We must free ourselves from the divisive “political tribe”

Anno Domini 2017 was annus horribilis – the year from hell.  It’s a year I would like to forget. But that’s impossible because 2017 is now part of our zeitgeist. We shouldn’t forget history, even if we could. That’s because history is always our best teacher. Today, I will focus on what we learnt in 2017 so that we can stop digging since we are in a hole – more like a cavern. But before I do so, let me remind everyone that each one of us “owns” herself, or himself. No one – absolutely no one – owns you. Not your mom or dad, your spouse, tribe, or the state – nada. Think for yourself, or at least pretend to do so.

My crystal ball took a sabbatical in 2017. But I have brought it back from recess. But before I prophetically peer into it, let me tell you what 2017 taught us. First, we learnt in 2017 that we hate each other. There’s no doubt that Kenyans hate each other with a deep venom. This hatred isn’t concretised to a particular person. It’s an abstract hate directed at identity. The Kikuyu “hate” the Luo and vice versa. Most Kenyan ethnic groups “hate” the duopoly of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. But when this hate is concretized and particularised, the hater realises that she doesn’t hate the particular Kamba, Luhya, Kisii, or Somali person. In fact, all Kenyans have friends across tribes.

Many Kenyans have married, or date, across the tribal divide. Take me for example.  I have in-laws and blood relatives across many ethnicities, even countries. I am not unique. Yet, we “hate” those of “the other” tribe. We need to interrogate this hate.  We learnt in 2017 that this hate isn’t individualised – it’s politicised, engineered, and manufactured “hate.” The worst manifestation of this hate was during the 2017 electoral season. The elections were rendered as a contest of tribes. If Jubilee’s duo of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto won the election, then the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin would be the “winners.” Likewise, if NASA’s Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka won, the Kikuyu and Kalenjin would be the “losers.”

As it turned out, Kenyatta and Ruto “won” and with them the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. Similarly, the larger coalition of ethnic groups in NASA – anchored by the Kamba, Luo, Kisii, Luhya, and virtually the entire coastal Bantu – “lost.” These two ethnic blocs are now locked in a deep “tribal” hatred. The NASA side is deeply aggrieved while that of Jubilee is gloating, if nervously. We need to deconstruct this ethnic “hate.” British colonial rule either invented tribes, or manufactured tribal hatred in a divide-and-conquer strategy. Within tribes, they deployed Lord Lugard’s tactic of indirect rule pitting brother against sister. Rather than dismantle the norms and structures of this psychosis, the Kenyan post-colonial state has instead deepened them.

The second thing we learnt in 2017 is that Kenya is a nation of fools. The political class fooled Kenyans not once, but serially and repeatedly. And every time, Kenyans took the bait and swallowed the damn thing whole. They say fool me once, shame on you; but fool me twice, shame on me. This is a painful conclusion for me to reach because I am a Kenyaphile. But I am handsomely paid to think, and would be a fool if I didn’t. The political class treats Kenyans like herds of cattle. And like herds of cattle, Kenyans are willingly driven to drink from the river of hate. Look at social media – the stupidity and foolishness there defy description.

Third, Kenyans love their “leaders” more than they love themselves. Look around – widespread hunger, a murderous police force, insatiable looting of the public purse, the most pathetic infrastructure, a rotten heath system, a joke of an educational system – the list of man-made national disasters stretches from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean. But Kenyans viciously defend this political class. Every time I criticise Jubilee, a ton of bricks is aimed at my head by the Kikuyu and Kalenjin. Many of those attacking me can’t even write a coherent sentence in English. Most are dirt poor. But they will defend to the death their “leaders.” This false consciousness – the pedagogy of the oppressed – is our bane. Kenyans are politically deformed and ideologically stunted.

Finally, let me gaze into my crystal ball. Only the people can free themselves from what the late Bob Marley dubbed mental slavery. But the people must first free themselves from their “leaders.” That won’t happen unless Kenyans unshackle themselves from the “political tribe.” That’s why I’ve always refused to politically identify myself with the Kamba. I refuse to be a Kamba for political purposes. My crystal ball tells me we can free Kenya if you join me.

- Prof Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua

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