Kenya’s Tribalism And Other African Madness; Why Ethnicity Is A Myth And Voodoo Political Science

Narc-Kenya candidate Martha Karua: She "spoilt" a "good" story when her party held orderly primaries. (Nation photo)

Narc-Kenya candidate Martha Karua: She “spoilt” a “good” story when her party held orderly primaries. (Nation photo)

The just-ended shambolic Kenyan nominations for the March 4 elections have earned the “leading” political parties; the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), The National Alliance (TNA), the United Republican (URP) etc. a lot of scorn and stick on social media and blogs.

They say no good deed goes unpunished, so it was that in the messy and often violent two days of the primaries on January 14 and 15 last week, Narc-Kenya was hardly mentioned in the media frenzy. Why? Because it had had very orderly primaries weeks back, with no fistfights, tear gas, burning tyres, and election officers playing Houdini. Narc-Kenya, you might say, was punished for getting it right.

Parties like TNA, considered to have a lock on Central but with little prospect in Nyanza and western, had quiet or no primaries in these parts of the country. Likewise, ODM, seen as having sewed up Nyanza and many parts of western, but feeble in Central Kenya, had very quiet or, in some cases, also no primaries in Central Kenya. Observers said it would have been a waste.

This led many to argue that “Kenya is more divided” today than at any point in its post-independence life, with parties carving out exclusive ethnic zones, tribal ghettos where “tribesmen and women” fanatically follow one of their own, and would murder or have no time for politicians from other communities.

Last year in March, leaders from the Mount Kenya grouping – the Gikuyu Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) – met in highly charged and much-reported meetings in Limuru.

GEMA has a controversial history, and critics see it as an anachronistic tribal association that seeks to further the political hegemony of the Mountain Kenya elite.

John Githongo: Cautioned about the seduction of oversimplistic narratives. (Nation photo)

John Githongo: Cautioned about the seduction of oversimplistic narratives. (Nation photo)

Gadfly and former anti-czar John Githongo, a Kikuyu but not a fan of GEMA and a man who has his head fairly screwed on, weighed into the debate. In an article in The Star, he argued that Kikuyu voting patterns and political expression is not monolithic and is more complex than (simplistic) ordinary conversation presumes. Could Githongo be right?

A few weeks ago I made a new friend, a very smart chap from Homa Bay, a Luo who, on the surface, you would rush to say would be a fanatical supporter of ODM leader, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the “king” of Nyanza.

However, he took a “Githongoist” line. He said it was lazy to argue that Kikuyu are tribal and will always vote only for a Kikuyu. He gave the example of the charismatic Tom Mboya, a Luo, and Jomo Kenyatta’s  minister of Economic Planning and Development at the time of his assassination on July 5, 1969.

Mboya was the first Member of Parliament of Kamukunji constituency in Nairobi. Unlike today, Kamukunji then was what you would call a “Kikuyu constituency”. Though he acknowledged how

Tom Mboya: A Luo, was elected MP of predominantly Kikuyu Kamukunji constituency.

Tom Mboya: A Luo, was elected MP of predominantly Kikuyu Kamukunji constituency.

history, and the grievances brought about by betrayals had changed everything, my friend argued that it was “not impossible for Raila to win significant Kikuyu support”.

He said the Kikuyu could vote for Raila the way they did for Mboya. Raila’s problem in the Mount Kenya region, he said, was not that he was a Luo. It was that he was “not addressing Kikuyu’s fears”.

His arguments and those of Githongo inevitably lead us to several questions: What exactly does a tribal vote look like? When a Luo votes for a Luo can that only be a tribal vote?

I think part of the problem is that we have locked African political analysis in a corner where, whichever way you flip it, the conclusion is that we are tribal.

One source of this failing is the refusal to acknowledge that aspirations can coincide perfectly with ethnic category. For example, a Kikuyu concerned about losing his land is less likely to trust a non-Kikuyu, and more likely to believe that his fellow Kikuyu neighbour, who is also afraid of losing his land, will better protect their land. It is logical for him to vote his fellow Kikuyu purely out of enlightened self-interest. To an outsider, though, it is more likely to seem as a tribal vote.

How do you separate the legitimate vote over land, over the presumably illegitimate one for tribe? I don’t know. I would still hold that the substance, the primary reason, for that Kikuyu’s vote is land. However, in terms of public expression, the form it takes is a vote for someone from his tribe.

CORD men, Raila and running mate Kalonzo. If Raila was just a regional creature, he would be irrelevant in Kenya's politics (Nation photo).

CORD men, Raila and running mate Kalonzo. If Raila was just a regional creature, he would be irrelevant in Kenya’s politics (Nation photo).

To accuse him of being “tribalistic” would be to confuse substance with form.

But there is even greater difficulty if one looks at the population of Kenya. Though they are the largest national group, the Kikuyu do not have anywhere near the numbers to win the presidency for one of their own without the vote from other ethnic groups.

Jomo Kenyatta would never have become president of Kenya with the Kikuyu vote alone. In the 2002 election, even if the whole of Kikuyuland had voted against President Mwai Kibaki, and for Uhuru Kenyatta, he would still have won.

Even Daniel arap Moi, in the elections of 1992 and 1997, wouldn’t have won with only the Kalenjin vote from the populous Rift Valley.

In 2007, though the election result was disputed and led too the murderous violence that killed nearly 1,400 people, Kibaki beat Raila by just about 232,000 votes. The important thing for me is that if Kibaki had got only the Kikuyu tribal vote, and Raila had received only the tribal Luo ones, and everyone else had voted for Kalonzo Musyoka, Kalonzo would have become president. Kibaki and Raila would have gone home to lick their wounds.

Jubilee chiefs Uhuru (in blue shirt) and running mate William Ruto (to his right): If you choose to focus on the geography of their support base, you will miss its substance (Nation photo).

Jubilee chiefs Uhuru (in blue shirt) and running mate William Ruto (to his right): If you choose to focus on the geography of their support base, you will miss its substance (Nation photo).

Clearly, then, the Kikuyu vote did not deliver Kibaki the presidency, nor did solid Luo support allow Raila to claim that he was robbed of victory. How do we explain that in a country that is supposed to be virulently tribal, and in which no president has ever come from a tribe that alone could deliver him State House, other communities still vote for them anyway?

That is too complex a question, and it points to factors that are very difficult to study and explain in a few years. Like the case with other African countries, faced with a question that is so hard to answer, like a river that will never climb a mountain, many Kenyas and observers of the country usually choose the easiest course – to  blame tribalism.

Tribalism makes political life easy. It allows you to choose who is a friend or ally. You are able to quickly identify the enemy – the “other tribe”. It allows you to decide whom to exclude when you are sharing scarce national resources. It is a greater way to build unquestioning loyalty. And it removes one of the things humans hate most – uncertainty. It is the easiest way to explain why you didn’t get that job.

For all its “beauty”, its powerful seduction, convenience, and the neatness it provides to analyse African societies, tribalism is a lie. It is voodoo political and social science.

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4 Comments on “Kenya’s Tribalism And Other African Madness; Why Ethnicity Is A Myth And Voodoo Political Science”

  1. Jos Ajabo
    January 22, 2013 at 1:05 am #

    Good analysis and thanks for the clarifications on Kenyan elections. Is there no friendly terminology to the anthropoligical definition of “Tribe” ? Perhaps ethinicity is more mild and not derogatory as the tribe.

    Some good lessons to learn because Railas’ father the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga never influenced the son to run on an ethnical ticket to become the head of the ODM. Reminds me of the autobiography of the late Oginga Odinga “Not yet Uhuru”

  2. ndiangui
    January 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    an independent look at an enigma caused by politcians and perpetrated by citizens who zealously adore them.

  3. Patience
    January 25, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    I completely agree. And am glad you write about it, because many times it is the media who lie to our people, who are already confused and uncertain. But if you write such truth, even if our people deny it, their hearts will begin to question these lies.

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