IT’S ELECTION SEASON once again and it has started early this time. The stakes are high for the Jubilee regime as they are for all incumbent regimes. There was a time in Africa when the idea of an incumbent leader losing an election as opposed to completing constitutionally mandated terms was unthinkable. A president in office generally uses all the tools of state to win an election and to ‘mobilise the resources’ for campaigns that are increasingly as expensive as those in mature democracies costing millions of dollars that needs to be donated, extorted and stolen from somewhere. On the face of it, there doesn’t appear to be significant policy or ideological differences between the political competitors. This is Kenya’s curse as it were: tribe and corruption hold our politics in a vice-like grip. Why?
KENYA’S ‘EXIT’ SOCIETY
The urgency is also of what Kenya has become; what I have heard described as an ‘exit society’ that could scarcely be further removed from the founding anti-colonial, end-of -Empire principles of Pan Africanism that prized values such as inclusivity, solidarity and collective development. Those politicians we see jostling to be first-off-the-ramp come the 2017 elections know all too well how brutally those who fail in politics are pushed into the cold. However, it doesn’t stop there. Part of the huge palaver that attends to the release of national exam results every year is because the implications for those children who don’t get top grades in examinations are dire, particularly if their parents cannot afford other options. Basically, ‘fail exams and you are on your own’, as we have failed to expand - and in some cases actually shut down - our state middle-level educational, technical and vocational diploma level institutions. Those who don’t make the grade join the so-called jua kali private sector whether they want to or not.
Indeed, the squeezing out of educationally inclusive options has almost become implicit state policy. The Japanese-funded mid-level diploma offering Jomo Kenyatta College of Agriculture and Technology started in 1981 is now a university. Similarly, another key mid-level institution, the Kenya Science Teachers College (KSTC) is now part of the University of Nairobi. So too, in business, ‘miss out on that deal and you’re out in the cold’. Finally, lose an election and your supporters, (which in Kenya means those from ethnic communities related to your own), suffer for it in terms of reduced access to economic opportunity and justice. This culture of aggressively eschewing inclusivity differentiates Kenya from most other African countries save for, say, Zimbabwe and South Africa prior to their independence. And so it is that there has been back and forth over paying the former PM Raila Odinga and his co-principal, former VP, Kalonzo Musyoka, their benefits unless they ‘exit’ politics. Illegal, but part of our particular culture. It ultimately means our politics is organized in a particular way: high stakes, tribal, exclusivist, devoid of values except making money. There is a specific history to this with implications for our next elections will play out.
Jomo Kenyatta’s government claimed as its guiding ideology ‘African socialism’, with a particular commitment to the freedom of all peoples of African descent and the principles of equality, solidarity and inclusivity that had been first been articulated by Pan Africanists. Kenyatta himself was considered a prominent Pan Africanist, coming out of a movement that had grown over several decades from the turn of the century. The seminal Pan Africanist Conference, held in 1900 in London, was organised by Barrister Henry Sylvester Williams from Trinidad. W.E.B Du Bois who’d attended the 1900 event went ahead to arrange, together with Ida Hunt and others, the 1919 first Pan African Congress in Paris. Diverse sessions of the second (1921), third (1923) and fourth (1927) Congresses were held in London, Brussels, Lisbon and New York. The fifth and most significant one was held in 1945 in Manchester. Organized by George Padmore and Kwame Nkurumah among others, it was attended by W.E.B Du Bois (then 77 years of age), as well as Kenyatta, and other young Africans who would go on to become leaders in their countries, including Hastings Kamuzu Banda from Malawi, and Obafemi Awolowo from Nigeria. Kenyatta was to become a key figure in the Pan Africanist movement, in part because he was based in London for a number of years, and also because he had the charisma, force of personality and dedication to push the cause. It is instructive that though the two Pan Africanist Congresses held after most of Africa had achieved its independence were held in East Africa (Dar es Salaam, 1974 and Kampala, 1994), neither were held in Nairobi, the capital city that carried Kenyatta’s legacy.
KENYATTA’S BIG SHIFT
Immediately after independence, both Kenyatta and Malawi’s Banda took critical decisions that have had great impact on politics across the continent. They both dumped the humanistic, Pan Africanist ideals that they had identified with as younger men. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this as much as the fact that both Kenya under Kenyatta and Malawi under Banda, embraced the most brutally racially exclusivist regime in the world at that time, apartheid South Africa; the greatest African political taboo of the last century.
The impact was also felt at home. Kenya was just coming out of a turbulent anti-colonial struggle, the most visible manifestation of which had been the fierce Mau Mau rebellion The rebellion was fed by the alienation of land from the local communities by the British government for the benefit of White settlers. Kenyatta essentially incorporated the African administrative collaborators of the colonial regime into his post-independence one and set about coming up with a methodology to reserve the choicest parts of the land the settlers had appropriated for the new political elite. To do that the government had to find a way of dealing with the hundreds of thousands of those who were now keen to get back the land forcibly appropriated from the ancestors who had been kicked out to make way for British settlers. The only other part of the country left with high potential land that had a reasonably low population density was the Great Rift Valley. The Rift Valley was to become the safety valve of Kenyan politics, absorbing the many it did, particularly the Gikuyu landless from the so-called White Highlands. This decision of shrewd, albeit cynical, pragmatism guaranteed Kenya a modicum of stability underwritten by an authoritarian, unequal and individualistic dispensation. Importantly, it also allowed the new heavily Gikuyu elite around Kenyatta, which behaved very much like its colonial predecessor, to take over the lands left behind by the departing British without breaking them up. It also meant that rather than build a cohesive and unified shared national or even continental identity, Kenyatta had to rapidly and urgently tribalise our politics. The episodic oathing that became a feature of these times, a divide-and-rule tactic inimical to the ideals articulated by Kenyatta and his fellow Pan Africanists, was a potent symbol of how far the country had strayed from the ideals that it had entered into independence with.
The allegations of land grabbing that soon followed saw him fall out with some of his closest allies including Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, his vice president. With Jaramogi went the politically powerful Luo community. Similar ideological differences truncated the career of another vice-president, Joseph Murumbi and others such as Bildad Kaggia. After Kenyatta’s death, Moi facilitated Jaramogi’s political rehabilitation, even appointing him to chair of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board. Jaramogi, while speaking at a function in Mombasa, reiterated that his fall out with Jomo Kenyatta in the 1960s had much to do with the latter’s land-grabbing. Soon after, this appointment was revoked, and Jaramogi was once again out in the political cold.
It does to remember that KADU’s Daniel arap Moi, the leading political voice of the Rift Vallley communities, had been strategically tempted across the floor into Kenyatta’s KANU administration soon after independence. The quid pro quo was simple: the thousands of dispossessed Gikuyus were resettled in the Rift Valley (and also other parts of the country) via a variety of innovative land buying schemes and the elite around Kenyatta inherited the juiciest chunks of the ‘White Highlands’ intact in Central Kenya and adjoining parts of the Rift Valley. In exchange, Moi, opposed vociferously by prominent Kalenjin leaders like Jean Marie Seroney, quietly became increasingly influential, finally becoming vice president. With this came incumbency, an opportunity to also forge a small, tremendously rich Kalenjin elite, heavily dependent on his patronage. It also, more importantly allowed Moi to facilitate the employment of the members of his tribe into the police, army, prisons service and civil service in general. He stoically held on to his post as Kenyatta’s much-derided deputy until Kenyatta’s death. He took over promising to follow in Kenyatta’s footsteps (nyayo) and he did.
The crude tribalisation of our politics deepened. Indeed, despite our new constitution, these more atavistic realities underlie our politics. Nairobi is a shiny city with skyscrapers and a citizenry in smart cars and suits who also happen to be virulent tribalists devoid of any values except making money at any cost and willing to kill for their warlords at election time. This in turn makes our main political parties ideologically vacant raw mobilization contraptions that are exit-avoidance machines; aimed at capturing ethnic blocs with the promise to eat ‘only if you ascend to power’. One wonders what Kenya would be like if Kenyatta hadn’t made his big shift at independence. More on this next time…