With the presidential and gubernatorial candidates along with the national and county legislature hopefuls having been given the preliminary nod by the electoral commission, we are on the fast track to the all-important August 8 elections.
In exactly 64 days Kenyans will be required to define the leadership that will guide them in the next five years. While the presidential elections will follow predictable patterns, elections in the counties will undoubtedly tell the story of a more sophisticated voter than many of us are willing to accept.
At the national level, ethnic affinity will still determine the bulk of the vote. I am, however, one of those Kenyans who don’t believe this voting trend is an expression of Kenyans’ blind loyalty to ethnicity. In all other spheres of life, social media excluded, Kenyans are amazingly accommodating of each other. When I travel to places like Nyanza, I honestly feel more accommodated and appreciated, even by strangers, than when I visit some parts of Central.
Many of our business and social associates traverse Kenya’s ethnic spectrum. What then makes the majority of us retreat to voting patterns that are so predictably ethnically defined? I am convinced that rather than blind loyalty to tribe, this retreat is a failure of leadership.
The route to national leadership has historically been fairly narrow and almost pre-determined. Consequently, only a particular caliber of leader has so far obtained the national profile that enables them to be a serious candidate for national leadership. The electable leaders that have sought national leadership have therefore largely espoused the same political and economic philosophy, have travelled largely similar routes to power and generally have similar gifts and foibles. As a result, they have failed to inspire Kenyans to see beyond tribe. Like computer software, in the absence of any significantly distinguishing characteristic, most people will go to the default distinguisher, and this happens to be tribe. Consequently, until electable leaders offer Kenyans a strongly distinguishing character in national leadership, we can continue to mourn about their ethnic voting patterns but what have we left these Kenyans to separate us by? Fortunately, this reality will consistently be eroded by devolution at two levels.
Firstly, it was clear from the just-concluded nominations that in the counties where fair nominations took place, most voters ignored parochial clan and sub-tribe dimensions and voted based on quality of leadership. Considerations included competence, humility, identification with the people or just pure inspiration. There were therefore counties where in one, incumbent governors lost by a landslide, while in the neighbouring county, the incumbent won by a landslide!
In the counties where the nominations were stolen, I expect there will be discordance, what my friend Odhiambo Akuom calls zigzag voting patterns. People will vote for the party presidential candidate but vote differently at other levels. This phenomenon results from an increasingly sophisticated voter who will define future county elections on quality basis. I believe this will eventually percolate to the national level. Secondly, devolution has defied the old patterns of identifying national leadership. There is now an alternative path through which people can achieve national prominence that will enable them seek national office.
While I am not promoting their candidature, there is no doubt that governors like Machakos’ Alfred Mutua are now household names in all of Kenya. Few Kenyans haven’t heard of Governor Mwangi Wa Iria’s work in Muranga County’s agriculture. We all know Mombasa’s Hassan Joho. It is not a difficult step for these governors to sell themselves as candidates for national office on the basis of their brand, something that would have been impossible in the politics of yesteryear.
These are the peripheral but critical consequences of devolution whose impact will be felt in ensuing elections as Kenya continues in its democratic path. I therefore refuse to join those who sit and mourn that Kenyans do not assess leadership on the basis of quality. They do; if only we give them a basis to.
—The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya