Leaders like Rigathi Gachagua shouldn't use State to push ethnic interests

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua addresses mourners during the funeral service of former New Kenya Cooperative Creameries Chairman late Eliud Matu Wamae at Giakaibei Catholic church in Mathira, Nyeri county, December 22, 2022. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

I have always envied December babies because the end of year is doubly appropriate for reflecting on past achievements and planning for the coming year. What is true of individuals is true of a country like Kenya which celebrates her birthday in December.

This year's celebrations were especially significant because not only were Kenyans reflecting on the state of their democracy after 59 years of independence, the leadership of the country was undergoing a generational change with election of President William Ruto's government.

As we anxiously wait to see what our post-independence generation has in store for us, a logical starting point for reflection is to look back into our past to see what kind of democracy we have become.

An apt point of reflection is a function at Muranga Technical Training Institute where the Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua made some remarks which for me capture the essence of our democracy. In his speech to the gathering, the Deputy President asked people from Mt Kenya region to unite under one leader in order to benefit from plum jobs and economic support.

In his testimony, he pointed out how by overwhelmingly voting for the Government, people from Mt Kenya region have been rewarded with plum positions as Cabinet and Principal Secretaries and more was still to come with nominations of envoys.

In an earlier function at Mugumoini in Tharaka Nithi Gachagua had harped on the same theme by pointing out how even members of the opposition from Mt Kenya, such as Kanini Kega, were nominated to East African Legislative Assembly. Remarks by the DP are consistent with a line advanced by Kenya Kwanza politicians during 2022 election to disparage former President Uhuru Kenyatta for not bringing economic goodies to the people of Mt Kenya region.

While it is acceptable for candidate Rigathi to promise economic development to his Mt Kenya Constituency, it is another thing for the Deputy President of a multi-ethnic nation like Kenya to talk of favoring his community with public jobs. Not only do such remarks deepen ethnic cleavages, they engender resentments amongst communities outside the favored group.

That the DP did not see anything amiss in his statements is not only concerning but it betrays an exclusionary ideology that has become part of our political culture. Equally troubling was the unspoken acceptance by the gathering that it was perfectly normal for the Deputy President to prefer his community over others. Such acquiescence reflects a community whose organizing principals are still seeped in identity politics.

We highlight the DP's comments only because they are recent and fresh in our minds. The DP is, however, not alone in his conception of the role of government in furthering ethnic interest. The assumption that the role of a Kenyan leader is to advance ethnic interest is a widespread idea that has become normalised by a history of leaders preferring their communities in development.

The most glaring example of this culture is routine stacking of Cabinet positions with people of the same ethnicity as the sitting President. In 59 years of independence, this ethnic selection process has become so nuanced that even distribution of ministerial dockets is informed by narrow ethnic considerations.

The idea that ethnic advancements depends on political patronage has become so entrenched that Kenyans are forever fighting on whose turn it is to eat. As the post-independence generation picks the leadership baton, one of their primary responsibilities must be steering the country back on the road to democracy and away from our evolving ethnocracy.

The reasons are many and compelling. The most obvious problem is that ethnocracy isdiscriminative of minority groups that do not have the numbers to influence election patterns. Resentment by small communities against blatant ethnic discrimination is real and is reflected in constant demands by minority ethnic groups to rotate the Presidency.

However, not only does the rotational solution suffer from the same ethnic thinking, if implemented, it would reify ethnic identities and discriminate against citizens of mixed cultural heritage who do not identify themselves by their ethnicity.

Economically, the rotational proposition is also misconceived in that it entrenches the theory that individual prosperity totally depends on the benevolence of the visible hand of the government. It ignores the role of individuals in uplifting themselves while exacerbating ethnic competition for political positions.

The second problem of an ethnocracy is the inherent instability that arises from its discriminatory political culture. Kenyans firsthand experience of the existential threat posed by our evolving ethnocracy was in 2007 when the country nearly degenerated into civil war. In 2017, a depraved version of the same argument ominously encouraged marginalized communities to secede.

As we reflect on 59 years of our independence it is patently clear that the trajectory of our political culture needs a correcting. The question is whether a political class that revels in economics of ethnic exclusion is ceased by the existential threat posed by our slide to ethnocracy.