Three reasons ethnicity will count for less in Kenya’s upcoming vote
Elections have always been about much more than ethnicity, but this will be particularly so this 9 August.
Elections in Kenya have a reputation for being heated, controversial, and driven by ethnicity. In the popular imagination, election campaigns largely involve Big Men trying to mobilise their communities en masse, and the outcome of the polls – if they are free and fair – represents little more than an ethnic census.
However, this simplistic cliché has never been accurate – and it looks like it will be particularly inaccurate in relation to the upcoming general elections on 9 August. Though still a significant factor in political calculations, ethnicity may play a smaller role in the 2022 elections than usual – for three key reasons.
This promises to help the country to make it through an election that might otherwise have proved challenging for political stability due to the personal fallout between Deputy President William Ruto and outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Ever since 2002, when the opposition National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) defeated the ruling Kenya Africa National Union (KANU), Kenyan politics has been a game of coalition building. This tendency became even more marked following the introduction of the 2010 constitution, which stipulates that the winning presidential candidate must win at least 50%+1 of the vote.
Alliance building typically involves trying to gather support from different ethnic groups in Kenya, the largest of which make up between 10-25% of the population. This encourages the formation of large heterogeneous coalitions, whose success depends, in part, on maintaining a degree of cohesion and harmony between their communities.
In 2022, the decision of senior leaders from the Kikuyu community not to stand – perhaps to demonstrate they are willing to share power and so secure the community’s long-term interests – has created a distinct political landscape. The Kikuyu are one of the most numerous and influential groups in Kenya and have contributed three of Kenya’s four post-independence presidents.
This decision has left the presidential race as effectively a two-horse race between Deputy President William Ruto, a member of the Kalenjin community, and main opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo leader. One of their main challenges if they are to win is to secure the Kikuyu vote. This is why they have both appointed Kikuyu running mates and go to lengths to highlight their ties with Central Kenya. This dynamic has served to complicate Kenya’s usual political arithmetic and helped reduce tensions between the Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin communities, all of which were involved in the deadly post-election violence in 2007-8.
It’s the economy, stupid
As the late academic Joel Barkan pointed out, economic performance has always mattered to Kenyan voters. However, in 2022, this issue will be particularly pertinent amid the collapse of tourism, the effects of the pandemic, and rising food and fuel prices. As the BTI Report 2022 points out, Kenya’s economy contracted by 1-1.5% in 2020, pushing two million people into poverty, and increasing the unemployment rate to 10.4%. Kenyans of all ethnicities are frustrated by the government’s failure to deal with the rising cost of living as well as by frequent news of high-level corruption scandals.
The economy has also gained particular traction in 2022 because of Ruto’s decision to frame his campaign around these popular frustrations. Depicting himself as a “hustler” on the side of ordinary hardworking Kenyans, he is appealing to growing public disaffection with the country’s long-running political dynasties of which both the outgoing President Kenyatta and Odinga are a part. There is a clear populist tinge to this strategy, implying that both ordinary people and Ruto himself have been betrayed by the elite.
This narrative has its obvious flaws. Despite his public falling out with Kenyatta, Ruto has been deputy president for nine years and is believed to be vastly wealthy. Yet it also has resonance. Ruto’s campaign appeals to many Kenyans, especially younger voters, and he has been able to mobilise support in areas that would not have been open to him were the election purely an “ethnic census”.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ruto’s cross-ethnic appeal is that he has recruited several MPs and Governors in Central Kenya and become the most popular candidate in what used to be Central Province, a Kikuyu heartland. Remarkably, he has managed to do this despite the fact that President Kenyatta – the most prominent Kikuyu leader – is backing Odinga, and that Ruto was previously accused of orchestrating crimes against humanity against members of the Kikuyu community.
Performance has always mattered
One reason Ruto’s strategy has been effective is that it has built on a long history of elections that have revolved around the ability of incumbent politicians to deliver development. Those who appear to provide education, healthcare and infrastructure have often been able to mobilise support beyond their homeland. J.M. Kariuki did this after independence, as has Mike Sonko, whose populist form of service delivery enabled him to first get elected as Governor of Nairobi and then emerge as a serious candidate for the Governorship of Mombasa, some 450 km away.
Ruto’s campaign is effective in part because it taps into a deeply rooted desire for effective government and accountability . Leaders who ignore the fact that their supporters expect them to be responsive to the community often find they rapidly lose political clout – and their seats. Ruto is not the first to try and harness this dynamic. Now his faux-populist stylings have mobilised large numbers of individuals, he is unlikely to be the last.
The long shadow of ethnic politics
What we are seeing in the 2022 election is an evolution, not a revolution, in how politics in Kenya works. It shows an increasingly demanding electorate can promote democratisation.
However, all this is not to suggest that ethnicity is no longer a major force. While some ethnic groups will vote for leaders from other ethnicities, others – including the Luo and Kalenjin – are less likely to do so. There is already widespread evidence that negative ethnic stereotypes and hate-speech are circulating on social media. And just as economic issues have been mobilised in 2022, ethnic divides will return to prominence if senior political leaders choose to make them the focus of their messages in the future.
As the BTI report notes, politicians uphold such divisions when it serves their interests: “In times of decreased polarization, politicians are disinterested in resolving conflicts arising from the exploitation of ethnicity, preferring to keep them simmering for exploitation in the future.”
You may also consider publishing this piece on Kenya that I wrote a month ago…my name is konlan blaise yennulom from Ghana.
Kenya votes in August.
A nail biting contest is turning out to be.
Politics in the East African powerhouse is almost always punctuated by ethnicity. With the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin ethnic groups being the ones who have ruled the most. The Luo and the rest of the ethnic groups often will settle for compromised positions. As a result of political horse-trading stemming from party coalitions.
Political parties in Kenya are more of ethnic coalitions than political parties properly so called. Alliances are done for political calculus reasons on grounds of ethnicity and not necessarily anything underpinned by ideological trappings. No presidential candidate in Kenya has run future elections on the ticket of a previous coalition. Coalitions change in every election. Indeed Political parties in Kenya are swinging pendulums. They hardly have predictable characteristics.
Political power in that country since independence has orbited around the Kenyatta-Moi-Odinga axis.
Jomo Kenyatta the father of Uhuru kenyatta was the first president of independent Kenya. With Jaramogi Oginga Odinga the father of Ralia Odinga his vice. They fell out along the line anyway.
Daniel Arab Moi took over the reins of power after the eclipse of the Jomo-Oginga era and also ruled until he handed over to Mwai Kibaki in 2002 who recently passed on.
After him came Uhuru Kenyatta, in 2013, a kikuyu by ethnicity and a familiar face of the state House. And William Ruto, a kalenjin, his vice.
The Uhuru-Ruto ticket, a Kikuyu-Kalenjin ticket, have been the most tormentors of the political ambition of Ralia Odinga, a Luo in recent political history of Kenya. Together they ensured that he lost the 2013 and the 2017 elections respectively. It didn’t also matter; they both played a role against him in 2007. Though not as a ticket but enablers of a system they were part of.
Ralia Odinga has played a part in every episode if not all of the seminal political history of Kenya. As either a presidential candidate, a political prisoner, a litigant, a prime minister or all embedded in one.
He first ran for president in 1997 and continued in 2007, 2013 ,2017 and is still running this year, 2022. This feat gives him the combined honours of seeking for the top job in Kenya on five solid occasions. It didn’t also matter that he was at one point in the 1980s a political prisoner. He is 77 now.
What makes the August election more interesting is the history of the protagonists of that election. The current president Uhuru, his vice Ruto and the ‘perennial’ Odinga.
Ralia Odinga’s political life has always been a fight against the political establishment. If you like a certain Nairobi bubble. An establishment that has shown competence in stopping him from becoming a president in Kenya. Except for the isolated case of the power sharing arrangement in 2007 when he became the prime minister after the post election violence. He however somersaulted back to his not too enviable role as an opposition leader in 2013. A position he is determined to pass on I believe after August this year.
The story however is different for Odinga in this election. He is now the establishment candidate. To the chagrin of vice president Ruto, Odinga has the blessing of Uhuru Kenyatta to annex the top job in Kenya. An arrangement which is a product of the symbolic “handshake” event in 2018 where both Uhuru and Odinga under the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) sought to charter a path of unity in kenya. It doesn’t also matter that the constitutionality of the BBI is under judicial scrutiny in Kenya. It is at the Supreme Court now. An arrangement (BBI) many think is to provide a certain buffer for Uhuru Kenyatta as he is leaving office.
The handshake event in 2018 was when Uhuru’s problem with his vice Ruto who thought he was the next to lead began. His boss with whom they planned both the good and the bad together to defeat Ralia Odinga in previous elections has not given him his blessing to run. He is rather now in cahoots with Odinga to unsettle Ruto’s political ambition.
As a result of this, the political pendulum in Kenya has at its best swung. Coalitions as usual have changed from the previous ones.
The Jubilee coalition that both Uhuru and Ruto built around their Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups in the last election, has now struck a chord with Odinga’s Orange coalition. To what they now call Azimio la Umoja (Unity Declaration) coalition.
Coalitions (Jubilee &Orange) that were at opposite ends in the previous election are now in sync against Ruto. He has also been expelled from the Jubilee party. Together with his collaborators, they have also gone into a rival coalition called the United Democratic Alliance party, Keunder the Kwanza (Kenya first) for the August election.
Ralia Odinga who has all this while being outside the political establishment is now the one the establishment led by Uhuru kenyatta his long time political foe is supporting. And Ruto who previously was a dyed in the wool friend of the unholy establishment now has his own cross to carry.
The campaign towards the August election is the one between the ‘hustlers’ and the ‘dynasties ‘. A coinage William Ruto is using to proceed with this election.
He thinks the Kenyatta-Moi-Odinga axis, which is a dynasty, should be unsettled and given to the downtrodden who he calls the hustlers. A company he believes he is part of.
William Ruto is 55 now and sees himself as that agent of Class consciousness. Someone to endear himself to the masses. A claim his opponents call populist anyway. Though a young man but has gone through the mill since the 1990s. He is not a pushover. Even adding to the fact that he is a fish from a pond that he once lived in, he could pose a challenge to the medieval axis of the political establishment. We however wait to see the outcome of this flip flopping unholy pact procured by the movers and shakers of the politics of Kenya in the elections.
A new era still following the footsteps of the past.
By Blaise konlan