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February 20, 2019



Two of the most consequential events that shaped 2016 have been in the making for decades. For example, the neglect and honestly sheer hubris of America’s coastal elite gave us the TIME 2016 Person of the Year. Similarly, the underclass in the United Kingdom, galvanised by uncertainty, delivered Brexit.

The triumph of President-elect Donald Trump and Brexit shook the devotees of liberal democracy to the core. The unprecedented revolt of the underclass in both the US and the UK — considered the citadels of liberal democracy — persuaded many to doubt that the working class, who often lack four-year college education, could not be trusted with the delicate and complex choice that defines the essence of western democracy.

Populist nationalists marshalled arguments against free trade, globalisation, automation, and immigrants to instill and harness mortal fear and despondency to galvanise a veritable revolt of the underclass. In both the US and the UK, voters, pushed to the fringes of society, living on minimum wage or unemployed, without college education and lacking skills to thrive in the globalised knowledge economy, voted for Trump and “Leave”.

Both Brexit and the triumph of Trump offer invaluable lessons for Kenya since we are a nascent democracy. The lessons are especially critical because ours is a democracy conceived in the image of a liberal democracy. The lessons from Brexit and the rise of Trump are instructive because we are hard at work laying the foundation of the conditions that will produce and sustain an angry and virulent underclass.

A huge chasm of inequality has opened in our society. The fruits of economic growth, even though modest, have not been shared. As Macharia Gaitho recently put it, we have become a country of 40 billionaires and 40 million beggars. For a majority of Kenyans, life is uncertain and unforgiving.

Prosperity is stuck at the top, with those who have a monopoly on capital. The past 15 years of sustained economic growth, albeit modest, has not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality. Our zero-sum ethnic politics has only rewarded ethnic elites.

Our education has not kept pace with the demands of the new economy. About 90 per cent of youth entering the job market cannot find well-paying jobs. Urbanisation has spawned a multitude of working poor. Hence, a majority of Kenyans are disconnected and denied a chance to get a toehold on the first rung of the ladder of opportunity. Neglect of so many of our fellow citizens is both morally unconscionable and politically reckless. The end of ethnic politics is nigh. The emerging underclass will obliterate the primitive ethnic cleavages that now undergird our politics. The underclass will provide a fertile seedbed for virulent discontent and hasten the emergence of demagoguery.

The biggest threat to Kenya’s nascent democracy is not foreigners. The biggest threat to our existence as a people grappling with nationhood is not terrorism or tribalism. The growing legions of the underclass are our most grave existential threat to Kenya.

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