Kenya’s absent politicians (what I learned in Kisumu) – By Magnus Taylor
I have just spent a couple of days in the Western Kenyan town of Kisumu in Nyanza Province, which sits on the edge of Lake Victoria. The previous time I was there was back in 2009 when the burnt out buildings on Oginga Odinga high street were yet to be rebuilt after 07/08 post-election violence. Kisumu is predominantly a Luo town, although its general multi-ethnic quality should temper such crude stereotyping.
On that trip my travelling companion and I negotiated a ride on a barge that was transporting bags of cheap plastic sandals across the lake to the Tanzanian port of Mwanza. We slept on deck and hoped the thing wouldn’t sink. The shipping company is Indian-owned, as are many of the more successful businesses in the town – it is a busy, energetic and noisy place.
Kisumu is also the traditional heartland of opposition politics in Kenya and its most famous (living) son, Raila Odinga, is a member of an equally historic oppositionist political dynasty. Raila’s father, Oginga Odinga, formed the Forum for Democracy (Ford) in 1991, which facilitated the start of Kenya’s new era of multi-party politics and was previously Vice President under Kenyatta #1.
So when I was there I wanted to meet some “˜opposition’ people ie members of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, and see what they thought of the last 12 months of Jubilee government and the election that preceded it. I vainly chased a local ward representative around by phone for a day and a half, but found out that he had missed his flight and was still in Nairobi. Another possible lead had to go to a funeral.
But as ever, if you want to take the political temperature of a place the best thing to do is just to talk to lots of people. You might not get the absolute, objective truth about what’s going on there, but you’ll find out what people think is happening, which in many respects is just as important.
So in my quest for someone to talk to I visited ODM’s Kisumu Central constituency HQ. I was expecting at least some measure of party activity there, even if it just consisted of a few apparatchiks asleep at their desks. But the building was pretty much empty and reminded me of a rural school (minus the children) with one desk (no one was sat at it) and a few plastic chairs.
A pair of mild-mannered guys sat by the door and after we had completed the normal handshakes and politeness they introduced themselves as the building’s caretaker and the Kisumu Central “˜Youth Organiser’. After a brief chat about the election (stolen) and the ODM leadership (Raila Forever!) I left, slightly puzzled.
I wondered whether I’d gone to the wrong place, or whether this constituency was a particularly poorly run one and mentioned this to a couple of journalists I met at the Kisumu bureau offices of Nation Media. They laughed and explained that in Kenya political parties don’t really bother with big physical structures – these offices were just a base where party activists or supporters could be brought together on occasion to campaign for the Big Man.
This is because political parties in Kenya are loose, temporary formations surrounding individual politicians such as Odinga. If you actually want to meet any major politicians who represent, in this case, Kisumu, then don’t bother actually coming here – they all live in Nairobi. Raila may “˜vie’ (a nice Kenyan way of saying “˜campaign’) as the chosen representative of Western Kenya, and particularly the Luo people, but his supporters are as much a vehicle for his own political advancement.
Big deal, you might say – isn’t that always the case in a democracy? Yes, but in many poorer countries with misfiring democracies, and I don’t see Kenya as unique in this regard, the relationship is unbalanced. The Big Man gets more out of it than he gives back. And let’s not forget, Kenya’s MPs are the best remunerated in the world, so political power pays – literally.
I don’t mean to specifically pick on Raila here; all Kenya’s regional political leaders have their own personalised parties which they roll out at elections and then form alliances with suitable allies, largely on the basis of ethnic arithmetic. In 2013 Raila’s ODM combined with his deputy, Kalonzo Musyoka’s Wiper and Moses Wetangula’s Ford-Kenya to form the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord). Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance was made up from his own “˜The National Alliance’ (TNA) party, William Ruto’s URP, Najib Balala’s RCP and Charity Ngilu’s Narc – all vehicles for the personal elevation of the leader, with promises of great returns for their supporters.
In terms of local representation ie who becomes MP, or under the new devolved system, Governor, Senator or other local political representatives, it’s less about what happens on the day of the general election, and more about who wins each party’s primary elections – which select the candidates who get to run for each seat. The most violent part of the 2013 election were the primaries, as local people, particularly in the case of ODM, resented the candidates they thought had been imposed upon them from the top.
Most constituencies in Kenya are dominated by one ethnic group or another, which means they generally vote overwhelmingly for a particular candidate. There aren’t too many constituencies where the population demographics result in a close race. It’s notable that in 2013, candidates who tried to run national campaigns that were distinctly technocratic and non-ethnic – notably Martha Karua (Narc-Kenya) and Peter Kenneth (Kenya National Congress) – did disastrously on polling day.
It seemed amusing at the time, but the fact that Mohamed Dida (Alliance of Real Change) – a previously unknown Kenyan-Somali teacher from Wajir – should have beaten the experienced Martha Karua into 5th and only trailed Kenneth by 20,000 votes is very revealing. That being said, if I was a Kenyan-Somali I would probably have considered voting for Dida too, having experienced many indignities and little development effort under previous more mainstream leadership.
A Kenyan friend, whose analyses I rate considerably more highly than my own, has already half jokingly warned me against only talking to civil society, whose opinions – whether they are right or wrong – regarding the current government, are extremely negative. So I hope this post redresses the balance a little– I did quote Gladwell Otieno once, but I think her argument here is reasonably uncontroversial.
What I learned on this trip to Kisumu, other than the virtue of patience, was that political mobilisation in Kenyan is very much about human capital. And in many ways it is amazingly effective – Kenya had 85% turnout in 2013, which is absolutely astounding. This is proof that the country’s political parties had a very good ground game, but to what end you might ask? What exactly is at stake in this game of political mobilisation? Another post on that in a few days, I think.
Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments.