Why tribalism should never be a factor in our elections again

President Uhuru Kenyatta (center) ODM leader Raila Odinga (left) and Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka at WRC in Naivasha on June 27, 2021. [Courtesy]

The outcome of this country’s General Election for the last three decades has been determined to a large extent by the tribal factor. Candidates who did not pitch their campaigns on tribal support miserably lost out to those who had the backing of their tribes.

Although people may say that everywhere people vote for one of their own and cite examples of former President Barack Obama being overwhelmingly voted for by fellow blacks in the US, this should not lull us into the comfort that voting along tribal lines is right.

If for nothing else, we must always remember that elections are the means through which we allocate power and resources to our elites. Our elites, drawn from various Kenyan communities, contest for power and it is us voters who determine who among them gets what, when, why, and how. However, we use tribe, race and gender to determine what to allocate them. This is likely to weaken our democratic consolidation as argued in this piece.

It is obvious to Kenyans that tribe, race and gender are inflexible categories. No one changes the tribe, race and to a large extent the gender in which they find themselves. Using them to determine who gets what in the fight for power will, therefore, perpetually disadvantage those elites who come from numerically inferior groups.

These elites become skeptical of elections and the democratic process as the means through which they can access power. They begin to look for means beyond democratic elections. They thus withdraw from elections and the democratic path as the means through which to contest for power.

Withdrawal can be indicated by refusal to register as voters or not turning out to vote in elections and leaving the system to those who it favours, in this case, those with numerical superiority. Withdrawal from the democratic process, however, does not indicate withdrawal from the elite fight for power. The fight continues, but through non-democratic means, using non-democratic outfits.

As examples from across East Africa show, the most favored non-democratic means to power is violent struggle. In neighbouring Uganda, for instance, Yoweri Museveni, the current president, withdrew from the democratic process once he realised he stood no chance of using it to gain power.

As his autobiography, Mustard Seed, indicates, Museveni took to the bush once it became clear to him that the democratic process was not only clogged with ethnic and sectarian manipulation of voters, but was also under the tight control of then President Milton Obote. As a result, he withdrew from it and for close to six years fought his way into power.

His example inspired others, most prominently current Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Kagame and other members of the Tutsi minority stood no chance in the race for Rwanda’s presidency during the height of the racist rubanda nyamwinshi ideology pursued by the Hutu supremacist Presidents Gregoire Kayibanda and Juvenal Habyaramina.

The ideology dictated that since Tutsis were only 10 per cent of the population, they could not be expected to get into power, and thus were barred from it. In any democratic contest, they could not marshal the required numbers to overcome the Hutu dominance of the power structures. They were therefore left with no option except to use non-democratic routes with outfits like the Rwandan Patriotic Front to claim a stake in power.

Perhaps more poignant was the case of former president Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi from Burundi. Buyoya tried to build bridges across the ethnic divide in the run-up to the presidential election of 1993, appealing to majority Hutus and minority Tutsis to build a multi-ethnic nation at peace with itself. In the final outcome, he stood no chance against the Hutu candidate, Melchior Ndadaye, merely gaining slightly above 30 per cent of the vote in spite of the advantage of incumbency.

His loss alarmed the Tutsi elite, controlling the army, who concluded that so long as the outcome of the democratic process was captured by the inflexible categories of Hutu and Tutsi, it could not help them in their quest to gain and retain power. They therefore circumvented it and reinstalled Buyoya as a coup leader. It has since been a constant source of instability in that country.

As for the two Sudans, their separation was largely facilitated by the withdrawal of the South Sudanese elite like John Garang, Salva Kiir, Laban Lo Lyong’ and Riek Machar from the racially-skewed democratic process controlled by the Arabs of northern Sudan.

However, African leadership tragedy after using non-democratic route has been its prolonged experience under leaders who never thought of life outside the presidency. Except for the likes of Leopold Sedor Sengor and Julius Nyerere, most African leaders have been unwilling to vacate power, hence perpetuating civil disobedience.

In Kenyan scenario therefore, we joke whenever we let the outcome of our democratic process be captive to inflexible notions of tribe, race and gender. Kenyans must change this as a matter of urgency as the country gears for 2022 General Election, lest we forget what befall us in 2007.

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