Our brand of politics is for a pre-ordained few

“To have power was to have the means to reproduce it; to lose power, however, was to risk never having the means to regain it” – Chris Allen, ‘Understanding African Politics’ Review of African Political Economy 22, 65 (1995) pp301-20, p.304


By Newton Arori

In an ideal world, all citizens have equal chance to vie for political office and be elected as leaders. Unfortunately, that world does not exist. And nowhere are the odds more heavily tilted against the disadvantaged ascending to power than in Kenya. These dynamics are what must have informed former president Moi’s famous declaration that Kanu would rule for 100 years. As far as anyone can tell, President Moi was right. Advantage in the Kenyan political field depends, to a large extent, on a number of interrelated variables, including political patronage, financial strength and ethnicity.

To put that into perspective, consider the following. The main contenders in the 2013 presidential race and the favourites in this year’s August election are the sons of a former president and a former vice president. Their running mates were and are likely to be one of president Moi’s protégés from ‘YK92’ and a former vice president. More than 50 years after independence, politics in Kenya continues to be dominated by a handful of politicians. Why is this so?

Political patronage

Patronage can be said to be the main impediment to Kenya and Africa at large attaining true democracy.  This problem has its roots in Africa’s colonial history. Political scientist Bruce J Berman, in his paper Ethnicity, Patronage and the African State: The Politics of Uncivil Nationalism (1998), argues that it is the European colonial masters who first introduced inequality in Africa by placing ethnic chiefs in privileged positions, in return for the chiefs being the essential linkage between the colonial state and African societies.

Berman observes:
“First, administrators sought to provide chiefs and headmen with sources of income and patronage to supplement their generally meagre official salaries and to reward them, along with influential elders of powerful local families and growing numbers of other African officials, teachers, wealthy farmers and businessmen, with some of the profits of commodity production and trade. The distribution of such resources materially demonstrated the benefits of colonialism and secured the loyalty of those who shared them. This both reinforced the role of the State as the principle source of the benefits of modernity and development, and gave a partisan cast to its involvement in the contradiction between accumulation and control.

It also, and most crucially, made patron/client relations not only the fundamental mode of access to the state and its resources, but also, as in pre-colonial society, the fundamental relationship between ordinary people and those with wealth and power… The chiefs and headmen, through their active pursuit of wealth, distribution of patronage to their families and supporters, and frequent abuse of their power to punish their enemies and extort extra-legal payments from the populace under their control, were not only active agents in the process of social differentiation and class formation, but also, principal subjects of both local challenges to the colonial state and the active internal politics and class conflicts of ethnic construction.”

Money talks

It is no surprise then that politics has become a preserve of a few, with newcomers having to join the establishment before they can become politically relevant. That explains, for example, why some families are undisputed kingpins of their respective communities and command a cult-like following.

Inequality, once firmly established, is hard to offset. As Alexander Beresford observes in Power, Patronage and Gatekeeper Politics in Africa (African Affairs 1-23) explains, “A cyclical relationship emerges in which resources and opportunities are distributed through patronage networks to regenerate the political power of the patron (gatekeeper), and political power (access to State spoils) is in turn used to replenish the resources needed to maintain these networks and ‘purchase’ the affection of their supporters.”

Judging per the current regulations governing the electoral process, the political game is a preserve of the financially well heeled. In August 2016, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), through a gazette notice, set the limits for campaign spending by aspirants, as well as the amount that political parties may receive.  The limits are as follows: Presidential candidates – Sh5.25 billion; Governor/Senator/Women Representative – Sh433 million; Member of the National Assembly – Sh33.4 million; Member of County Assembly – Sh10.3 million. The purpose of imposing these limits is presumably to reduce the advantage of money in politics and enable the choosing of leaders based on merit, as well as reduce instances of voter bribery and other forms of election malpractice.

While these intentions are by all means noble, it is highly unlikely that the limits will have any impact in levelling the political playing field. The set limits are still way out of reach for the majority of Kenyans, which means that the few financially well endowed will still be advantaged – as they always have.

Still on money, candidates are required to pay nomination fees to their respective parties to contest for an elective position on that party’s ticket. Again, the sums could easily lock out a candidate and potentially good leader.

There is no getting around it; your chances of ever becoming President of the Republic of Kenya are slim to none if you do not come from the “right” ethnic community. Long before political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi visited on us the harsh concept of tyranny of numbers, Kenyan politicians were forming alignments based purely on ethnic considerations. As a matter of fact, mainstream Kenyan politics revolves around the most populous ethnic communities – the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Kamba and Luo who, collectively, form nearly half of the country’s population.

So profound is the effect of ethnicity that, sometimes, presidential candidates do not even bother to campaign in their own or their opponent’s “strongholds”. The reason is that an ethnic community with a viable contender in the race will always vote for that candidate.

One observer notes, of the 2007 presidential election:
“Starting with Kibaki, the Kikuyu candidate, the data show that most of the president’s rallies (79%) were held in areas inhabited predominantly by out-groups that did not have a candidate in the race. Kibaki held only 11% of his rallies in the core Kikuyu ethnic area. The President completely avoided Odinga’s core ethnic area, failing to visit the Luo section of Nyanza Province even once during the campaign.

For Odinga the pattern was similar. The candidate carefully avoided areas that had a co-ethnic in the race, including his own Luo region. Like Kibaki, Odinga held most rallies (95%) in parts of the country mainly inhabited by groups that did not have a candidate in the race. He spent relatively little time in his own ethnic area, holding only 4% of his rallies in the core Luo area. Odinga also carefully avoided his opponents’ ethnic areas, visiting the Kikuyu core area only once and the Kamba core area not at all…”

Taking into account all the above factors, and given that nothing much has changed in Kenya’s political landscape, politics in Kenya will continue to be dominated by a select few. That is true even for “smaller” elective posts because, as can be seen, those with no resources do not stand a chance. As for the presidency, it is a safe bet that for a fairly long time to come, the position will be held by wealthy tribal chieftain with a famous name.



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