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January 16, 2019

Political divorce? Ask Kenya's elite


Economist David Ndii is at it again. One of Kenya’s foremost public intellectuals, who many in the ruling establishment and among their rabid supporters love to demonize, has once again, in the aftermath of the election, revived talk on his incendiary proposal for divorce. Basically, he postulates that Kenyan ethnic communities are in “an abusive marriage” and if they cannot come to an accommodation, they need to consider going their separate ways.

Although the proposal preceded it, his most recent comments were made and will be understood in the context of the election and especially the contested presidential poll, which is now the subject of a Supreme Court petition. At the root of them is the perceived domination of Kenyan political life, and the opportunity to “eat” the national cake, by a few large tribes.

The current focus of the griping is the Kikuyu-Kalenjin axis inaugurated by alliance of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. But it would be a mistake to think that this has always been the case. The twin narratives of domination, by either a single community or an alliance of a few of them, and resistance to it are as old as the country itself.

The logic of oppression and extraction was built into the state by our founding fathers, the British colonialists. They created a structure of government that was meant to entrench their lordship over all they surveyed and to facilitate their extraction from the local natives.

The rest of the communities didn’t take too kindly to this and eventually, ganged up to demand their independence. However, their inheritance from the departing and receding British was the colonial state, which they failed to fundamentally reform, and instead fell into squabbling over who would control it. And always, behind this, was fear of domination, which is really fear of the state.

In the run up to Independence, Kanu was created, almost overnight, as the vehicle for what was largely seen as a Kikuyu-Luo alliance to take over the state. It was immediately opposed by the rest of the “small” tribes, who majorly ganged up under the auspices of Kadu.

The deck was shuffled again after Kanu swallowed up Kadu and the Luo jettisoned soon after. Though Daniel Moi, with his Kalenjin bloc, was nominally the number two in the party and in government, it was clear that for all intents and purposes, the state now belonged to the Kikuyu elite. This was to continue till shortly after the death of Jomo Kenyatta, when it was the turn of the Kikuyu elite to be tossed out into the cold, where they joined their Luo counterparts to oppose the Kalenjin state.

This alliance eventually led to Moi’s retirement and the re-enactment of history as the Luo were once again double-crossed, this time by President Mwai Kibaki, and kicked out of what again became the Kikuyu state. The violence that followed the 2007 election gave rise to the first all-inclusive government where elites from all communities got in on the feeding frenzy. The 2013 General Election again saw the Luo shut out by the current Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance, which is perhaps slightly more equitable than that between the current President’s father and Moi.

What I’ve detailed above is a very simplified and simplistic model of Kenya’s history. But it does have the distinct advantage of helping us appreciate a fundamentally important fact that explain why Kenya is where it is today, and why it always seems to go round in circles. The problem we have been skirting for all these years is the state itself as a tool for domination rather than an expression of the people’s aspirations. We are fighting over who becomes the next oppressor, rather than trying to uproot oppression.

Which brings me back to Ndii’s argument. Last year, in response to his abusive marriage thesis, I wrote that Kenyans are actually in an abusive relationship with their elites, rather than with other tribes. The extraction that the state facilitates, and that is the real prize the elites are battling over, is from all Kenyans regardless of ethnicity — we all pay whoever gets to be the piper, some more than others, but that doesn’t mean we get to call the tune.

In fact, the whole talk of ethnic domination is a device to hide this domination by the elite of all tribes, which has led to a situation where 8,000 individuals own 62 per cent of everything. Dismembering the country will not fix this. It is only by doing the hard work of facing up to our history and rebuilding the state from the bottom up, not as a tool of oppression, but as a means to enable popular aspirations, that we can get out of this vicious cycle.


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