Kenya's democracy of exclusion will be our undoing if not checked

Our country is a mosaic of over 40 distinct tribes, often perceived as sub-nations. [iStockphoto]

Kenya’s democracy is at a crossroads. Despite regular elections and Supreme Court-approved victories, our democratic and electoral system remains precarious.

The root cause? A scarcity of political parties grounded in solid ideologies and principles, much like the challenges faced by many African nations. Unlike Western democracies, where political affiliations are often based on diverging ideologies, Kenyan politics is more a game of tribal allegiances.

Let me shed light on this critical issue and offer potential solutions to build a more inclusive and stable democracy.

Our country is a mosaic of over 40 distinct tribes, often perceived as sub-nations. Each had existed for centuries, boasting distinct governments, cultures, and languages. However, Kenya’s formation as a unified entity was a result of random boundaries drawn in a European capital.

Regrettably, this haphazard delineation placed tribes like the Maasai and Somalis across different countries. The colonial government did not strive to unite these diverse entities, preferring the divide-and-rule strategy instead.

Fast forward to the present day where, in any political contest, we see the assembly of various tribes, such as the Kalenjin, Luo, Gikuyu, Kamba, and others, under the umbrella of political parties. These tribal alliances emerge due to the absence of robust democratic parties, unlike nations like Britain and the US, whose constitutions heavily influence ours.

Kenya, like many other African nations, operates a ‘first past the finish line’ system. Given our tribal politics, each election becomes a power struggle among smaller tribal entities, each seeking a share of national resources. The fallout from a tightly contested election is palpable, often leading to national division. Tribes or ‘nations’ that did not support the presidential victor often feel disillusioned and disconnected from Kenya.

How do we address the concerns of these nations? How can we inspire them to remain patriotic, united and keen to collaborate for Kenya’s prosperity? This necessitates a reassessment of our electoral system. We need a system where every vote matters, regardless of the chosen candidate; where voters feel part of the government, regardless of the election outcome.

Presidential appointments are often scrutinized from a tribal perspective before the appointee’s qualifications are considered. This issue is exemplified by social media memes mocking the perceived dominance of certain tribes in State jobs, suggesting that alignment with the ‘winning’ tribes guarantees appointment.

Any candid politician today would admit there is no ideological difference between Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance Party (UDA) and Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Both are conglomerations of tribal nations, explaining why someone from Luo Nyanza might lean towards ODM, while a Kalenjin or a Kikuyu might favour UDA. As a result, when ODM loses a presidential election, all the tribal nations supporting the party may feel excluded.

Analogies likening the government to a company with shareholders do little to promote unity. Unlike a company, a voter does not have a choice to opt out; they are part of Kenya, obligated to pay taxes and perform their patriotic duty. How can they fully commit when they are told outright that they are not shareholders?

A presidential election should not resemble a football match, with the victor celebrating and the loser nursing wounds. After the electoral contest, it is crucial for the winner to ensure everyone feels a sense of ownership over the government and connection to Kenya.

In 2002, President Mwai Kibaki won with substantial backing from majority tribal nations. He had a golden opportunity to instill a sense of Kenyan identity, but this was lost by 2007. This trend persists after each election, even as we strive for a form of democracy borrowed from Western countries that do not grapple with 40-plus tribal affiliations. Despite the missed opportunities in the past, it is crucial that future leaders seize the moment to foster national unity beyond tribal lines.

While democracy may be the optimal path for many African nations, including Kenya, it needs to be tailored to our circumstances. It should be a democracy that fosters inclusivity for every tribal nation. Reimagining our electoral system to ensure that every vote truly matters and promotes a sense of belonging, regardless of the election outcome, is a step in the right direction.

Political parties based on ideologies, rather than tribal affiliations, can potentially address this issue. Such a shift could enable voters to make choices based on policies and principles, fostering a more vibrant and resilient democracy.

A democratic system where every citizen truly feels that they are shareholders in the Kenyan project is not only a possibility, it is a necessity.

Only then can we proudly sing ‘Daima Mimi Mkenya’, and the words ring true.

Waweru is an advocate and expert in property [email protected]

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