One of the silver linings of the disastrous 2017 election cycle is its elevation and individualisation of economic matters. Previously, our discussions of “historical injustices” were often couched in terms of ethnicity and the deserved compensation of whole communities. But in this cycle, underneath all the talk of ethnicity and marginalisation, there was the tacit acceptance that individual economic empowerment is at the heart of our politics.
NASA’s boycott campaign is a nod to the power of individuals to engage in political action through their economic choices. To paraphrase Moi, siasa mbaya uchumi mbaya. The increasing salience of the economy in our politics means that in order to fix the mess that was the 2017 election cycle, we cannot keep playing the same old games. For example, it will not be enough for President Uhuru Kenyatta to include representatives of ethnic groups affiliated to NASA in his Cabinet and Administration.
That will not cut. The people want a cut, too. They want jobs. They want decent hospitals and schools. They want running water and roads. They want to be reliably connected to the electricity grid. They want reasonably stable prices of basic commodities. And they want to see less corruption in government. These are problems that cannot be solved by skin-deep “ethnic inclusion.” The reforms must go deeper, and seek to reach mwananchi directly. Only then will we have begun the process of true national healing and reconciliation.
But if we choose the easy route (which is more likely) and only engage in Potemkin “inclusion” at the elite level, wananchi will only get hungrier. And next time they will not listen to their ethnic chiefs who readily mortgage away their trust and support for plum jobs and access to the gravy train.
This may seem far-fetched now, but it will take a loss less than most people expect to break the ethnic barriers that keep Kenya’s underclasses subjugated. As a lesson, we should look to the election of Nairobi Governor, Mike Sonko. Sonko’s election proves that we can no longer take it for granted that established political families can block politicians of certain backgrounds from ascending to high office.
And while he may yet be tamed and put in the service of the old political families, Sonko’s story has the potential to spawn more Sonkos. And when that happens our politics will begin to have an inexorable match towards class-based modes of political organisation, with individualised economic rights at the centre.
Which takes me back to the need for a genuinely inclusive political economy. This week the World Bank and Oxfam released reports on the Kenyan economy. The former noted that economic growth decelerated in 2017, to 4.9 per cent, the lowest in the last five years. The latter called for a greater commitment from the government to tackle economic inequality.
None of the problems identified in these reports can be fixed by mere ethnic inclusion of elites. Kenyatta must realise that ethnic inclusion in the public sector must be accompanied by an attempt to address the economic concerns of wananchi. The household, and not the tribe, should be the unit of analysis that drives our economic policy making.
-The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. Twitter: @Kopalo