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Political tribe always laughs last

By The Standard | Published Tue, January 3rd 2017 at 00:00, Updated January 2nd 2017 at 19:16 GMT +3

Five billion shillings. Sh5,000,000,000. That's the outrageous amount that Members of Parliament awarded themselves as a 'send-off' package to be disbursed at the end of the current term.

If you break it down, it comes to Sh10,000,000 per legislator. To put this in perspective, our 416 senators and Members of the National Assembly have deemed themselves deserving of a collective Sh5 billion, meanwhile the Government refuses to pay 5,000 doctors Sh8 billion.

Boggles the mind. It doesn't take a nuclear physicist to see where the priorities of our leaders lie. There is only one tribe in Kenya that is guaranteed to benefit no matter which party forms the government – the political tribe.

The rest of us are being taken for a ride.

There is a joke called unity and Luhyas are usually the punch line. Well aware of that, I was looking for some laughs when I watched the unveiling of the community's spokesman at Bukhungu stadium last week. And sure enough, there was a lot to be amused about.

 It played out like the African version of a coronation and it was clear that the conveners, and all who participated, were dead serious about the outcome. COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli, who presided, often spoke in vernacular when he took to the podium. And when Musalia Mudavadi was crowned King of the Luhya, he also reverted to default mother tongue position.

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This was a clear indication, along with the general exclusionary tenor of the proceedings that the conveners were appealing to the primary identity of those who had gathered to witness the event, and every Luhya who watched on television. It was a rallying call to gather the community around one of their own. To create a voting block that would cast its ballot based on ethnicity.

It may seem peculiar to Kenya but the politics of identity is not a new phenomenon. It has happened and continues to happen around the globe, the most recent examples being the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States of America.

 In both instances, specific communities voted to reclaim political freedom from a system that they perceived to have pushed them to the fringes. They voted with their own to protect their own from further marginalisation. In the UK, 'native' Brits felt marginalised by immigrants, and in the US, centre-right white voters felt forgotten by the far-left Obama administration.

In Kenya, we have historically embraced identity politics because of the 'our man is in power' narrative. We enter into a false sense of security when the President shares our ethnic heritage even with the full knowledge that we are unlikely to benefit directly. As I say, there is only one tribe that is guaranteed to come out of an election cycle better than they went in and that is the political tribe, and their cohorts in the corporate world.

Identity politics, or the tendency for people of a particular tribe, religion, race or social background to form exclusive political alliances, is the idea that citizens will vote for the candidate who is the truest reflection of themselves, or the candidate whom they believe can understand their pain and make things better.

Here in Kenya, our first identity is ethnic and therefore our primal instinct is to connect with leaders on a tribal level. Regardless of what they can or cannot do for us, we see in them a reflection of ourselves. They are proof that our communities are still relevant in the national scheme of things. We feel safe in the knowledge that they will represent our interests at the highest levels.

And this is why we follow their lead when they make broader alliances that require us to deliver our vote as a block come Election Day. This certainly Musalia Mudavadi's expectation after the Bukhungu coronation.

I have always considered Mudavadi to be a compromise candidate; a vanilla politician whose value lies in the fact that his style is never going to be distasteful to the national palate. He is not a man who polarises. Some might accuse him of being weak but his strength lies in the fact that he is inoffensive. He is not one to engage in the politics of mudslinging.

 It is perhaps because of this calm and measured temperament that the Bukhungu gathering settled on the man from Maragoli. But only time will tell if the elusive Luhya unity will hold and if the National Super Alliance train will stay on the tracks.

Historically, we have identified with leaders based solely on a common tribal heritage, and this wouldn't be a problem if there was something to show for it, particularly since 2013.

In that election, two communities rallied around a presidential candidate and his running mate because they were under threat, and because tribal leaders are a reflection of their tribe mates, the perception was that the communities were under threat as well.

This year, even as ethnic groups begin to consolidate their base, we have the option and the opportunity to identify with leaders based on policy and ideology, rather than tribal instinct and affiliation.

We have the chance to identify with men and women of good character, rather than to flock blindly into our ethnic enclaves from where our votes will be cast without any reference to the candidate's ability to govern.