An important ingredient in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s failures was his constant elevation of crass tribalism.
From the symbolism of speaking Kikuyu in public (without bothering to have official translations) to public appointments, Kenyatta made it clear that he was first and foremost a petty regional kingpin.
It is therefore unfortunate that Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua appears bent to follow in the same path to failure. It is time he stopped sounding like he only cares about “his people.” Kenyans elected him to serve the entire country in deeds and words. His office is bigger than himself or any one community. It belongs to all Kenyans.
Sharp political observers will know that part of Gachagua’s motivation is to ensure that he retains his bargaining power vis-à-vis President William Ruto. The more he is able to serve as the de facto gatekeeper to Mt Kenya, the more concessions on appointments and policy he will be able to get from Ruto’s camp in Kenya Kwanza.
However, there is a smarter way to conduct intra-Kenya Kwanza bargain politics than what Gachagua has demonstrated so far. As Deputy President, he stands to gain more political mileage by building his image as a national politician. To this end, he has several factors working in his favor. As a former official in the defunct Provincial Administration, he ought to be able to build a network of supporters in Kenyan officialdom beyond Mt Kenya. The ongoing food insecurity crisis also presents him an opportunity to build himself up as a compassionate public official who cares for all Kenyans regardless of ethnic identity.
Throughout our history, the most successful ethnic kingpins (for example, President Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga) have ascended to their perches by being national politicians. This is not to say that they did not tend to their ethnic bases. They definitely made sure to snuff out any potential competition, but primarily by demonstrating that they were the preeminent national politicians from their respective ethnic groups.
This is the political lesson that Gachagua’s advisers should learn. If they want to build his political career beyond being a Deputy President, they need to mold him into a national politician. This would not only be the right thing to do, it would also be good politics.
-The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University