During my working career in aviation and tourism, we constantly had two reference points in whatever organisation I worked. One, which of our rivals’ best- practice could we benchmark against? Two, which were the most distinguished institutions that were failing to take advantage of the opportunities that we could learn from and avoid the same mistakes?
To give just two examples, Kenyan tourism policy to a large extent aims at imitating South Africa. They get five million tourists a year whereas we have never touched 1.5 million annually.
As for learning from the mistakes of others, I would still give the example of Tanzania. They have more than double the stretch of beachfront that Kenya has, before you even add the large islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, which also have plenty of beach. They also have roughly double the land that Kenya has dedicated to game parks. Finally, they do not face any threat of terrorism such as has resulted in the short-term collapse of Kenyan tourism. Yet, despite all this, they receive roughly half the number of tourists that Kenya receives.
Well, in politics as in tourism and aviation, there will always be those examples against which you benchmark your regional performance, and there will also be those communities that have spectacularly failed to realise their potential and therefore serve as examples of what must be avoided at all costs.
I shall save the analysis of the regional vote blocs for next week.
For now, I want to focus on the Luhya community of Western Kenya as an example of a regional vote bloc neglecting its own interests.
Many political analysts have pointed out (including many from Western Kenya) how the Luhya have thrown out two sitting Vice Presidents at the ballot at two consecutive general elections. This is one of the fundamental puzzles of Kenyan politics. I refer to Musalia Mudavadi in 2002 and Moody Awori in 2007.
No other community behaves this way, not even the Kalenjin (who have had a President and now a Deputy President), the Luo who have had a founding VP at Independence, the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and the second Prime Minister, his son Raila Odinga, in 2008-13) and the Kikuyu (who had the first Prime Minister, first President and two other Presidents).
Why the Luhya are different
Among the big battalions, the Luhya are different. The Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Luo have a political posture of being all about the Presidency, all the time, and only settle for less as a consolation prize – for instance the three Kikuyu VPs during Daniel arap Moi’s lengthy Presidency, Mwai Kibaki, Josphat Karanja and George Saitoti.
The Luhya and the coastal Mijikenda have a lot in common. First, they all have strong sub-tribal groups. The Mijikenda are divided into the Digo, Giriama, Chonyi, Duruma, Kambe, Rabai, Jibana, Kauma and Ribe.
Likewise, the Luhya, who have the Tachoni, Bunyala, Maragoli, Samia, Marama, Kisa and Bukusu. If you have looked closely at this list, you will at once see the potential strength of the Western vote on the one hand and the Coast vote on the other. You will also see how it has proved to be so easy for Presidential candidates from more cohesive communities to divide and rule them.
The Luhya combined are second only to the Kikuyu in number, yet the Kikuyu have uncompromisingly and unapologetically presented a Presidential candidate at every race of the multiparty era. In fact they began with two strong candidates in 1992, Mwai Kibaki and Kenneth Matiba, who bagged more than a million votes each at the inaugural multiparty poll. The two most prominent Luhya Presidential candidates, Michael Kijana Wamalwa in 1997 and Musalia Mudavadi in 2013, got nowhere near a million votes. Not only that, even when the Plan B of an incumbent VP was available to the community they threw the fellows out of office, not once but twice, not after a decent interval, but consecutively.
The Michael Joseph ‘Strangeness’ factor
Safaricom founding CEO Michael Joseph famously said Kenyans have very unusual phoning habits, particularly repeatedly and needlessly checking their airtime balances to the point of congesting the system. In the early days of mobile, some subscribers gave the impression that they expected airtime to grow as if by magic or divine intervention or via a kind friend or relative – without their having done anything but wish for it.
I hope my very many good friends in the Luhya community do not take offence if I say that the Luhya have very strange voting habits, including expecting results without input. The same can be said of the Coast. We have never realised the full potential influence of our voter power because we have never placed all our votes behind one party and one leader. When we fail to do this, the socio-economic consequences are devastating. Just as we at the Coast painfully watched the collapse of our Kilifi cashewnuts factory, the KCC milk-processing plant at Mariakani, and the KMC abattoir in Kibarani, all of which provided a ready market for small-scale farmers willing to work hard to grow crops and rear livestock, Western too has seen its economy collapse in slow motion.
In much the same way, because they were not politically united, the Luhya witnessed the collapse of Panpaper at Webuye and the still ongoing prolonged death throes of the tottering Mumias Sugar Company.
In all these factories and food-processing plants, political will leading to timely State intervention could have saved these iconic regional institutions that provided livelihoods for millions.
The key lesson we at the Coast should learn from Western is that political unity is not just about the excitement, drama and theatre of election campaigns every five years. For the average small-scale farmer in the rural areas, political unity is a life-and-death matter.