NYONG'O: Identity politics not wrong, using it to discriminate against is

Jubilee secretary general Raphael Tuju during a press Conference at the party’s headquarters on January 9 / Jack Owuor
Jubilee secretary general Raphael Tuju during a press Conference at the party’s headquarters on January 9 / Jack Owuor

In the on going discussions regarding current Kenyan politics, two schools of thought seem to have emerged.

One school of thought expresses uncertainty about the Building Bridges Initiative and sees it as a ploy to block William Ruto from ascending to the presidency. The other defends the Building Bridges Initiative and appreciates its short and long-term positive effects on Kenyan politics by downplaying ethnic rivalry, while bringing a sober atmosphere in which Kenya can develop.

Those who argue that the BBI, launched on March 9 last year by the handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, point out that by bringing the opposition leader into Jubilee politics, Ruto will be adversely affected. In other words, the Jubilee Party survives or fades away depending on how it juxtaposes itself against Raila. If Raila is "out there" as an enemy being fought by a joint brigade where UhuRuto is at the top, then Jubilee survives. But if UhuRuto split into two atoms, which are free to join with any other atom into a new political molecule, then Jubilee dies.


Jubilee secretary general Raphael Tuju, at a press conference where he addressed himself to this issue, gave a much more nuanced interpretation of the unfolding events.

According to Tuju, Kenyans need to understand the meaning and intent of the BB initiative in the context of what happened in 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections. After the post-election crisis

of 2008 in which supporters and followers of the two political parties, ODM and PNU, got involved in a bloody internal conflict due to a rigged

election, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Rutto took the bold step of uniting the Kikuyus and Kalenjins into the Jubilee coalition so as to avoid another backlash between the two communities in case of a contested election results in which they were on opposite sides. One needs to remember that in the 2007 election, Raila Amolo Odinga and William Ruto were both kingpins in the ODM, challenging Mwai Kibaki, with Uhuru' s support, for the presidency.

Tuju then avers that as 2013 elections approached, Uhuru and Ruto thought it best to bring the Kalenjins and the Kikuyus into one political camp to avoid any political rivalry between the two, especially in the context of the politically volatile North Rift region where both Kalenjins and Kikuyus have enormous economic interests. That, in Tuju' s view, was the first handshake.

But it was the handshake that took into account only two communities according to Tuju. The

handshake went further. Uhuru and Raila accepted that the 2017 elections were even more ethnically polarising, resulting in two individuals claiming to be "validly" elected as President of the Republic of Kenya.

To avoid an impending political deluge with tragic ethnic polarisation, they decided to bury the proverbial hatchet and shook hands to build bridges, not only among their supporters, but also across all Kenyan communities that have suffered in an electoral regime where "winners always take all."

The BBI hence has an agenda to be fulfilled before the next election to avoid the tragic happenings that have bedevilled past elections in Kenya. And this tragedy is due to the use of socio-cultural identity, aka ethnicity, for political and economic discrimination to gain or keep power by some political elites. Identity based politics is a basic right under the Bill of Rights. Its use to discriminate is not. This is the new politics that the BB initiative is proposing.

If that is the interpretation of the BBI, then Ruto should not be apprehensive about it unless he has another formula that can better humanise our elections, argued Tuju.

Methinks that Tuju's train of thought is worth paying attention to. But let me approach it this way.

First, we must all accept that there has not been a single presidential election in Kenya's history where the majority of Kenyans have come out without being politically, morally or physically badly

hurt except the 2002 General Election. That means that our experience with "the winner take all" presidential system has not really been fair or good to Kenyans. We would definitely prove ourselves to be very sadistic if we perpetuate a political behaviour that hurts us every time we engage in it. Sane human beings don't behave that way. They change tact when a pattern of behaviour threatens their very existence.

Second, the handshake has now given us an opportunity to debate freely, interact freely and meet each other freely while we search for a model of politics where elections will not leave us perpetually bruised every time they are held. That is why the vitriolic exchange of words that the media constantly reports to us as a "debate" between supporters of the two Jubilee leaders needs to be toned down to give way for a sober debate on this weighty matter.


Third, let it be known that we cannot really change the model of our governance if we don't revisit our Constitution where the fundamental rules of the political game are enshrined. The proposal to restructure the Executive and Parliament branches of our governance to do away with the winner take all system has been with us since Independence.

I remember, in particular, the many opposition party manifestos I have worked on, above ground or underground, while we were struggling against the authoritarian regimes of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi. We were consistently of the opinion that in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society like ours, the parliamentary system manages these diversities more democratically than in the presidential authoritarian or neo-authoritarian system.

The Bomas of Kenya draft constitution proposed the parliamentary system. When MPs finally gathered in Naivasha to discuss this draft at the eleventh hour before submitting it to Parliament on its final lap towards approval at the 2010 referendum, they produced the mongrel of a constitution we have now. This is what most commentators call "the hybrid system." The very word "hybrid" begs an important question: What are we mixing with what to get what?

I was, therefore, very happy when President Kenyatta, who as Head of State has dealt with presidential powers at close range, admitted in public that "this winner take all system" is no good for our country.

Another Kenya is possible under a parliamentary democracy, recognising our ethnic differences but without politically being enslaved by these differences. Ethnic identity by itself is not a problem. Creating a political system based on ethnic discrimination is definitely a problem. It can lead to ethnic conflict or even fascism and ethnic genocide. We must consciously stop going that direction by embracing an inclusive democratic political system.