Identity politics more powerful than economic interests

Known here in Kenya as 'tribalism'.

In Summary
  • Social media messages suggest that most Kenyans desire just economic opportunity and social justice.
  • But in the next general election as always, we will be driven by identity politics and will vote according to tribe.
Tribe and economic interests
Tribe and economic interests

Just last week, two very different groups of people voted for political independence.

First there were the people of Bougainville, an island North East of Australia. In a “nonbinding referendum”, they voted overwhelmingly to break away from Papua New Guinea (of which Bougainville has been a province, since independence in 1975) and create their own new country.

Second was Great Britain, in which voters gave their Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a decisive victory at the General Election, providing him with enough support in parliament (which he had hitherto lacked) to enable him to take his country out of the European Union.

On the surface, the two places could not be more different. The UK has a population of about 67.5 million and is a rich industrialised nation, as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

While as for Bougainville with its population of just 300,000, as reported in the Washington Post, “Bougainville is desperately poor. The power supply is unreliable, most residents rely on rainwater, and roads are regularly cut off during the frequent rainstorms. There is limited radio and Internet coverage across Bougainville and dozens of outlying islands that make up the province.”

But the two also have a lot in common. Above all, each is in the grip of identity politics – known here in Kenya as “tribalism” – which is what dictated the direction of the majority vote. The people of Bougainville no doubt feel that they are in some way different from the other tribes of Papua New Guinea.

Rather he was shocked that a serving president, after taking up a country long in economic stagnation, and raising it to about seven percent annual economic growth, should have fared so badly in his re-election bid.

But Papua New Guinea, though a relatively small country with just 8.2 million people, is famous for its cultural diversity, with over 800 distinct languages spoken by its various tribal communities. You would think the people of Bougainville would be at home there. But apparently, they don’t.

And of course, the British somehow feel they are not really part of Europe, but a unique island just off the continent. Hence did the idea of “taking back control” of their country appeal to so many Britons, despite the fact that they have for decades enjoyed the very real benefits of EU membership.

One last thing the two countries have in common is a near-unanimous global consensus among leading economists, that in opting for their different forms of “independence”, the people who cast these votes have made a huge mistake and acted against their own economic interests.

And to us here in Kenya, none of this should come as a surprise. For ever since the return to multiparty politics in 1992 – ending decades of single-party, Big Man rule – our voting patterns have revealed overwhelmingly tribal patterns, in a clear manifestation of identity politics.

I have quoted previously in this column, a famous development economist who declared his amazement at our 2007 presidential election results. His concern was not that 1,000 people were murdered, nor yet that about 500,000 were displaced, following the eruption of violence after President Mwai Kibaki was controversially declared as the winner.

Rather he was shocked that a serving president, after taking up a country long in economic stagnation, and raising it to about seven percent annual economic growth, should have fared so badly in his re-election bid. I suspect our 2007 presidential election blew to pieces this economist’s long-held view that what poor people want more than anything else is material progress as reflected in “development indicators”.

We cannot blame him for this. Most of us had been loudly saying this for years, and indeed continue to say as much to this day.

I do not spend much time on social media, but what little time I do spend reading the comments posted there, suggest that most Kenyans desire just two things: first, economic opportunity; and second, social justice.

But there is no doubt in my mind that as and when the next general election comes along, we Kenyans will be revealed to be no different from the British, or the people of Bougainville. What will drive our voting patterns then will not be any realistic projection of our regional economic interests, nor yet any hopes for social justice. As always, we will be driven by identity politics, and will vote according to tribe.