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Intellectual opposites in politics and what it means for 2017 poll

By Duncan Omanga | Published Sat, June 17th 2017 at 00:00, Updated June 16th 2017 at 22:48 GMT +3

It is argued that university dons and academics have taken a back seat in crucial national discourses. Their role as public intellectuals, it is thought, has now been filled by the phalanx of political analysts, activists and the occasional hecklers.

Also, it is thought that latter day intellectuals have equally been co-opted into the murky world of our ethnicised politics and that their intervention is nothing more than polemic paraded as intellectual reflection. We think that if Kenyan intellectuals’ participation is unvoiced at moments such as this, it is a dereliction of their vocation.

Bandied assumption

The most commonly bandied assumption about our politics is that it is ethnic and bereft of any ideological or intellectual positions.This refrain is regurgitated with deafening frequency in discussions on Kenyan politics. We disagree. We think our politics is only canvassed ethnically but is, in fact, intellectual.

We define an intellectual position as analogous to an ideological positionality. If ideology is taken in its classical sense to mean a consistent pattern of thought on society, politics and economics, then there appears to be something consistent in Kenyan politics suggestive of an ideology.

The leading political figures do not overtly articulate ideological positions. This is deliberate. It is risky business to brand oneself as belonging to this or that ideology in a political ecosystem where serious political thought is swamped out with the ubiquitous noise of ukabila. To continue to construct Kenyan politics as intellectually and ideologically vacuous is to ignore history.

In this article, we draw from history to describe the agency informing the different intellectual positions in Kenya’s politics and how the 2017 August poll is implicated in it.

Finally, we explain what it means for voters to identify and vote for either of the positions, where NASA and Jubilee currently occupy the two intellectual opposites.

Historian John Lonsdale has argued that a nation is the product of its arguments. Kenya’s first argument was over land. The land question was at the heart of the Mau Mau revolt.

However, upon independence, President Jomo Kenyatta undertook a ‘we will not look backwards’ ideology enunciated at its clearest in his famous speech to settler farmers in Nakuru in 1962.

This ideology emphasised forgiveness but it, importantly, assuaged colonial capital and in addition, provided a platform for acquisitive emerging African elites to appropriate huge amounts of land.

The intellectual rationale for this is found in Kenyatta’s own book Facing Mount Kenya, where he argues that the worth of a man was defined by his wealth in the ownership of land and command over labour.

That a man not endowed with these was a non-person, a worthless Ahoi. It is in this grain of Kenyatta’s thought of an ‘ideal society’ that the formation of the then newly independent Kenya should be understood. Little has changed since.

At the independence negotiations in London the core demand for the return of the land without compensation to Africans was trampled upon in boardroom deals. As Historian Atieno Odhiambo reflects, a whole gamut of other economic and political demands by core radicals would also be lost.

The likes of Bildad Kaggia would later retreat into forlorn defeat and cynicism about the new country. For those who sought to weigh their muscle up against the State, the repercussions were swift and ruthless. Kenya’s second argument, social justice, emerged.

In 1966, the volcano erupted. In the context of controversial settlement schemes undertaken by the Kenyatta Government, the land issue reified further the role of ethnic identity in politics. To retain power and run the state, ethnic loyalty became even more critical. Political exclusion, victimisation and assassinations became part of post-independent Kenya’s public life. The dramatic climax was the 1966 so-called ‘little general election’. Here, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and his colleagues who had argued for social justice were ostracised.

He bolted out of government to form the socialist leaning KPU, marking the formalisation of Kenya’s left wing politics. His book, Not yet Uhuru, crystallises the ideological position that stood in opposition to the right wing, conservative politics under Kenyatta.

As the differences between the two founding fathers escalated, two other important arguments emerged alongside debates on social justice; political reform and distributive politics.

The substance of their differences was that Jaramogi favoured political reform and social justice while the President preferred a capitalist, centralised State premised on a ‘not looking at the past’ ideology.

Five decades later the sons of the two founding fathers stand on opposite ends of the competing ideologies that still continue to define our politics. In the last two decades, Raila Odinga has emerged at the apex of left wing politics in Kenya, a mantle taken directly from his late father but which now includes a huge section of politicians, civil society groups, academia and professionals.

Under his leadership, Kenya’s left still essentialises social justice and reforms. On the other side the Jubilee elite, led by Uhuru Kenyatta, embody the perceived characteristics of latter day Kenya’s right wing politics; ambivalence to both social justice and reform, acquisitive and keen on promoting capital otherwise termed as ‘development.’

Phrases such as ‘willing buyer-willing seller; factors of production and forgetting the past,’ flow smoothly with President Uhuru’s Jubilee coalition. For Raila, he has been quoted as calling for an alternative capitalism, where the limits of markets and capital are weighed against social welfare. A recent suggestion by the NASA leader that rents will be regulated and that higher percentage of national income and concomitant power is appropriated to the county governments can be seen in this light.

The cords that bind Kenya’s right wing political class are capital and the maintenance of status quo, not tribe. From pre-independence time, through to the post-colonial State, Kenya’s political ‘right’ has held on to power both by popular mandate and sheer brute. The ‘left’ have never truly ruled Kenya.

They came close through a coalition arrangement after the 2007 controversial poll. In the 2013 poll, despite being Prime Minister, Raila was clearly not the establishment candidate.

Still, the 2010 Constitution was a landmark victory for Kenya’s intellectually ‘left’ following its co-option in the grand coalition. Ironically, Kenya’s political ‘right’ is presently presiding over a Constitution they openly and covertly opposed, and which Kenya’s ‘left’ considers its most prized of trophies.

So, what do these differing intellectual positions mean for voters after August 8, 2017? If Jubilee wins power it will be a continuation and entrenchment of the right-wing capital owning and promoting side of Kenyan politics. This is christened in the catchy phrase; Siasa ya Maendeleo.

While the swanky business image and escalation of ‘projects and profits’ will be maintained, economic inequality will likely increase. If NASA wins, social justice and political reform will be privileged and there is likelihood of more distribution of resources and power to the counties.

Ideas have consequences. Kenya’s deep historical arguments of land, political reform and social justice should not be deferred, again.

- Dr Duncan Omanga is a lecturer at Moi University and Dr Eliud Biegon is a lecturer at Chuka University

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