After the 2013 general election, a fierce spasm of violence erupted between the different communities – Borana, Gabra, Sekuye, Garre, Burji, etc - in Marsabit county.
This was not a new phenomenon in the area as competition for scarce grazing lands and other resource-related, political and cultural differences had been the cause of violence for over a decade.
In Turbi town in July 2005, over 100 schoolchildren were brutally massacred. This time, hundreds were killed, over 400 homes destroyed and 54,000 people fled Moyale into Ethiopia.
HOW POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY INVENTS NEW ‘TRIBES’
In the Kenya National Union of Teachers elections prior to the polls, the ‘smaller’ Rendille, Gabra and Burji communities had come together into a formation called the Regabu to compete with the Borana, previously perceived as dominant.
In the 2013 elections, the Regabu swept most of the elective seats – including Governor, Senator, Women’s Representative, two MPs and many MCAs.
This marked a major shift in the politics of the area and a previously unheralded ethnic reconfiguration. The competition for resources and access to justice and economic opportunity were rendered even more toxic.
Where institutions of governance are nascent or have been deliberately neutered by the ruling elite, political leaders become tribal warlords mobilising their ethnic groups into electoral blocs big enough to negotiate for a right to eat at the high table of state.
Eating is presumed to be the primary activity of those who ascend to high public office. You consolidate your tribesmen by promising them ‘plum’ state jobs, ‘lucrative’ public offices indeed, state offices described as a kind of food ‘to be eaten’.
Heads of state who make even the pretence of inclusivity are given more room for political mistakes than those who do not in this context.
In oil-rich Nigeria, for example, the peace holds among hundreds of ethnic groups in part because the North is largely Muslim and the South populated by either Christians or followers of traditional religions.
The tradition is that the presidency moves from North to South and vice versa in a cycle foundational to Nigerian democracy. In Kenya too, the other communities have not idly watched the Kalenjin-Gikuyu hegemon.
While the hegemon itself is full of unresolved contradictions, many of the resentments that inform politics among other ethnic groups is derived from the fact that they are reduced to spectators of the great game constantly trying to organise themselves for a place at the high table.
Historically, and because of the acrimonious split between Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta, the Luo community has been the primary articulator of what it means to be an ‘outsider’; its leaders have been at the forefront of militating against the hegemon and opening up political space in Kenya.
We saw last week that no-matter how cynical, the Kalenjin-Gikuyu (1964-1991) elite alliance managed, especially when it enjoyed external support, to maintain a measure of dynamic authoritarian stability in Kenya. The leaders of other communities were accommodated according to the loyalty they demonstrated and their capacity to convince their people that their access to economic opportunity and to justice was as good as they could get considering ‘the prevailing political realities’.
Mavericks who complained were harassed, imprisoned, detained, exiled or killed.
THE POLITICS OF ‘EATING’ IN THE AGE OF PLURALISM
After the reintroduction of multi-party politics - in part driven by Moi’s alienation of his Gikuyu allies and the international community’s support of human rights, good governance, transparency, the accountability agenda after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the push for wider democratic freedoms - things changed.
The latter was imbued with ethnic overtones as the Gikuyu elite, Moi’s old allies, took the front pew in agitating for these changes along with courageous leaders from a host of other communities.
The new politics was still one of tribal warlords fighting for their place in the centre of the state so they could eat, but now they had political parties to do it with instead of boxing in the dark belly of the Kanu monolith.
Political competition became more expensive, volatile and violent as the new opportunities raised stakes considerably.
President Moi’s expensive, institutionally degrading and violent game of political musical chairs among the elite between 1991 and 2002 set the stage for the ‘steal-everything-that-isn’t-nailed-down’ second Gikuyu-Kalenjin alliance that runs Kenya today.
Mwai Kibaki’s initially inclusive regime lasted only between 2003 and 2004. By 2005, the fallout within the ruling coalition was so significant that entire communities exited what they perceived as a ‘Mt Kenya Mafia’ dominated regime.
As a result, the government heavily lost the 2005 constitutional referendum, despite most Kenyans supporting its provisions. The majority was far keener on teaching the Mafia a political lesson.
Indeed, the 2007 election — which failed in an unprecedented orgy of violence — was to considerable extent the anti-Gikuyu poll, the economic achievements of the Kibaki administration notwithstanding. Its malice threatened to kill the Kenya project dead.
THE RETURN OF MAJIMBO TO MANAGE PERCEIVED HEGEMONIC TRIBAL ALLIANCES
While not articulated as such, the return of devolution to the constitutional reform debate during the Kibaki regime was informed by the perception, fuelled by political leaders, that it was a panacea to the politics of ethnic exclusivity.
Essentially, political pluralism had failed to deal with Kenya’s bogeymen of ethnic and income inequality in terms of access to state resources and power.
So the thing to do was take the power and resources as close to the people as possible – period! Centralists had resisted the new constitution and introduction of devolution since the 1960s.
Indeed, Mzee Kenyatta and, Jaramogi had essentially dumped the first independence constitution and majimbo, as it was then popularly known, by 1964.
Ironically, it was Jaramogi's son, Raila Odinga, who led the charge vis-Ã -vis devolution’s reintroduction into our current constitution.
Devolution has been economically and politically transformational. It has taken governance closer to the people, even as it has complicated governance for the centre.
In truth though, devolution — rebaptised ugatuzi in the new dispensation — was never a proactive national policy meant for the wider public good.
It was always, and remains, a defensive political strategy informed by mistrust of the thieving of hegemonic alliances of tribes that have ruled Kenya since independence. As such it was, and remains, divisive.
DEVOLUTION ON STEROIDS
Devolution was not meant to solve Kenya’s fundamental lack of cohesion; rather to ring-fence it in the tradition of Bantustans.
Not aimed at making things better, but to stop them from getting worse, its logic was not collective but fragmentary; since there are those who won’t share, to each his own.
It took power from a reluctant centre and the elites that own it, by constitutional force! It is thus that a certain belligerent spirit attends to it.
This is best exemplified by how quickly both MPs and Senators became rather superfluous to real politics on the ground. At the grassroots, the MCAs, less educated in the ways of Nairobi but closer to the true feelings of the people on the ground, have become the most powerful political agents in the land.
A similar bad faith gene attended to majimbo as it was mooted prior to independence by the colonial settlers working with some of the leaders who later came to head Kadu. It was divide-and-rule on steroids.
Devolution became the default preferred governance model. Kenya’s democratic trajectory has been much like that of a block of flats whose piped water system from the river fails purely because the piping is owned by one set of chaps who aren’t keen to explain how they come up with their charges.
Residents thus replace it with a bowser system, with different groups of residents coming together to have water delivered to their homes at their convenience.
The very same residents then realise that the bowsers are owned by the chaps who’d dubiously claimed ownership of the piping in the first place.
They abandon that system and every apartment organises itself to get water from the river. The water gets there, even if it’s messily, by bucket!
Devolution has seen as massive transfer of wealth to the grassroots. It’s messy, expensive, corrupt - but wananchi are heavily invested in it.
Committed centralists still whine about its cost (roughly Sh200 billion annually) but it isn’t much considering annual revenue collection.
It has now become clear we’ve devolved corruption. Still, at the grassroots, communities are far more tolerant of being robbed by their neighbour than by the oligarchs and faceless thieves in Nairobi.
The neighbour who, on the way home, can confront the local thief can demand the stolen goods back, a share of the loot or simply deploy the weapon of public shaming.
Partly as a result, border, resource and other conflicts are more difficult for the centre to manage. A centre whose power and legitimacy was already eroding by the start of the century, mainly because of out-of-control corruption hollowing out key national institutions.
The current Gikuyu-Kalenjin alliance is largely based on historically legitimated hubris, a lot of thieving and eschewing accountability.
So the looting has been mind-boggling. In this environment, complaining too enthusiastically about the thieving of MCAs is met with an aggressively defensive reaction.
Indeed, prior to the 2013 election memories of the 2007-08 post-election violence led to the greatest bout of peace advocacy in the history of Kenyan civil society, media, churches, private sector and the international community. We even congratulated ourselves for the generally peaceful polls.
This time around, in huge swathes of the country, this kind of advocacy will be met with mistrust and apathy. This is partly because the private sector, church, and sections of the media are perceived as extensions of the Jubilee regime.
A more virulent and angry kiumane (let things get bad) narrative has grabbed hold around the elections. Some politicians have been charged with hate speech, but the general attitude is unapologetic even if it means the blood of innocents will be spilt.