Rational choice theory — which you may dispute — pivots on the choice an individual makes to arrive at a decision. Faced with several options, an individual will opt for the choice that’s goal-oriented, reflective, and is consistent over a range of situations. Although originally used by economists, rational choice theory has increasingly been deployed in the social sciences to predict human behaviour. Thus, an individual makes a choice based on utility or the “payoff” it offers. If applied to the forthcoming Kenyan elections, rational choice theory is supposed to be highly predictive of how people will vote. The question for Kenyans in 2017 is what will determine their “rational choice” in the second elections after the 2010 Constitution.
To be fair, Kenyans from all walks of life are motivated by different factors in making their electoral choices. Some will vote for a person because of familial relationships. Others will choose a candidate from their region, clan, gender, party platform, economic agenda, religion, race, political opinion, or ethnicity — among other reasons. However, a study of past Kenyan elections reveals several unarguably dominant reasons that motivate most voters. Tribalism (defined as the ethnic identity of the candidate at the head of the ticket) and ethnic coalitions (defined as the ethnic identities of the leaders of the coalition) are the most pivotal drivers of voter choices. The other important drivers are corruption and incumbency. But these are tangential.
Let’s take corruption, or official graft, first. One would think that corruption turns the stomach of voters and disgusts them. But actually in Kenya that’s not true at all. Although most Kenyans are victims of corruption — and know that it denies them basic rights of citizenship — they’ve succumbed to it. Most Kenyans now believe that corruption is a necessary part of daily life. It’s normal and expected. Let me relate an anecdote. Recently, I went to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations on Kiambu Road to seek a “clearance letter” for the Office of Chief Justice. At the gate, the police guard attempted to solicit a bribe to show us a parking slot. I was dumbfounded. What does that say about the DCI?
My point is that the DCI police officer was confident that he could demand a bribe from a candidate for Chief Justice without consequence. We simply waved him off and continued inside the premises. This is common practice in every public office in Kenya. Most Kenyans have decided that you must “join them” if you can’t “beat them.” You grease the palm of a public officer — buy them “chai” — if you want service. Corruption is now in the bone marrow of virtually every Kenyan. Neither the “lowly” citizen who pays a bribe, nor the “lowly” civil servant who demands it, have any apologies to make. That’s because corruption is modeled at the very top. Senior officials are leading the looting.
You can’t make this stuff up. At a recent anti-corruption summit at State House, Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta admitted that he was powerless to fight graft. He then turned to the AG, the DPP, the DCI, and the EACC — but they all either blamed each other, or feigned powerlessness. The conclusion was simple — the State is unwilling, or unable, to fight corruption. In fact, those who are the most corrupt sit in the inner sanctum of power. They publicly rail the loudest against corruption yet they are the most corrupt. The words “hypocrisy” and “public shame” have lost meaning in Kenya. The Treasury is being looted dry even as I write. Billions are stolen, crocodile tears are shed, and we “accept and move on.”
There’s no doubt the biggest thieves will use the stolen loot to buy elections. Peasants and poor workers will line up for a few hundred shillings to cast their vote for a thief. If you remonstrate with the bribed voter, she will ask you to give her more if you want her vote. That’s how we are going to elect a den of thieves. Corruption pays. That’s why it’s going to be combined with tribalism to effectively lock out any ethical choice. But the voter will have made a “rational choice.” That’s because corrupt tribal barons — who hide behind the tribe to steal — have cleverly duped “their people.” The people suffer from a false consciousness that robs them of their “rational choice.”
My view is tribalism still remains king in Kenya’s electoral politics. It’s fueled by its evil twin — corruption. The two go hand-in-hand. Politicians — on both sides — know this all too well. That’s why they publicly denounce corruption, but then wink at their ethnic blocs by deploying corruptly acquired wealth to buy votes. Those with incumbency clearly have a looting advantage because The Treasury is under them. That’s why tribal math will remain king.