long experience as rebels and outcasts and also unparalleled skills as frontiersmen and guerrilla fighters. Today, more than 27 million Americans can trace their lineage to the Scots. 

This illustrates how the Scots-Irish redefined American politics, creating the populist movement and producing many USA presidents; including John F Kennedy, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Barrack Obama’s mother is also of Irish descent. The UK’s Woodrow Wilson is of Irish descent as well.

Though the presidents are spread across Republican and Democratic parties, the Scots-Irish tend to lean more on the Republican side. The Republican strategy is directed toward keeping peace with Scots-Irish culture. Every four years it is lured by the rightist belief in the siren of guns, God, anti-abortion and success in war. By contrast, the Democrats have consistently alienated this group from their agenda.

There were two groups of Jews who migrated to the USA. The first batch of Jewish immigrants from Germany tended to be politically conservative. The second wave of Eastern European Jews began in the 1880s, they were generally more liberal, or left wing, and became more politically conscious because of their experience with labour movements, socialism and communism.

Jews in Europe were confined to urban centres as they could not own land. This led them to pursue education so as to gain employment and engage in trade. They were also alienated from mainstream social and political activities, which culminated in the holocaust. They took this history to the USA where their economic power influences politics.

A majority of the Jews in America identify with the democrats. American Jews are liberal as they tend to sympathise with the minorities and less fortunate like Black and Hispanic. Most Jews believe government should be bigger with more welfare services; this is born from their historical experience in Europe as outcasts, which drove them to pursue opportunities and markets, making them among the wealthiest in the world.

A divided house

In Kenya, political parties tend to be tribal in their support base. The National Alliance (TNA) is predominantly a Central Kenya, or Kikuyu, party. United Republican Party (URP) led by Deputy President William Ruto prides itself with being a pastoralists’ party. It was the party of choice in Kalenjin and Maasai regions of Rift Valley and the former North Eastern province inhabited by ethnic Somalis. On the other hand, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) is the party of choice in Luo Nyanza, Western and Coastal regions, while Kalonzo Musyoka’s Wiper Party has its appeal in the Ukambani areas of the former Eastern Province. 

At a glance, this may look as a mere tribal support for parties. TNA and URP have formed Jubilee Alliance which will soon transform into Jubilee Alliance Party – JAP. ODM, Wiper and the Luhya-based Ford-Kenya led by Moses Wetang’ula are in the Coalition for Reform and Democracy – Cord. Then there is the Jubilee-leaning Amani Coalition.

Extrapolating our political situation to the two-party system of USA, you can say Jubilee is right wing Republican (National) while CORD is left leaning Democratic Party. The Kalenjin and Kikuyu are more inclined towards a National ideology and they were against devolution, which was christened majimbo from the onset. The Luo, Luhya and Coast who were alienated by the Moi and Kenyatta regimes were more receptive to the devolution as a distributive justice idea towards historical injustices.

On the other hand, the pastoralists’ forum in URP has a deep honour culture. Cattle were more than a measure of value; defending and stealing to restock were a source of constant “wars of honour”. There is respect for elders and a strict social code of conduct. This has made them successful in the security forces and provincial administration. They are conservative; their women are treated either as property or as children. In terms of economic interests, they are individualistic, although they protect their interests communally.

The Kikuyu, being farmers culturally, but also modern-day entrepreneurs, have always favoured free market-oriented politics. Their gravitation towards urban centres in search of business opportunities has spread them beyond their Central Kenya and Central Rift regions. This trait makes Kikuyus to be more concerned with a united Kenya so as to protect their economic interests around the country from the centre. This makes Jubilee a nationalist coalition. The communities that form it are individualistic, conservative, to some degree, and economically endowed.

The Democrats

Luos tend to be liberal by nature. Initially pastoralists, their interactions with other ethnic groups, especially Bantus, on their trek from Sudan to Lake Victoria, turned them into farmers and fishermen. As a way of life, bravado is engrained in the Luo psyche. Democracy is also part of Luo culture; where the government is known us piny owacho, the people (the land) have spoken. This, coupled with experience of political alienations and assassination of their illustrious sons by past regimes, has pushed Luos to the left.

The coastal region is composed of Mijikenda, Arabs and recent immigrant communities. The communities along the coast are fishermen while inland settlers are farmers. The Mijikendas have never replaced their traditional spiritual and social leaders with a modern equivalent. This has led to lack of social organisation which in turn led to marginalisation as their land was grabbed by powerful people from upcountry. The Arabs and immigrants are the major owners of economic power at the coast. This has pushed the Mijikenda to the left of Kenya’s politics.

Democracy, like wine, matures with time. The gains always look minimal as selfish and sectarian interests erode some gains as soon as they have been attained. Nevertheless, we can learn from other mature democracy and fast-track our growth by avoiding their mistakes and learning from their successes.



The writer is a post graduate student of International Relations, a freelance sports writer and a culture enthusiast.



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