By Kenyatta Otieno
The 2022 elections had two outcomes that have informed this article. One is an assumed ideological base for the first time in Kenyan elections and the fact that younger people either kept away from the ballot or did not vote along tribal lines.
The ‘Hustlers-Dynasty’ narrative is like the British Labour versus Conservative political ideology. William Ruto and UDA campaigned on a platform of an ordinary man against Raila of Azimio, the child of Kenya’s first Vice President, supported by the son of Kenya’s first President.
If you look again, you realise that Raila is more hustler than William Ruto. Ruto could be the son of an ordinary man, but he has been an appendage of dynasties since he entered politics. Below that, Hustler vs. Dynasty assumed ideology was the same tribal formation evident in the past elections.
Creeping Determinism is where people hang onto an outcome they did not determine or expect. It is the retrospective view of claiming an occurrence that was not expected as having been expected. It is also possible to claim responsibility for an organic event without basis. This is what those clinging to the ideological grounding of the 2022 elections are clinging on. Nothing good just happens; if it happens, it won’t last.
“If you board the wrong train, it’s no use running along the corridor in the other direction,” said the famous World War II German resistance fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was speaking to people who tried to justify their support for Hitler during WWII. It could be a bit extreme, but he meant there is no need to justify a wrong thing by a few good traits. Kenya is deeply divided along ethnic lines by design, so we easily default to it.
Kenyans active in our deeply tribal political space can be divided into two—those who have accepted it and derive political interest from it by fanning the divide. Rigathi Gachagua and Moses Kuria fall here. Then there are the silent majority who disapprove of it but do nothing about it. The latter group may not do anything to worsen it but do not speak against it. I believe the second group spotted what they believe is a silver lining that I will dispel.
The ideology was misplaced. Azimio la Umoja Coalition, portrayed as conservative, is composed of left-leaning liberals. The United Democratic Alliance of “Hustlers”, which ran with the “Bottom Up” narrative for the working class, is led by conservative nationalists. It is not lost that most of the Azimio leaders were behind the push for devolution when UDA leaders were pushing for a unitary national government. The leaders must believe in an ideology to gain traction among the masses. This misnomer means these pseudo-ideologies will die soon if they have not already died.
Azimio la Umoja Coalition, portrayed as conservative, is composed of left-leaning liberals. The United Democratic Alliance of “Hustlers”, which ran with the “Bottom Up” narrative for the working class, is led by conservative nationalists.
That ideology narrative for the 2022 elections was a good attempt, but it cannot cut butter. Ultimately, Kikuyus and Kalenjins voted for Ruto and UDA, while most of the country was for Raila. That has been the scenario in the recent past general elections, so nothing changed beyond the political rhetoric. The ideology behind the Kenyan election is tribal mobilisation by politicians and marginalisation of those not in power. Everything else is secondary.
This lot also believes that Raila Odinga’s exit from national politics will end ethnic-based politics. Raila is different things to different people, but I am conscious that he elicits “Raila Mania” and “Raila Phobia” equally. This makes him look like a divisive figure, but he attracts those marginalised by the political system. He is also not the originator of tribal politics. Like most of our politicians, he just played the game as it was. Moral Compensation makes some people underestimate their responsibility for negative ethnicity and overestimate it on others, more so Raila Odinga.
The second argument is that the younger generation, most voters do not identify with their tribe. It is good to note that this demographic accounted for most people who did not vote. The excuse is they did not vote in protest to the ethnic-based politics, which is being disputed by the ideology gang. Children generally are never concerned about another child’s ethnicity until an adult points it out. It was true for the pre-independence generation as it was true for every adult Kenyan.
So, the younger generation’s perceived ambivalence towards tribes is not new. The “middle class” is also growing, so most of their children are expected to speak English and Kiswahili before they learn their mother tongue. Meanwhile, these children live with parents who complain of being victims of negative ethnicity; it will soon catch up with them. This cognitive underestimation of the depth of negative ethnicity in Kenya is an attempt at sharing illusion.
I belong to the generation born of parents who came of age at independence. I was born in Nakuru, grew up in Vihiga, and have lived in Nairobi all my adult life. I only visit my ancestral home once in a while, and I can count the number of times in a year on the fingers of one hand. I came into my adult life oblivious of negative ethnicity and optimistic about a prosperous Kenya for which I sacrificed some of my comfort. That bubble burst as soon as I saw it rise up in the air.
I realised that my second name had already betrayed me. I am judged by the locality on the back of my national identity card, even if I did not grow up there, rather than the content of my character and what I can do. Meanwhile, I saw my age mates and colleagues, some who did not possess much competence or intellectual prowess, land lucrative posts and rise through the ranks fast.
The illusion I had of a better Kenya made me and a group of young fellow Luos openly defy Raila Odinga in our student and political activist days in the late 1990s. When the bubble burst, we retreated to Raila Odinga’s camp even when most of us did not profoundly believe in him. We realised that in Kenya, people contort in tribal enclaves in universities, churches, matatu routes, and residential areas. You only feel safe among people you share an ethnic background with.
Has this scenario changed for Generation Z? The Kenya Revenue Authority recently employed about 1,500 scouts. It was reported that 57 percent of those employed were Kikuyus and Kalenjins. I can understand that KRA could have received hundreds of thousands, so it was impossible to go through each application. The recruitment could have been done in every county to give it some semblance of regional balance. On top of this, the Deputy President shouts that the government belongs to “shareholders” who voted for it.
Such actions from the government will burst the bubble of Generation Z. They will soon realise that in this country, the national cake is not shared in terms of competence or qualification but based on tribe. Their default setting will be to fall back to their tribes for political comfort and rally behind a tribal kingpin who will bargain on their behalf. Tribalism in Kenya is deeply ingrained in our psyche to be banished in happenstance.
Towards the last general election, an acquaintance from Central Kenya was firmly behind Kieleweke, the precursor to the Azimio la Umoja coalition. He believed in Uhuru Kenyatta’s attempt to bring people from communities that have never enjoyed the presidency to the centre of Kenyan politics. He was angling for a seat in Nyeri County, so he consulted with the opinion leaders. The feedback he got was that the region just respected Uhuru so that they couldn’t speak out openly, but they were in Tangatanga, the precursor to UDA.
He shifted his allegiance without really believing in Tanga Tanga and won his seat in the elections. We tried to persuade him to stand for what he believed in, but he told us that politics is played as it is, not how it is supposed to be. He is now entangled in ethnic-based politics and never speaks against it. I agree with him; unless you think of a revolution, democratic politics, like culture, changes very slowly.
One positive outcome not premeditated in our political landscape will be a passing cloud if not reinforced in letter and spirit. We keep running in the opposite direction along the train tracks in the mistaken belief that we can reach a different destination. (