- The idea is that any serious presidential candidature starts with two big tribes forming a political pact;
- And then getting either at least half of one other big tribe (or, alternatively, the full voting population of one of the smaller tribes) to join them in that pact.
Any self-respecting Kenyan political pundit will often rely on what is known as the “two and a half tribes” theoretical framework for their predictions on our presidential elections.
At the moment I cannot recall who the theorist was who first came up with this perspective. But his (or her) central idea is obvious enough: Basically, the assumption here is that the highly toxic tribalism which has been displayed in virtually all presidential elections held thus far, is an enduring political reality.
Maybe a few generations from now it will be common to see Kenyan voters completely disregard the tribal roots of their presidential candidates. But that day has not yet come.
Within such a context then, Kenya is extremely fortunate that we have all of 44 tribes, and that out of these, there are five ‘big tribes’. This compels some degree of inclusivity in government.
Kenyans do not have to look very far geographically – nor think back very far historically – to realise just what kind of trouble a country can end up in when it has just two tribes divided by deep-seated historical rivalries and hatreds.
But even among Kenya’s big tribes, none is so big that it can effortlessly dominate the final tally of a presidential election. Indeed, even with two of the biggest tribes voting together they do not come to the 50 percent mark.
Hence the ‘two and a half tribes’ framework.
The idea is that any serious presidential candidature starts with two big tribes forming a political pact; and then getting either at least half of one other big tribe (or, alternatively, the full voting population of one of the smaller tribes) to join them in that pact; hence ‘two and a half tribes’.
This is the essential calculus of any Kenyan presidential race. Only after such a coalition has been crafted does a candidate have a realistic chance at victory. All the rest is just political theatre.
This is revealed in their relentless focus on the potential swing vote regions: the Coast with its six counties, the two Maasai counties, the two Gusii counties, and possibly parts of Western. How the voters in these regions respond to the ongoing campaigns over the next two years will be the crucial factor influencing the final outcome of the presidential race.
Now, of course, nothing in Kenya can be this simple. Among the ‘small tribes’ there are the Meru, who usually vote with the biggest tribe of all, the Kikuyu, and so may be considered to be part of the greater Kikuyu vote bloc.
Then there is the Maasai, which forms a somewhat unpredictable vote bloc, as at present there is no clear paramount leader of the community with whom a binding political pact can be made. Much the same applies to the Gusii.
Also, there is the Coast, where the population consists of at least a dozen different tribes and sub-tribes. But these communities are united in a deep sense of frustration and victimhood, largely because no serious effort has ever been made by any Kenyan government to address the unique and numerous historical grievances of the region.
If the Coast has in the last few elections been an ‘ODM zone’, this is because the former PM Raila Odinga has convinced the communities there that he is their best hope for some degree of compensatory justice.
So, it is all extremely complicated in the details. But all the same the ‘two and a half tribes’ theory serves as a ready model for judging what it takes to be a serious contender for the Kenyan presidency.
And if you consider the two candidates who are shaping up to be the likely leading rivals for the 2022 presidential elections – Raila Odinga and Deputy President Dr William Ruto – you can see that the theory of the ‘two and a half tribes’ is not very far from the calculations of their strategists.
This is revealed in their relentless focus on the potential swing vote regions: the Coast with its six counties, the two Maasai counties, the two Gusii counties, and possibly parts of Western.
How the voters in these regions respond to the ongoing campaigns over the next two years will be the crucial factor influencing the final outcome of the presidential race.
We already know that the Kikuyu, the Kalenjin, and the Luo – arguably the three most disciplined ‘big tribe’ voting blocs in the country – will vote.
In good time they will line up as directed by their undisputed regional political overlords, namely President Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto and Raila Odinga, respectively.