Identity politics and Kenya’s UNCHANGING order

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Uhuru Kenyatta is former president Daniel Moi’s political protege.

By Kevin Motaroki

When President Uhuru Kenyatta formally leaves office as Kenya’s chief executive in 2022, his overdue but, inevitably, less-than-gracious exit will be a fitting opportunity to reach for the celebrated words of US President Gerald Ford who, in 1974, declared, after Richard Nixon’s resignation, “…our long national nightmare is over.” Although it is unlikely that Kenyans will express any such optimism, these words, nevertheless, will capture then as they do now the widespread sense of disgust in Kenya at the malignant nature of the UhuRuto presidency.

The President has so far chosen his wars haltingly, careful not to humiliate his lieutenants nor fan any flames of resentment among his support bases. In the process, however, he has created a far more tempestuous indignation in the hearts and minds of Kenyans who see him as complicit in authoring their misery, particularly in the false-starting war against public theft and mismanagement. 

He has consistently denied and denounced capture of the state, declaring the country to be founded on only democratic ideals, yet it is a defining feature of his corruption-riddled regime, when state institutions have become the playthings of personal, private interests. In his State-of-the-Nation addresses to Parliament and Kenyans since 2013, Uhuru has regularly reiterated his commitment to “build a society defined by decency and integrity, and which values honesty, hard work and sacrifice…which I hold dear…” His style of leadership hardly reflects this.

Lofty statements like he often gives send the hopeful signal that his government wants to leave behind the sordid and destructive past when the interests of Kenyans—most especially the poorest amongst us—have been held with the littlest of importance to the owners of the state, but it is just not true.

The case against former Treasury CS Henry Rotich, for example, was a potential sign of renewed seriousness by the President to clean house, but it has been complicated by tensions between Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, who is an ally of Rotich, and is angling to succeed Kenyatta in 2022. The political landscape is unfolding daily against the backdrop of political infighting and Kenyatta’s push to secure his legacy.

Week by week, month by month, eye-watering details of theft of public money emerge, tragically leading to the stalling of important that leave the lives of would-be dependants in limbo. A hesitant effort to stop the haemorrhage of public resources has rapidly morphed into a harried rush to salvage what can be salvaged in a broken system, risking an economic meltdown. As it is now, government has become an assortment of factions backed by rival centres of power, where the main centre is equally gasping for breath and legitimacy in what has become the definition of our dizzying structure of government.

It’s easy to look at the Jubilee regime’s enduring blunders as uniquely atrocious, the catastrophic result of ineptitude, greed and lack of empathy, as the acts of regime actors beholden to craven materialism and dominance and a dearth of values – as well as the rise, in its place, of malignant immorality. But in reality, our situation is emblematic of a frightening window into the future of our politics and necessarily life.

It is dreary, difficult work, politicising everything about our lives, but this is our reality. As contradictory as the antagonists in our political farm seem, they do share a common objective – one they’ve shared for close to six decades now – which is to dominate everyone and everything. Elizabeth Warren’s words at this point ring true: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” 

The mess thus created, the race is on to, once again, redefine the centres of power, and our elites are about to influence one of the most consequential decisions in their lifetime – amending the constitution. The Kenyan experience thus far teaches us that we have never comprehended or cherished the importance of holding public servants accountable for their policy proposals. It is why our representatives will get away with “murdering” the constitution the country spent decades fighting for, before they come back and do it again in another few years.

Politics of identity

Talk is rife about leadership and political systems in Kenya and part of that debate is whether we need a presidential or parliamentary system. In this regard, debates variously abound about changing the Constitution to fit either of these systems, which include the Building Bridges Initiative, Punguza Mizigo and others that have not yet gained political mileage. Objectively considered, what the referendum is, is an attempt to accommodate and likely perpetuate the political lives of a selected group of politicians and families, for many of the problems the suggested proposals are meant to cure cannot be legislated. 

What we are about to vote on is about politics of identity.

In times such as these, one can’t help but think that famous cultural theorist Stuart Hall was on to something when he remarked, “the disorderly thrust of political events disturbs the symmetry of political analysis.” Because of the speed, impulsiveness and anarchy of our political happening, and because we are so inundated by a bombardment of events we are not allowed to understand fully, we have become too beholden, too profoundly affected to grasp their weight and meaning. Contrary to Hall’s counsel, we fail, each time, to observe and sieve with an unobstructed view because we are too invested in the outcome. As a consequence, we find ourselves bent over backwards, unaware of just how vulnerable we have become.

From left: Jomo, Kenyatta, jis son Uhuru, MWai Kibaki and Daniel Moi. In this picture are the faces which have, for 56 years, ruled the country.

For those unable or unwilling to keep up, Kenya has been ruled by three families: the Kenyatta’s, the Moi’s and the Kibaki’s – what DP Ruto labels dynasties. The Odinga’s, consequential by default, have interspersed the reign of these three. When they have so required, the dynasties have invited outsiders every so often, whom they have used and discarded once their usefulness is spent. Neither have their representatives in high office been ideologues – ever! Their only currency is power and money, in that order. They ultimately care only about their own reckless pursuit of power, and the intoxicating need to hog it.

Yet, it shouldn’t come as a surprise; it was always part of the plan: what Kenyatta inherited from the British, Moi also took, as did Kibaki. But, to keep revolving the mantle, they must frame themselves as the voice of the people, which takes the transformation that well-timed, well-scripted periodic constitutional amendments afford them.

Our persistent problems of joblessness, endemic poverty, crumbling or non-existent public services and vast levels of inequality and inequity – the fodder needed to sustain attention – confines us to a world of politics, for worse, to a large extent.

It’s safe to conclude that the vast majority of Kenyans are ill-versed about the nature of our transactional politics. While the press and political commentators may protest about the core of the amendments proposed, few outside political inner circles care – or understand – for they are too busy putting out inconsequential fires – and being chained to a system from which we cannot hope to extricate ourselves. 

To be sure, there is no version of events where we get lasting amendments to the constitution. All types of proposals deliver for some and betray others, all at once. Worryingly, after years of officially sanctioned ethnic segregation, the symbol of the presidency as unifier is now being framed as a hindrance to democracy itself. We just cannot win!

But while these developments seemingly move and engulf us at lightning speed, there are problems beyond the shambles our politics have created. It is hardly news: insecurity, joblessness, a broken-down education system, dying values, economic meltdown, climate change – consider the eminently important question of the Mau – and so on. By the time we get around to dealing with these crucial issues, if at all, our politics will have turned well and truly cannibalistic.

In order to protect their monopoly on power, the dynasties – or deep state actors – have gone to great lengths to suppress any potential challenge to its continued rule – present and future. Invariably, the government continues to invest more resources in preserving its interests domestically and abroad than on executing real development, continues to enact laws to increase citizen surveillance, as well as to intimidate and silence those who speak out – civil society and associated institutions, as well as employ a range of political control instruments that include monopolising the press, as well as forming coalitions to pre-empt any form of revolt.

Democracy, particularly liberal democracy, has always been an imperfect way to govern, but we are now pushing the system to breaking point. Justice, our very ability to earn a living, feel precarious. The lofty values enshrined in our constitution do nothing to heal the corrupt, opaque, centralised and turbulent form of democracy we use to govern ourselves. 

The experiment is dead.

The handshake between Uhuru and Odinga ‘killed’ opposition to government, and gave state actors the leeway to manipulate systems.

Many voters are convinced that politicians are selling them out; they have a point. Nothing can be predicted with certainty anymore. In our times, it is not only economic systems that feel unstable, but also basic assumptions on how to live and unite.

Almost every Kenyan agrees that our politics today is entirely dysfunctional. Even more depressing is the likelihood that the 2022 elections will do little, if anything, to amend the situation.

Jubilee, the party in power, has morphed into an unsettling and contradictory jumble of deep hypocrisy, chaos, indifference to the socio-economic and political fabric and structure of the nation, misplaced anger and combined a soap-opera-like quantity of plot twists. The unending drama between Ruto, Uhuru and Raila Odinga and between their allies demonstrates an absence of both trust and competence in our leadership, as well as the unity and integrity they must possess to push through the necessary measures needed to steer the country in the direction of reform, economic growth and social well-being.

Deep and abiding partisan divisions have created a serious mismatch between factions within the ruling party, which have become as vehemently adversarial as those between government and opposition as we have known them. What is more, this polarisation within the ruling party is not about policy, but about political posturing and game-playing.

With politicians putting short-term political gain ahead of urgent national problem-solving, government has become one big mutinous Badlands — with ideologically incompatible siblings who trade contempt-seeking missiles; the president and his deputy and their allies despise compromise, reject conventional understanding of facts, scoff at evidence and trivialize legitimate national issues of concern.

In one of his columns for the Sunday Nation, Nic Cheeseman considers the future of Africa and asks if politics will be less “ethnic”, more “issue-based” and more democratic in another three decades. According to current projections, sub-Saharan Africa will have radically changed by 2050. Not only will the continent be more densely populated, it will be wealthier, better connected to information, and feature a larger – and more influential – middle class.

The economic and developmental ramifications of these changes have been widely discussed. Afro-optimists argue that population growth will increase the size of African markets and so create new economic opportunities, while the “youth bulge” will ensure that there are enough wage earners to look after the elderly in their dotage. Against this, Afro-pessimists point out that population growth means that there will be more mouths to feed, and that a young population may be a curse rather than a blessing if jobs cannot be found to satisfy expectations.

Amidst this increasingly fractured debate, Cheeseman poses one question which has received much less attention: what does this all mean for African politics? Will the demographic and social transformation that is currently underway alter the nature of the African state, or the dynamics of political competition? And if it does, what will this mean for the prospects for political stability and democracy?

One of Cheeseman’s more enduring arguments is that larger urban populations would represent a major threat to the ability of the current crop of governments to retain power. At present, many ruling parties hold on to power by controlling the vote in rural areas through a combination of traditional leaders, patronage and service delivery. They have to do this, because in many African states – though not all – opposition parties have captured the hearts and minds of urbanites.

This suggests that as the size and influence of urban populations increases, the ability of governments to use existing strategies to retain power will diminish. In order to maintain control of the political agenda, ruling parties – or individuals – will either need to find ways to boost their support in urban areas, or to deploy higher levels of repression in order to compensate for the shrinking size of their core constituency.

But this is all theoretical.

Ideally, rising wealth and education levels, in addition to the expansion of the private sector, should generate more assertive societies that are less dependent on government favours for jobs and economic opportunities. But we are a long way from this point right now. Our kind of politics is not homogeneous, and citizens have to contend with a complexity of political challenges whose nuances they cannot fully comprehend. What is more, many members of the middle class are rhetorically critical of corruption and ethnic politics but are also involved in running small and large scale scams and funding the campaigns of political leaders.

A politician’s favourite cliché is anything that bamboozles a voter into submission, to put him on the ground and sink him further if possible.

Sekou Toure writes, “an attempt to solve specific African problems out of context, according to some half-understood universal concept, neglects the especially important social factors…” The “important factors” for us seem to be limited to money and power. The method to wealth can be legal or illegal, but the scramble for it is certainly cutthroat and often dangerous. 

In politics, as witnessed in the recent nomination exercise for the Kibra by-election, increased internal competition for party candidature often involves deal making and purchasing loyalty or backing. To win, one must be willing to do whatever is necessary to win, by fair or foul means, and those who dare to think or behave differently are side-lined, sabotaged or expelled. Being different is political suicide.

The broader picture here, which informs the core of our corruption and leadership problems, is opaque party financing. Because regulations on financial disclosure are either non-existent or ineffective, wealthy godfathers wield significant influence, mainly for their benefit but inexorably and indubitably to the detriment of the state.

In an interview in 2016, Aisha Buhari, Nigeria’s first lady, admitted her husband does not know all of his appointees. In other words, she was admitting President Muhamadu Buhari is the face of mightier but invisible forces. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma was accused of being captive to the Gupta family. 

In Kenya, the President is the captive of his family’s interests first, which has been on an acquisition and expanding spree of vast interests in agriculture, media and banking, among others, as well as to the principal(s) of the coalitions and institutions which lend him state power. It is either this or we cannot explain, for example, how or why the Rai Family continues to monopolise the sugar industry and sell contaminated product while regulatory bodies sit by and do nothing, or why shifty regulations barring small scale farmers to produce and sell milk to their neighbours are proposed without as much as a hint of remorse.

If we employ a little syllogism, we will come away with the conclusion that Uhuru, for as long as he has been president has been either incapable of addressing the excesses of his sponsors to power, or too beholden to their interests to be bothered to do anything about it. Whatever the case, it has been nothing but a rollercoaster of anarchy, lawlessness and recklessness. 

Nothing about his exit or succession scenario tells us this is about to stop. (

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