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February 18, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: All politics is largely tribal

US President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, August 27, 2018. REUTERS
US President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, August 27, 2018. REUTERS

It is more than likely that at the height of his tribulations at The Hague, Uhuru Kenyatta never imagined that a day would come when he would be an honoured guest at the White House, as the duly elected President of Kenya.

And yet here we are, seeing those photos of broad smiles and hearty handshakes, as Uhuru engages his host, President Donald Trump.

It is a reminder that in politics, what seems like ‘reality’ today, can easily be invalidated tomorrow.

And likewise, what once seemed ‘obviously impossible’ may in the end be precisely what we see broadcast on prime TV.

Speaking of the Trump presidency — which of course some of the most astute American political pundits considered to be absolutely impossible, right until the final tallies were announced — I must admit that it has opened my eyes to the universal nature of certain political trends.

Over many years of following American politics as closely as is possible from this distance, I had long concluded that ‘tribalism’ was a political toxin unique to developing countries, and that in any advanced economy with close to 100 per cent literacy, any form of tribalism was simply impossible.

Basically, it seemed to me that tribal voting patterns were part of the growing pains of a young nation. And that a few decades from now, we Kenyans too would be mostly swayed by ideological considerations rather than continuing in a blind devotion to ‘one of our own’.

And yet nowadays you cannot read any analysis of the upcoming mid-term elections in the US, without finding therein a detailed assessment of how the ‘tribalisms’ of American regional politics will play out.

Apparently, American voters were every bit as tribal as we Kenyans are, all this time. And the key deciding factor in American electoral contests is ‘identity politics’— that is to say, tribalism. Yet it was only after Trump won that this became something Americans routinely confess to as obvious.

And of course, the UK has revealed much the same pattern of ‘tribalisms’. There are regular (and utterly hilarious) accounts in the British media of townships which contemptuously voted to ‘throw off the unbearable yoke of the European Union’. Only it just so happened that in reality, they had for years been receiving massive transfers from the very EU which they so despised.

Perhaps the chief reason why I find all this so interesting is that I was, until a few years ago, a regular commentator for the BBC World Service in a business and economics radio programme. In this capacity, I was often invited to participate in all manner of discussion panels on global issues, some of them featuring genuinely eminent men and women.

The one thing I could never adequately explain at such forums was why so often, Africans — where there was any semblance of democracy — could often be relied on to vote against their economic interests.

Indeed, about 10 years ago, this was very much a Kenyan issue, as a prominent development economist (whose name I now forget) had raised that very question over our 2007 General Election.

To him, the most shocking fact about that election was not the believable allegations of vote rigging, nor the terrifying violence, but rather that a President (ie Mwai Kibaki) who had taken over a country with an economy in deep stagnation, and raised it to about seven per cent annual growth, had not won that election by a landslide.

Did Kenyans not understand that it was in their economic interest that Kibaki should be rewarded with another term in office?

If I had known then what I know now, this question would have been very easy to answer.

I would have laughed at the eminent interlocutors that I often faced, and told them, “Yes, it is true that we Kenyans have been found to vote against our economic interests. When voting we seem to only think of tribe. But the voters in your country are no different. Your turn will come — and you will see voters in various North American and Western European nations vote on the basis of tribe, rather than of rational economic interest.”

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