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How 2022 polls will sound the death of ‘ethnic census’

By Kamotho Waiganjo | November 6th 2021

Kabuchai residents queue at Sikusi primary school during the voting day to elect their MP. [Nathan Ochunge, Standard]

Without a doubt, 2022 polls will be a watershed election. Since the beginnings of voter-centric elections in 1992, the dynamics of the elections have largely been the same.

The primary determinants of the presidential race have been the outsider/insider dynamic and ethnic “identitisation” where the dominant ethnic groups have coalesced around a candidate who they identify with directly or through the agency of their ethnic leaders.

In 1992, the Kikuyu and Luhya Nations coalesced around Kibaki, Matiba and Shikuku while the Luo Nation and a coalition of smaller groupings coalesced around Oginga Odinga. The Kalenjin Nation voted to a man for Daniel Arap Moi who ended up winning with a mere 34 per cent of the vote cast. The same pattern was replicated in 1997.

While 2002 has been billed as the “ethno-neutral” election, the facts of the elections tell a different tale. The “Kibaki Tosha” call by Raila Odinga, courtesy, we later learnt, of an MoU, rallied all the dominant ethnic groups to the direction called by their chieftains.

Not surprisingly, the Kisii voted for their son Simeon Nyachae, the only candidate who rejected the Tosha call, reportedly because he had been promised a Tosha himself! The 2013 and 2017 elections generally followed the same blueprint with ethnic coalitions scientifically defining the voting calculus. What makes 2022 different is that for the first time since 1992, ethnicity is not the dominant narrative in the elections. While there are demands for “our own” in the various matrixes, it is clear that the absence of a dominant Kikuyu candidate means the template for voter behaviour, come August next year, is an untested one.

Among other things, it means the Gema political juggernaut is not beholden to anyone this time and could go any direction.

As for the insider/outsider dynamic, the situation is even more convoluted. Former PM Raila Odinga, the previous darling of the outsiders, is now the ultimate insider and will find it difficult to rally his traditional “ethnic outsiders” without losing all possible support from the Kikuyu, whose vote he needs, albeit less than his principal opponent, to get across the line.

In the meantime, the de-coupling of DP William Ruto from the Jubilee political arrangement has given him an unusual opportunity for cross-branding.

When he wants to harvest from the myriad Jubilee successes, he is the ultimate insider. When he wants to identify with the voter dissatisfaction with Jubilee, he is the outsider, the one betrayed by the dynasties. 

Add to this morass the entry of a new discourse on political mobilisation around economics and the welfare of the “excluded”.

When the “Hustler movement” started getting traction, I warned in this column that anyone who dismissed it as a passing cloud risked being drowned out by its tsunami and that unless it was countered by immediate economic interventions, it would translate to a formidable political movement.

As the lawyers say, the thing now speaks for itself. The political owner of the movement, DP Ruto, is a darling of the “excluded” whether they be in Nyaribari Masaba or my back alley Kora village.

Of course, voter behaviour is transient, and this could all change by the time we get to elections, though I am unable to identify the incentive for such change. But either way, this vote will have ethnicity as only one consideration and not a major one. Furthermore, no one will excite our passions solely for being “the outsider”.

What one hopes is that this election commences a conversation about content, character, and capacity for those seeking our votes in future. In a new constitutional dispensation, where rules and institutions matter more than “our own at the top”, elections must mean more than an ethnic census.

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