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February 23, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: Kenya's politics of grievance


There are currently two notable struggles for regional dominance playing out in the Kenyan political arena.

One is taking place in the Ukambani region and involves Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana and the longtime political overlord of that region, former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka. And the other, which is within Rift Valley, involves the Deputy President William Ruto and the senator for Baringo, Gideon Moi.

Neither of these is the kind of open political contest we usually have in an election year with mud flung left and right. Rather it is all about low-key efforts focusing largely on politicians positioning themselves well in advance, with an eye on the 2022 General Election.

What is notable here is a lot of talk about ‘development’ in the course of these preliminary political manoeuvres. Prof Kibwana is hailed as a champion of grassroots development and an exemplar of what can be done through devolution. His initiatives of l food processing factories; public health services and various other emblems of ‘development’ have led to a popular outcry that he should present his nomination papers for the presidency in 2022, so he may do for all of Kenya what he has done for Makueni.

Ruto never tires of declaring that his sole focus is implementing the government’s development agenda. And even those who support him continually state that they are at his side purely because they seek ‘development’ for their constituents.

But Kenya’s political history has long established that it’s not really economic development which moves the Kenyan voter. What seems to resonate most strongly at every election is what has been called the politics of grievance. You move your potential voters by instilling in them a powerful sense of grievance directed at your political rival and his allies. When that is effectively done, the ‘development that had been discussed for the previous four years suddenly becomes irrelevant.

Perhaps the most memorable illustration of this hard fact of Kenyan politics comes from the 2013 General Election, which had the then Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, running against the then former Finance minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, who at that time faced a uniquely intimidating challenge. He stood accused of crimes against humanity and had a case to answer at the ICC. His running mate Ruto — previously a die-hard supporter of Raila —faced the same grim prospect.

In the face of all evidence to the contrary, Uhuru and Ruto managed to convince virtually all their regional supporters that their problems were all due to the PM’s machinations and that it was Raila who had ‘conspired with foreigners to take us to The Hague’ to clear the path for his election as President. Of all the campaign selling points that Uhuru used in 2013, none brought out as loud a roar from the crowds as an appeal to the throng to defend Kenya’s sovereignty against those who were out to ‘sell the nation to their foreign masters.’

Now here is the really odd thing: For many years, virtually all Kenyan media commentators have decried the ‘immaturity’ and ‘political illiteracy of voters, which made them easy to manipulate and to organise into ‘tribal cocoons’. It was widely assumed that it was solely on account of the poverty and illiteracy of our voters that Kenyan presidential candidates could campaign on the basis of mostly imaginary grievances. And informed observers believed that in time our voters would ‘outgrow this appallingly juvenile approach to electing their leaders.

But that was before America elected Donald Trump as President. And also before the Brexit vote in the UK. Both the Trump and pro-Brexit campaigns centred on an allegation that ‘foreigners’ were taking advantage of the honest and hardworking citizens of the country concerned — the very thing we have heard said in Kenyan presidential elections.

If voters in two of the world’s great democracies have been revealed to be so easily manipulated by the politics of grievance, then I don’t see how Kenyan voters will ever ‘mature’ to the point where they can disregard such appeals.

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