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Kibra election should be about performance

By Ken Opalo | August 31st 2019

Campaigns in the Kibra by-election are in full-swing. The leading political parties and alliances are working hard to game each other, with the goal of nominating the most viable candidate. Ethnic breakdowns of the constituency’s voters are circulating on social media (yes, Kibra is not 150 per cent Luo!). Meanwhile, prospective candidates are prostrating themselves – literary and figuratively – at the feet of our self-styled ethnic chiefs. The so-called party leaders are busy peddling nominations in exchange for pledges of loyalty and more.

Missing in this charade is any discussion of former Kibra MP Ken Okoth’s legacy. As I have written before, the late Okoth was the best MP Kibra ever had. His works spoke for themselves. For multiple years, he was given awards for being the most diligent steward of the Constituency Development Fund. He built schools. A library. Repaired classrooms and other public infrastructure. He was a champion of human rights and education, especially for the forgotten among us.

Okoth was also not a stone-throwing hooligan. In an era when almost the entire political leadership in Nairobi is composed of people you would be embarrassed to introduce to your parents as friends, Okoth projected an image of competence and substance. He knew what he was elected to do. He campaigned on issues. And while he was a loyal party man in ODM, his style of politics gave us a glimpse of how it is possible to play a people-focused machine politics with the dirtiest of the dirtiest and still retain dignity.

All indications are that Okoth’s replacement will not even come close to his achievements. The choice will be about the big men running leading parties and coalitions. And none of them want anyone like Okoth. They want servile praise-singers who will focus their energies on enriching party leaders and themselves, instead of working to improve living conditions in Kibra. The notion of performance is not on the nomination agenda.

The tragedy, of course, is that everyone is in on this farce. The media are eager to peddle the ethnic dimension of the race. There are already stories about how Kibra’s by-election will impact 2022 politics (see all the intra-Jubilee drama). Minions are gleefully sharing images of prospective candidates supplicating the ethnic chiefs for endorsements. Crass “kupimana nguvu” is the name of the game. Voters, too, are in on the act. Many will likely sheepishly follow orders of party leaders. As a people, we are often quick to abandon our long-term interests for quick wins. Our culture of “watu wetu” politics will ensure that identity trumps performance.

Amid all of this, it is worth remembering a couple of things. First, we do not have to conduct our politics this way. It is possible to stick to issues that actually affect our people. Okoth’s legacy provides evidence in support of this fact. Second, the failure of the Kenyan political market is squarely due to our political elites. Party leaders have control over how candidates behave before and after they are elected. The party brands mean a lot for voters. For this reason, it is possible for party leaders to be gatekeepers that screen out the stone-throwers from contesting polls. This is not to say that they will always succeed. The odd stone-thrower might get elected as an independent. But this is a risk they ought to be taking often.

How nice would it be if the Kibra by-election was about who is most likely build on Okoth’s legacy? The people of Kibradeserve better.

- The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

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