Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Votes that Bind: Ethnic Politics and the Tyranny of Numbers

Sunday, March 17, 2013

 

Window dressing Western democracy

The Kenyan elections at the beginning of March 2013 were saluted as historic but they weren’t. They were only “historic” in as far as the elections were undertaken under the new constitutional dispensation. The most distinctive element of the latter is devolved power and deconcentration of governmental functions from Nairobi closer to the grassroots. As such, the elections were historic because, as provided by Kenya’s 2010 constitution, new elective positions such as county governors, senators and women representatives were on the ballot. But that is as far as the novelty of it all went.

When the nation went to the polls, ethnic bloc voting pattern, which emerged and solidified under the multiparty system, manifested itself without fail especially with regard to the presidential vote. The contest between the two leading presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Amolo Odinga turned out to be an ethnic contest that played-up old rivalry between the Kikuyu and the Luo. In spite of the first elective process that featured two presidential debates where policy issues took center stage, the presidential contest was not decided on the merit of the candidate who offered the best and clear vision for the country’s future. The pivotal issues in Kenyan politics were highlighted as expected of a burgeoning democracy. These include land; minimum wage; the cost of living; corruption; security; the impact of elections on the economy; and the future of internally displaced persons (IDPs). However, they did not quite inform people’s choices. Votes were cast to ethnic chiefs and their allied ethnic political affiliates. This election can be said to have been successful in window dressing democracy.

Kenyan “procreatocracy”: the tyranny of numbers

According to Mutahi Ngunyi, a prominent and leading Kenyan political analyst and political scientist, voters had already made up their minds about who they intended to vote for way before Election Day. For that reason, they quietly watched the presidential debates from which they distanced themselves. Further, according to Ngunyi, the presidential election was concluded and won by the Jubilee Alliance on 18th December 2012, the deadline set by the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) for the pre-election voter registration exercise. This ethnic alliance, Jubilee, brought together the first and third most populous ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, with other smaller groups such as the Somali, Meru, Embu and Mbeere.  The analyst’s observations, which were met by outrage, were a simple statement of an unfortunate and grim fact and historical record: Kenyans always vote their own irrespective of candidates’ merits or reputation.

The traditional voting bloc known as GEMA, consisting of the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru, has historically always preferred their own had a total of 4,356,161 registered voters. Their key political allies, the Kalenjin had 1,832,511 according to the IEBC. It was, therefore, predicted that as long as people voted along ethnic lines, Jubilee’s Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto would garner at least 6,188,672 votes to clinch the presidency. It did not come as a surprise to some, therefore, when the IEBC announced that the coalition had won the election by garnering 6,173,433 votes against the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD’s) 5,340,546 votes (50.51% to 43.7% of the votes cast respectively). This, then, is what Ngunyi referred to as the “tyranny of numbers” that determined and settled the presidential election before March 4th. The prediction of the result was only 15,239 votes off the mark, which says a lot about the disturbing fact of Kenya’s ethnicized politics and polarization, and consequently, ethnic bloc voting.

Issue-based politics is peripheral to national politics. This makes it difficult for Western powers to think of Kenya as a democracy. It is also telling of the redundancy of attempting to transmute African societies into democracies as modeled by the West. Kenya and most African countries fall far from this democratic ideal as illustrated by this election. Indeed, it is tempting to think of it as anything other than an ethnic census in which only ethnic votes count. The more one ethnic group dominates a country’s total population, the higher the likelihood of clinching the presidency. It seems as though Kenya is emerging as a “procreatocracy,” which I define as follows: a political system in which the capture, control, and maintenance of state power has become increasingly dependent on ethnic numerical superiority. The inclination towards this kind of system has deep historical roots dating back to Kenya’s colonial history.

The politics of numbers has been the preoccupation of various political interests since colonial times when the paltry population of white settlers worked to transform the country into a white man’s land. Settlers encouraged European immigration into the colony. This was a race against time because the political consciousness of the African population, encouraged by Indian political activism in the inter-war years, was on the rise. This preoccupation survived after independence when ethnicity replaced racism as the most important factor in Kenyan politics.

Votes that bind: hope for a democratic future?

It is important to also point out that to triumph against the stiff competition from Raila, Kenyatta had to cross the 50% + 1 constitutional threshold of the total votes cast. He managed to top this by about 8,400 votes. He also met the other crucial requirement of obtaining 25% votes in 47 counties, which have diverse ethnic makeup. Indeed, Kenyatta was able to win 25% of the vote in at least 30 of these counties strewn across the country. Kenyatta clinched the presidency with the help of non-GEMA and Kalenjin votes while Raila put up a spirited fight with the assistance of non-Luo and Kamba support.

Kenya needs to learn a moral lesson from the Eastern region and Nairobi where the vote to both presidential candidates was split right through the middle. This was also true of two counties namely Garissa and Marsabit. These regions and the ethnic groups they represent are the face of Kenya’s democratic future. Notable too was Kakamega, which somewhat ignored its ethnic kingpin Musalia Mudavadi. Although there may be subtleties beyond the scope of this article, the voting pattern in these regions and counties represent almost equally split votes that bind Kenyans together and act as a balm of our fractured and haunted past sometimes blotched by blood. 

IDPs, the ICC and relations with the West: miscellanies?

Soon after Kenyatta’s contested victory, the US, the European Union and Britain hedged and reserved their congratulatory messages. They issued a generic message to “the people of Kenya” lauding them for largely peaceful elections that demonstrated a strong commitment to electoral democracy. It is, therefore, obvious that the West and the US and Britain in particular, were rather uncomfortable with a Kenyatta presidency, which is no longer hypothetical but a reality. Once Kenyatta and Ruto take the oath of office, they will be the face of Kenya’s government and leadership despite their individual cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Since the elections, Britain has stated that it will only maintain “essential” contact with the two men indicted by the ICC.

While the United States’ top African diplomat Johnnie Carson had issued a terse warning before the elections that “choices have consequences,” that’s an unlikely policy path. Recently, when the US Ambassador, Robert Godec, met the two leaders, he delivered a congratulatory message from President Barrack Obama. He also added that together, the US and Kenya, had “faced many problems and solved many challenges” and this “cooperation has benefited both of our peoples.” Uhuru said that Kenya regards the US as a valuable development partner and ally in addressing regional challenges including terrorism, insecurity, money laundering and piracy.

Thus, when it comes to Africa-West foreign relations, it is a well-known fact that the US and Britain need Kenya as much as Kenya needs them especially with regard to the fight against terrorism and maritime security in the Horn of Africa. Kenya has been a strong ally in the hunt for al-Shabaab militants, a Somali-terrorist group with al-Qaeda ties. Indeed, in the last one year and a half, the Government of Kenya has successfully executed a military operation, Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) inside Somali territory. Kenya’s participation in ensuring that country’s stability and reconstruction is key, a role the US and Britain cannot afford to ignore. Perhaps, it is with this in mind that one former American official with extensive knowledge on Africa was quoted by the New York Times saying that the US needs Kenya more than Kenya needs it. With China’s rare earth strategies with Africa being a key component, a cold reception of the new government may lead to a shift of foreign relations to Beijing in particular and the Far East in general.

There’s a possibility of normal working relationship whatever the immediate course Kenya’s foreign policy may take. There is also the possibility that charges against Kenyatta and Ruto may ultimately be dropped as that of their former co-accused Francis Muthaura, the former Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet. Muthaura’s charges were dropped at the International Criminal Court on March 11th. However, Kenyatta’s government has inherited a deeply divided country and the task of completing political reforms that rest on an unequivocal implementation of the 2010 constitution. The pivotal and incendiary issue in Kenyan politics, land reform, also remains a sensitive issue that pitts Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s respective ethnic groups (Kikuyu and Kalenjin) against each. This problem is embodied by the IDPs who still live in camps since the violent post-election violence of 2007/2008. How the two tackle this issue in the next one hundred days after they assume office will be the litmus test of the new government for both local and international observers.

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