Why all Kenya's political leaders prefer to latch onto tribal card

Deputy Presiden Rigathi Gachagua joined various women groups as he participated in the fundraiser for the Samburu Women and Youth Empowerment at Maralal Stadium, Samburu County on June 7, 2024. [DPCS]

Talk about tribal politics dividing the country has dominated discussions across the country after President William Ruto warned politicians against spreading the vice. But how realistic are his concerns?

The warning followed a siege against Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua who has been accused by Ruto’s allies of allegedly spreading tribal politics that is quickly polarising the country through his calls for a united Mt Kenya region.

There is no doubt that negative ethnicity polarises communities but political analysts argue that tribal politics has been entrenched in the national psyche by those in power over the years, including those in office currently.

Pundits therefore argue that the political tirade against the DP is more about personal interest and fear of losing political traction in the Mt Kenya region than pacification of the country.

Gachagua has been targeted by President Ruto’s allies for allegedly whipping up tribal emotions and creating divisions in the Kenya Kwanza administration.

President Ruto himself has repeatedly warned that his government will not condone politics of tribalism and personality attacks.

“President Ruto is condemning what Gachagua is saying but what he is talking about is completely at variance with his politics,” says political analyst Martin Andati.

Critics also point out that the president himself was a beneficiary of the ethnic vote because he relied heavily on his Rift Valley backyard that voted for him almost to a man in the 2022 presidential polls.

Gachagua has been on the receiving end since last year when a strange proposal was mooted by some Murang’a MPs that youthful Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro be President William Ruto’s running mate in 2027.

Despite putting on a brave face and calling for unity, he rapidly became an isolated man, missing meetings attended by the president and later complaining about denial of funding for his office.

More headlines about lack of facilitation for his travels to important functions around the country has further compounded his travails in the Kenya Kwanza administration.

Attacks against him became more relentless recently after a section of leaders from the Mt Kenya region convened the Limuru 111 meeting to chart a new political direction for the region, an event some Kenya Kwanza MPs close to Ruto claimed he sponsored.

He has since then been censured incessantly by Ruto’s inner circle following his endorsement of the One Man, One Vote, One Shilling fiscal policy that was adopted by delegates at the Limuru III meeting.

And now President Ruto is becoming increasingly agitated by what he calls “tribal politics” which he has condemned at every meeting he has held since addressing the prayer breakfast meeting about two weeks ago.

But Andati thinks the president himself used the tribal card in the last election, especially when he campaigned against a former MP from a minority race from his Uasin Gishu backyard in 2022 elections.

“He campaigned against the MP in vernacular, and despite the former MPs popularity, it worked against him because of the emotions he whipped up among voters in Kesses,” says Andati.

The analyst said almost all politicians in the country, including ODM leader Raila Odinga, engage in tribal politics for personal interest and for them to continue being the so called regional kingpins.

“When Raila campaigns in Western Kenya, he carries himself as a Luhya but then becomes a Luo after the politics are over. So when he is not talking politics, he is Luo but when he wants the vote he says he is Luhya. When goodies come, he takes everything to Kisumu. Nothing goes to his so called ancestral land of Nabongo,” adds Andati.

So most politicians in Kenya pose like nationalists when playing to the political gallery, yet at the core they are all tribal chiefs who use ethnicity to advance personal interests.

“When you talk in vernacular, it is more easy to whip up tribal emotions because it appeals more than speaking in English or Swahili. It also evokes language and culture ties among the people,” says Andati.

And so for Gachagua to survive against the hostility he is facing, his salvation is to appeal to ethnic emotions by retreating back to the community.

That is because without the community he has nothing to hold on, and secondly because Ruto’s supporters argue that the president can go directly to the people without his deputy’s support as he did from 2019 to 2022.

Realising that he is so vulnerable, Gachagua has for several weeks now pitched tent in the Mt Kenya region telling off his critics, insisting that the community must speak with one voice and urging all leaders, including former President Uhuru Kenyatta, to unite.

That also explains why Ruto is working hard to appear as if he is the one uniting the rest of the country when the fact of the matter is that he is realising that he is fast losing support of the Mt Kenya region because of Gachagua’s sulking.

Political analyst and publisher Dr Barrack Muluka says the tribe that produces the big boy takes everything and the rest are treated like foreigners, squatters, trespassers and second-class citizens.

“Kenya since independence has been a salute to tribalism by those at the top. Senior appointments in the public service belong to the big man’s tribe. The few exceptions are tokens,” says Muluka.

Debate over ethnicity has since gone a notch higher after Gachagua insisted that he will not shy away from fighting for the rights of his people even if some forces feel uncomfortable about his position.

Some MPs from North Eastern and Ukambani have rejected Gachagua’s One Man, One Vote, One Shilling clarion call that is widely backed by populations in the Mt Kenya region apart some leaders allied to president Ruto.

Daadab MP Farah Maalim has described the DP’s call as dangerous talk, noting it will allegedly inflame tribal tensions in the country.

“Nobody is going to accept becoming a second class citizen in their own country. When I see people talking about One Man, One Vote, that is absolutely nonsense. You can’t get any more dimwitted,” a furious Farah said in Parliament on Thursday morning.

But the proposal has received support from opposition leaders, among them Raila and Eugene Wamalwa both from the Azimio la Umoja coalition.

But lawyer Miguna Miguna, one of Raila's harshest critics faulted Raila's opinion saying: “The One Man, One Shilling nonsense is intended to perpetuate past and existing inequities without corresponding programmes and policies to address poverty, neglect and exploitation of marginalised areas.”

Tribalism is so rife in the country to the extent that some communities like the Luhya who have never voted as a block in all past presidential elections are now engaged in a robust debate about a new leadership direction for the Western region.

Trans Nzoia Governor George Natembeya has taken the bull by the horns, repeatedly accusing a section of leaders from Western Kenya of failing the region and focusing on selfish interests.

“Our Luhya leaders have never sacrificed for anybody, they ride on opportunism and use their political parties to trade the community's voting power," says Natembeya

He argues that poverty in the region has forced the Luhya to blindly follow, worship, and clap for leaders who give them handouts, adding that time has come for them to stand up and liberate themselves.

He is supported by political pundit Muluka who also thinks the Luhya are a giant that should be woken up from its slumber.

“The Abaluhya community, in which I was born, has massive numbers that mean nothing. Believed to be the second most populous community in Kenya, the Abaluhya are at best a clueless sleeping giant,” says Muluka.

But that position is vehemently opposed by Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi Mudavadi who, with an inference to Gachagua, says the Cabinet should lead in supporting the President's agenda.

"As members of the Cabinet, we should be the ones helping the president to unite the country instead of propagating divisive talk," he says.