Kenya has enjoyed relative stability since its 1963 independence. But as election season looms, there is little on offer for voters beyond ethnic political divisions, coalitions and populist promises.
Just over a third of Kenyans live below the poverty line. The country needs better healthcare, an improved economy, quality affordable education, access to clean water and national cohesion. Instead, leaders pursue ballots for economic and political gain.
Ahead of the general election in August 2022, Kenya’s ethnic political kingpins – the party heads – are planning how to take charge of their respective communities. What the country needs is democratic leadership that stops the cycle of ethnic polarisation. The constitutional principles of equity and inclusivity are also paramount to avoid the slippery slope of political intolerance and electoral violence.
Since Kenya’s transition from colonialism to a one-party state and eventually multiparty democracy in 1992, successive governments were forced to accept the people’s demand for political pluralism.
But the country also has a history of betrayals surrounding succession politics. This legacy brews mistrust and suspicion among voters and politicians, with polls often turning political allies into foes. The Raila Odinga-Mwai Kibaki fallout after their 2002 alliance and the Uhuru Kenyatta-William Ruto scrap during Kenyatta’s second term show how these pacts are vehicles to access power rather than deliver on the country’s needs.
On the positive side, Kenya has set an example in the region for handling internal political disagreements. For instance, the repeal of section 2A of the constitution in 1991 paved the way for multiparty democracy and a new constitution in 2010. Another example is the National Accord and Reconciliation Act that gave way to the Grand Coalition Government after the 2007/8 post-election violence.
Democratic progress was also evident when the Supreme Court upheld the presidential poll results in 2013 and later annulled the 2017 general election results, forcing a rerun. The August ruling by the High Court and Court of Appeal against the executive, which tried to make constitutional changes through the Building Bridges Initiative, shows judicial independence. These are signs of a working democracy.
But the ethnic political formations and populist politics that occupy leaders’ attention while they fail to deliver on campaign promises, stifles Kenya’s potential as a democracy. Populist promises are enticing to the electorate – especially the poor – but seldom result in delivery after the polls.
The republic’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, used the concept of ‘harambee’ – a popular rallying call – to unite a young nation and build a stronger country. The word has remained Kenya’s official motto, appearing on its coat of arms. However, Kenyatta’s leadership was marked by failed promises both to the population and his political allies.
President Daniel arap Moi was no different, ruling the country through populism and an iron fist. He constantly alluded to the well-being of the poor and rejected those who went against national unity. But these concerns were mere rhetoric. Both Moi and Jomo Kenyatta’s tenures were marred when they placed members of their own ethnic communities – the Kikuyu and Kalenjin – in senior government positions that provided access to state power and resources.
Kibaki’s government oversaw remarkable economic improvements, but he did little to dissolve the culture of ethnic politics or promote ethnic cohesion. It was during his tenure that the country was plunged into post-election violence in 2007/8. Kibaki tried to resolve the tensions through the National Dialogue and Reconciliation forum and its four-point agenda. But both have to date registered little success.
In 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto came to power through populist politics anchored in their cases before the International Criminal Court, and by appealing to their ethnic support bases. Their alliance – under the guise of reconciliation – earned them sympathy votes from their respective ethnic constituencies.
However, despite using populism and ethnic numbers (Kikuyu is the largest community and Kalenjin the fourth biggest) to win the top posts, many of their campaign promises remain unfulfilled after nearly a decade in power. And while the National Cohesion and Integration Commission has done well to promote unity and fight hate speech, its reports gather dust on government shelves. As a result, ethnicity in Kenya has become even more politicised.
Through his ‘handshake’ with opposition leader Odinga, Kenyatta embarked on a journey to promote cohesion, equity and inclusivity through the Building Bridges Initiative. The initiative proposed legislation to radically alter the structure of government. This and other interactions between the two leaders were seen as a betrayal by deputy president Ruto’s allies, who feel Kenyatta is reneging on his support for Ruto’s presidency in 2022.
The Ruto wing has framed the contest as one between ‘dynasties’ and ‘hustlers’ – Kenya’s wealthy families against the struggling ones. This brand of politics won’t serve voters’ interests but will exploit their already dire living conditions. With elections in the offing, political rivalry based on ethnic numerical strength could pit citizens against each other and trigger violence.
Kenya must look back if it wants to move forward. The country’s political and election history should inform its future choices. Leaders are needed who are willing to change the political discourse to represent all Kenyans and not just a handful of communities. Without this change at the top, efforts to promote nation building, equality and good governance will never bear fruit.
The government should fully implement recommendations of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission and other bodies that aim to address historical injustices, improve elections and deal with governance problems such as unbalanced regional development, resource allocation and nepotism. Kenyan voters need to unite in their rejection of divisive political narratives. They must demand leaders who are governed by the constitutional principles of equity and inclusivity.
Written by Guyo Chepe Turi, Consultant, ISS Nairobi
This research is funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation Kenya. The opinions and statements in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the HSF.