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Polls aren’t a matter of life and death

By Ken Opalo | October 10th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Under ideal conditions, political competition should be about determining who has the best policy proposals to address challenges facing a country. Therefore, while most politicians tend to pursue power for its own sake or as a means to personal wealth, the need to win elections forces them to consider the plight of voters.

Overall, functional democracies do not succeed on the basis of electing “good” politicians alone, but on the extent to which they force political elites to align their personal interests with those of the general public. In Kenya, it is fair to say that for most of our history, the interests of those that have governed us have scarcely aligned with the general interests of the public. Ongoing campaigns ahead of 2022 are a painful reminder of this fact. On either side of the political divide, politicians are gunning for power by any means necessary, and with little regard for the lives and livelihoods of Kenyans.

The violence witnessed in Murang’a that resulted in the death of two people is only the beginning of what promises to be a long and violent campaign season. 

Murang’a should be a wake-up call to all of us. For long, many voters have viewed politics simply as a means of installing co-ethnics in power and getting the crumbs associated with proximity to State resources. This has worked tremendously well for politicians, but has been a disaster for the average voter.

Political mobilisation on the basis of ethnicity largely freed politicians from the need to perform while in office. All they had to do was to remind voters of mythical ogres from opposing ethnic groups. As a result, endemic poverty continues to reign supreme in Kiambu, Baringo, Siaya, Uasin Gishu, Kitui, Vihiga, Busia, and Kajiado — all counties that have produced the most senior politicians throughout our history. 

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To break free of the yoke of ethnic politics, it is important to consider alternative forms of political mobilisation. Two prominent options include class or ideology. Class-based mobilisation would seek to sharpen the differences in the lived realities of rich and poor Kenyans, and ignite debates about appropriate levels of taxation and redistributive public spending. Ideological forms of mobilisation, while related to class politics, would be slightly different.

The focus would be on the utility of specific philosophical commitments (such as personal vs communal responsibility, extent of government involvement in the economy among others) as guardrails to our politics. It is conceivable that people belonging to different classes would share philosophical commitments. The biggest advantage of class-based or ideological basis of political mobilisation is that whatever political formations arise out of these dynamics would be open to all Kenyans, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender or region of birth. 

We should never forget that our current patterns of toxic ethic politics were historically constructed, and that we can undo them if we choose to. Just like our ethnic politics can be traced to district-level ethnic mobilisation during the Emergency in the 1950s, the failure to develop a class based on ideological forms of political mobilisation can be traced to the demise of the trade union movement in the 1960s. In both instances, those in power (British colonialists and the Jomo administration) had strong incentives to prevent any coherent cross-ethnic forms of mobilisation. And they used violence to enforce their will. 

The fact that 2022 may be fought along class lines elevates the risk of intra-ethnic violence. Our ethnic chiefs will not hesitate to harm their own co-ethnics to prevent them from forming class-based or ideological alliances across ethnic lines. 

-The writer is a professor at Georgetown University


2022 Politics
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