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March 24, 2018

The real problem in Kenya is that ‘other people’ are tribal

Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho PHOTO/File
Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho PHOTO/File


You must have heard the little story of four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.

Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.

Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

This story is important because it is that time in election cycle when Kenyans witness the now-familiar game of musical chairs, punctuated by the steady beat of political intrigue, and the creative riffs of shifting alliances.

The grand launch of the Jubilee Party last month was an ode to unity that is supposed to banish “tribal politics”. Meanwhile, Mombasa governor Hassan Joho has been touted as the ideal running mate to presumptive CORD candidate Raila Odinga, a move that will leave Kambas “cheated”, says Mbooni MP Kisoi Munyao, a defector to Jubilee.

Without CORD co-principal Kalonzo Musyoka, it is presumed Raila will lose the lower Eastern vote consisting of Kitui, Machakos and Makueni counties, votes critical to his 2017 re-election bid.

The subtext of this development – and there will be many more of this nature in the next ten months – is a presumption that Kenyans vote as tribal blocks, the (in)famous “tyranny of numbers”.

Election results seem to confirm this, and the political discourse certainly frames it so. But it deserves more interrogation.

Do Kenyans really vote according to ethnic identities? If they do, why? Which Kenyans vote according to ethnic identities, and which ones are more swayed by talk of manifestos and development plans? And are there overlapping identities, shifting allegiances in the mind of the individual voter, that actually mirror the musical chairs on the national stage?

Data from a probability sample survey conducted in December 2007 gives us a hint of nuance in voting behaviour, in a landscape that is said to be a homogenous, undisputable “game of numbers”. The survey results were published as a working paper by Afrobarometer, authored by Michael Bratton and Mwangi S. Kimenyi.

To see how Kenyans see themselves, respondents were asked for a self-ascribed group identity. The question was phrased like this: “We have spoken to many Kenyans and they have all described themselves in different ways. Some people describe themselves in terms of their language, ethnic group, race, religion or gender; and others describe themselves in economic terms, such as working class, middle class or a farmer. Besides being Kenyan, which specific group do you feel you belong to first and foremost?”

The results may not be what you might expect – just one in five (20%) Kenyans opted for an ethnic identity, ascribing to clan, tribe, or language.

More than twice as many (43%) chose non-ethnic identities, notably those based on occupation, social class, gender or religion.

Importantly, more than a third (37%) of respondents disregarded the interviewers instruction to discount their “Kenyan” identity in answering the question, and insisted on identifying themselves first and foremost as Kenyans, that is, in terms of national identity.

So how does the tyranny of numbers work exactly, then, if 80% of Kenyans do not prioritise their ethnic identity?

The data shows that although Kenyans downplay ethnicity when portraying themselves, they are less charitable in their assessments of fellow citizens. The data revealed that Kenyans do not easily trust others who hail from ethnic groups other than their own (just 8% said they trust people from other communities “a lot”).

They also think that political conflict is all too common among people of different ethnic backgrounds; 46% of Kenyans consider that violent conflicts occur “often” or “always” among different groups in the country.

Most importantly in explaning the “tyranny of numbers” phenomenon, they worry that other Kenyans tend to organise politically along exclusive ethnic lines, and to govern in discriminatory fashion. When asked to describe the political party they dislike the most, 59% said it was because that other party was tribal.

The result is that people – including those who self-identify as “Kenyan” – tend to vote defensively in ethnic blocs.

They do not need to be primarily motivated by their own ethnic origins in order to behave in this way, the researchers say; they only need fear that their opponents will rely on the formula of ethnic exclusivity.

In other words, as much as many people would like to escape it on a personal level, other people in Kenya are the ones who are incorrigible tribalists.

Ethnic favouritism is believed to be the rule, which means one end up losing out in access to resources (or “development”) if they ignore this in their voting calculations, even though privately they truly believe tribalism is wrong -- a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

So Everybody blames Somebody for being tribal, when Nobody does what Anybody could have done.


Christine Mungai is a writer and journalist; editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site


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