Kenya: Politicians up ethnic rhetoric ahead of 2022 polls fuelling worries

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Monday, 25 October 2021 14:04

Kenyan member of parliament Moses Kuria of the Jubilee Party (L) and former senator Johnson Muthama (C) of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition are brought to court after being arrested over hate speech allegations in Nairobi, Kenya September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The rush by politicians to use their ethnic blocs as bargaining chips in the political game is beginning to worry many Kenyans who fear the cut-throat competition could cause violence in a disputed election, as has happened in the recent past.

In the middle of September, after attending a meeting of Mount Kenya leaders that was called to deliberate on the region’s future ahead of next year’s general election, legislator Moses Kuria made remarks that left many Kenyans livid.

Kuria enumerated a list of demands which, according to him, presidential candidates must meet in exchange for support from Mount Kenya.

“[…] now that we have given in to other people to lead this country, we cannot completely give up everything. First, we have agreed that the position of the deputy president is not negotiable,” Kuria told journalists.

“Second[ly], since 40% of the votes in this country are from Mount Kenya, we want to have a proportional share of the government. If we have 22 ministers, seven ministers must come from [the] Mount Kenya region. We want 40% of all permanent secretaries to come from [the] Mount Kenya region. We want 40% of chief executive officers in parastatals to come from [the] Mount Kenya region. We want 40% of ambassadorial positions to be [reserved] for [the] Mount Kenya region,” he said.

“That is not a favour we are asking for. That is the minimum, and it is our right.”

Criticism flies

Kuria’s video went viral and elicited anger. The fact that he is the MP for Gatundu South constituency, the backyard of President Uhuru Kenyatta, made matters worse.

“One of the 2010 constitution’s main aims was to minimise tribalism and promote inclusiveness, but politicians are once again playing tribal cards without a care in the world. This idea of ‘them and us’ is very dangerous,” one Titus Ncheeri said on Twitter.

Evan Wambugu said: “This kind of entitlement being propagated by Moses Kuria is dangerous. Mount Kenya communities must not fall into the trap of politically fuelled balkanisation aimed at blackmailing other tribes in the quest for political state power.”

Lexie Mhan said: “Surely all are important……slavery to a tribe is lack of democracy.”

Grassroots mobilisation

Politicians have been trooping back to their native regions, a move that some view as ethnic mobilisation disguised as consultative meetings for discussing issues affecting their constituents.

We are not fielding a presidential candidate this time, but we will ensure communities in the arid and semi-arid regions are represented…”

Kuria is a member of the Mount Kenya Unity Forum, which politicians from the region intend to use to canvas for their interests.

To assuage public anger, forum members insist that Kuria’s remarks were personal, as they are yet to agree on the list of demands to be presented to the presidential candidates who want the region’s support.

Upya Movement and the United Democratic Movement

In a similar move, legislators drawn from pastoral communities in northern Kenya – led by Ukur Yatani, the national treasury cabinet secretary – recently launched the Upya Movement, which they will use to push their agenda.

“We are not fielding a presidential candidate this time, but we will ensure communities in the arid and semi-arid regions are represented at the negotiation table and we will not accept if issues about livestock, drought and all others that affect our people are not discussed,” said Yatani.

A few days later, another outfit, the United Democratic Movement Party, was also launched in northern Kenya. According to Mandera Governor Ali Roba, one of the founding members of the party, presidential candidates who want to make inroads in northern Kenya will have to engage with the new party.

Political and economic interests

Back in Nairobi, MPs from the Gusii community, comprising allies of Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, are trying to consolidate interests of the region.

“We shall be having consultative meetings with all stakeholders in the Gusii community to identify and streamline our political and economic interests. We hope that the 2022 permutation and combinations will secure our communities interests,” says South Mugirango MP Silvanus Osoro.

Other communities, especially those from Mount Kenya and the lakeside, [are indebted to us]. We have supported them in past elections, and it is time for them to return the favour.”

Politicians from both Luhya and Kamba communities led by Musalia Mudavadi (leader of the Amani National Congress, ANC) and Kalonzo Musyoka (leader of the Wiper Democratic Movement) have vowed not to play second fiddle to anyone in the presidential race. Legislators from both communities are pushing the two leaders to vie for presidency, ostensibly to increase their bargaining power with other communities at the negotiation table.

“This time round, the Luhya community must have one of their own at the ballot. We have carried others for too long. It is their time to support us,” said Senator Cleophas Malala of the ANC.

It is a sentiment that FORD Kenya leader Moses Wetangula concurs with. “Other communities, especially those from Mount Kenya and the lakeside, [are indebted to us]. We have supported them in past elections, and it is time for them to return the favour,” Wetangula said at a function in western Kenya.

A warning for Kalonzo

The message is the same in south-eastern Kenya, where the Wiper Democratic Movement is a strong force. Hardliners within the party have maintained that the Kamba community must have one of their own on the presidential ballot paper in 2022.

Last month, seven lawmakers from the region warned Kalonzo not to shelve his presidential ambition for anyone. “We are voicing and amplifying the position of millions of supporters of Kalonzo Musyoka. They are telling him in no uncertain terms that he cannot be a running mate to Raila Odinga,” said Kitui Senator Enock Wambua.

Political tenants

At the coast, the Pamoja African Alliance Party has also been formed to champion the region’s agenda.

Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi, who is the brains behind the new party, insists that the interests of the coastal people can only be safeguarded if they have their own political party.

“All they [politicians] speak about are regions – Mount Kenya, Nyanza, Western, Eastern, Coast – nobody talks about Kenya.”

“For how long will the coastal people be political tenants? We need a party that believes in the interest of the coastal people,” says Kingi.

Legislators from the Luo and Kalenjin communities are also seeking to consolidate their unity to boost the chances of having one of their own succeed President Kenyatta. Raila hails from the Luo community, while deputy president Ruto is from the Kalenjin community.

Balkanisation worries

The use of ethnic blocs for political gain is beginning to worry many Kenyans, who fear the country might plunge into violence, pitting communities against each other, as was the case in 2007/2008.

Though the 2010 constitution attempts to remedy the situation by devolving power to counties, to shift the focus from the presidency, the competition for the top seat remains fierce.

Patrick Lumumba, a professor of public law, is disappointed by trends. “All they [politicians] speak about are regions – Mount Kenya, Nyanza, Western, Eastern, Coast – nobody talks about Kenya. The regionalisation and the ethnicisation of the country’s agenda should annoy all of us,” Lumumba told Citizen TV.

‘Voters are to blame’

According to the professor, politicians have succeeded in confusing voters by thinking that they can only get development if one of their own becomes president.

“A few individuals in Kenya who have succeeded in hypnotising their ethnic constituencies have captured Kenyan politics, and we – the voters – are also to blame, we are the co-authors of our misfortune. We are told if one of our own is the president, then that is our chandelier; so each ethnic group is struggling to produce their own as the president and it is a cut-throat competition in which throats are actually cut,” he said.

“We saw throats cut in 2007. We saw throats cut in 2017-2018 and if we are not careful, if we continue on this trajectory, then it may happen again,” Lumumba said.

‘Regions have specific needs’

However, Martha Karua, who was elected chairperson of the Mount Kenya Forum, defended the regional meetings. “You cannot be made to fear to even acknowledge that you come from a particular region because that region has needs specific to it. Political leaders have a community of interest, and they are entitled to caucus,” Karua, who is also leader of the National Rainbow Coalition-Kenya party, told Citizen TV.

“Even though I am a national leader, I do come from the Mountain and therefore look after the needs of the Mountain. Those two issues are not mutually exclusive. They actually move together,” she said.

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