So, Do You Want to Know Which Tribe Rules Kenya?

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On a visit to Kenya last week, the National Democratic Institute — a Washington based lobby group — pronounced Kenya not ready to hold a democratic and violence-free general election. This was not — as we often claim when criticised — yet another example of Western imperialism; the delegation included respected human-rights advocates such as Martin Luther King III and former Botswana president Quett Masire.

The group listed a number of concerns that need to be addressed. These included enactment of enabling election laws, removal of uncertainty surrounding the election date, issuance of ID cards, depoliticising the ICC process and curbing recent incidents of violence.

A key recommendation of their report was voter education on a number of subjects: Changes in the Constitution, the roles of various constitutional bodies and prevention of election violence.

However, the report failed to mention as a subject for civic education a key constitutional principle — “community of interest,” not tribe, as the basis for political mobilisation.

Tribal mobilisation is driven and maintained by politicians because it is an uncomplicated means of gaining political support. Why have to think through and explain complex economic issues, grapple with weighty social policy matters or expend energy persuading people to adopt a certain ideological or philosophical position when you can just summon tribal solidarity? In Kenya, political parties are only used superficially as tools for political mobilisation.

Thus, no one can tell you what their party stands for on issues affecting the country as a whole.

Depending on the expediencies of the moment, tribal demagogues can move from Party X to Y and back again to X, taking with them their tribal voting blocs. Where else but in Kenya would people wait for someone to decide for them which party to join? In a sad turn of events, independence of thought, for which so many suffered and died, is now being willingly surrendered.

Tribal mobilisation is of course possible only because ordinary people have been socialised into seeing it as the only basis of conducting politics. The following anecdote illustrates how deeply entrenched this way of thinking is.

There is an old man I know who likes to talk politics, analysing for me the prospects of the various tribal groupings masquerading as political parties. To introduce another dimension to his analysis, I once told him about a programme on a local TV station that features Kenya’s wealthy class, which — not surprisingly — is comprised mostly of politicians: Mansions in various parts of the country, expensive tastes in decor and dress, leisure activities in exclusive clubs, jet set travel, children in private schools, net worth in millions and billions of shillings, etc.

If a foreigner, I told my interlocutor, were to watch the programme, he would see the same habits, shared values, tastes and interests. In other words, these people, while ethnically heterogeneous, fundamentally share the same culture. They have very little in common with poor people from their respective ethnicities.

I looked at the old man hopefully. But the expression on his face was really one of incomprehension or disinterest. Nothing I had said moderated his tribal biases. I kept thinking that this old man who, I was all but certain, lived in a slum, was the type that attack a fellow slum dweller in the name of solidarity with a rich politician with whom they share nothing but a language.

We need, therefore, to introduce -— through structured community discussions — concepts such as class and “community of interest,” so that we can begin to undermine the lie sold by politicians to the Kenyan underclass — that there is a “tribal DNA” that predisposes members of the same ethnic group to see the world the same way and to have similar interests irrespective of their class, religion, education, etc.

We must incorporate this discussion in our civic education because an impoverished Kalenjin hacking an impoverished Kikuyu to death in the Rift Valley, or a Kikuyu slum dweller in Nairobi killing a Luo neighbour, is profoundly tragic, for these murders are committed in the name of a fiction, one which only serves the interests of the tribe featured in the TV programme referred to above.

By Tee Ngugi. Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi

The original article can be found on The East African.

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