DP Ruto's party and our colonial legacy

Deputy President William Ruto
Deputy President William Ruto

The Deputy President recently played host, at his modest house, to more than 5,000 politicians and others from the Rift Valley, to sell the idea of replacing government political parties by the Jubilee Party, as proposed by Uhuru’s advisers, ready for the next general election.

The proposal has been unwelcome not only in the Rift Valley but in some other government strongholds with their own political parties. This illuminates various aspects of Kenya’s politics.

One is the personalisation of politics. Politicians may value their parties, but their primary concern is their fortunes. Ruto welcomed his guests, the Standard says, telling them that the JP is “about me and the State House in 2022”.

He explained carefully that sometimes one must forgo one’s party to advance one’s career, giving the example of Moi, a “political giant” and “far-seeing”, who abolished Kadu to join Jomo Kenyatta’s Kanu.

That Kenya politics has changed little in 50 years is shown by another Kalenjin giving up his party to join another Kenyatta party. Just as Moi gave no convincing explanation of why he was abandoning Kadu – established to protect the key interests of the smaller tribes and ensure democracy – so Ruto’s main (and more candid) explanation is that JP will ensure his presidency in 2022.

Following Moi’s subservience to Jomo, Ruto assured his audience: “Don’t think I am foolish. I will be obedient and serve President [Uhuru] Kenyatta’s government until my time comes” (at which point his audience cheered loudly, no doubt thinking of benefits they would themselves secure).

Not a word about JP’s policies, but explicit acknowledgment that he needs Mt Kenya votes (“we will get their votes”). Nor apparently was Ruto concerned by the lack of consultation with the Kalenjin like the lack of consultations in the days of Moi (the consequences of lack of consultation is before the electoral tribunal).

The resistance to the merger is no doubt due to ethnicised politics, whereby politicians claim to represent “my people” and are prepared to make deals with leaders of other “peoples”, particularly presidential candidates.

Merging with a national party might well damage the reputation of the leader of “my people”, whose votes he controls. Interestingly, in the final stages of decolonisation, major ethnic leaders began to distance themselves and their ethnic parties from Kanu and Kadu, so they could bargain.

Ironically, the contemporary obsession with ethnic parties recalls colonial policies, which banned Africans, first from forming parties, then restricting them to the district – thus spawning a number of ethnic political leaders, some not totally unsympathetic to colonial rule.

The colonial authorities saw this as weakening the freedom movement. Today’s rationale for ethnic parties is different, but equally fundamental to the operation of our politics.

It is not without interest that the Kalenjin leaders who opposed the merger are reported as saying that with the abolition of URP, “the region risks losing its political identity”. This is not the only area of government where the colonial legacy lingers.

There is another irony, as the present classification of 'tribes' (or 'ethnic communities') was largely the work of the colonial regime, as shown by scholars like Alan Ogot and John Lonsdale, turning fluid relations between communities into rigid distinctions.

This not only helped Britain to divide and rule, but also came handy in negotiating the terms of independence, when the divisions produced two major rival groups, Kanu and Kadu.

The divisions seem to have become even stronger, especially due to the presidential contest. Why? Not because of differences about economic, political or social policies (barely mentioned in elections) but because of the capture of the state and its loot – the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Exactly what Ruto was saying.

Is Governor Isaac Rutto – who allegedly talked of Kalenjin 'political identity' – driven by policy differences, or is he merely playing the ethnic issue, and accusing Ruto of a sell-out to the Kikuyu?

Are perhaps the politics of devolution dividing the dominant communities within counties? If so, might that be a good thing – cultivating internal divisions that lead to greater national integration?

The constitution looks to political parties as the primary agency of national integration; by their own integration, they will be in a stronger position to “promote and uphold national unity”, as required by Article 91.

Has the President got it right? He did say that the JP would “consolidate our unity as a country”. He was referring to more than Kikuyu-Kalenjin unity; he referred to the coming together of all parties in the coalition. This would certainly be a good start – but I am not holding my breath.

The author is a director of Katiba Institute.