Ethnic Coalitions: Three Lessons from Kenya

The following article originally appeared in The Star.

The massive "solidarity" public rallies over the last two weeks define the essential character of the political union between Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former Minister of Higher Education William Ruto as ethnic.  This is hardly new: every transitional moment in Kenya, although always initially celebrated as a momentous occasion to provide for real change and transformation, has ultimately unveiled its ethnic tap root.

Independence from colonial rule in 1963 found ever-sharpening contestation between the Gikuyu and Luo in the Kenya African National Uniont (KANU) on the one hand and a conglomeration of what were described as ‘minorities’ under the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) on the other.  In 2002, the electoral defeat of KANU followed an ethnic pact that saw the establishment of a “Summit” in the National Rainbow Colaition (NARC); which brought together at least five ethnic chiefs as an informal collegiate consultation mechanism.  Now we see Uhuru and Ruto cobbling another ethnic coalition together; with Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka sometimes in tow.

There are vital lessons from the previous attempts at ethnic unions.  Here are three.

No Dissent: On his "coronation" in Murang’a as the King of the Gikuyu on March 27, 2011, Uhuru Kenyatta, despite all the newly created checks and balances in the new constitution, had this to say:

All of us should follow our muthamaki (great leader) Kibaki...I want to tell all the leaders here that if any one of them fails to toe the line, they should know that their politics is over. If Kibaki tells us to go to the left, we should do so, just like Ruto tells his people to go one way and they all do so.

How strikingly reminiscent is this to what former President Moi said in September 1984 of the Kenyatta era:

I call on all Ministers, Assistant Ministers and every other person to sing like parrots. During Mzee Kenyatta’s period I persistently sang the Kenyatta song until people said, “This fellow has nothing except to sing for Kenyatta. I say: I didn’t have any ideas of my own. Why was I to have my own ideas? I was in Kenyatta’s shoes and therefore, I had to sing whatever Kenyatta wanted. If I had sung another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should also put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward. The day you become a big person, you will have the liberty to sing your own song and everybody will sing it…

The Lion’s Share: It is no secret that Kenya has witnessed huge resource allocation and distribution disparities based on ethnicity. Different studies have shown how skewed—in favour of the ethnic group in power—appointments to public office, the rolling out of infrastructure, the provision of education, health care and so on have been. It is no wonder that the insider story on how the ravenous ethnic elite under NARC took over power in 2002 and began to hungrily gobble whatever was available book was titled It's Our Time to Eat.  Indeed, this is what clearly informed the advice "Hata mkia ni nyama" (even the tail is meat) to appease those short-changed in this "eating" race.

This is how Aesop would capture Kenya’s tragic story in this regard:

The Lion went once a-hunting along with the Fox, the Jackal, and the Wolf. They hunted and they hunted till at last they surprised a Stag, and soon took its life. Then came the question how the spoil should be divided: Quarter me this Stag, roared the Lion; so the other animals skinned it and cut it into four parts. Then the Lion took his stand in front of the carcass and pronounced judgment: The first quarter is for me in my capacity as King of Beasts; the second is mine as arbiter; another share comes to me for my part in the chase; and as for the fourth quarter, well, as for that, I should like to see which of you will dare to lay a paw upon it. Humph grumbled the Fox as he walked away with his tail between his legs; but he spoke in a low growl. You may share the labors of the great, but you will not share the spoil.

Political Treachery: The ethnic alliances formulated, having ushered a new elite into power, invariably result in betrayal. The logic of ethnicity creates hopes within ethnic communities that the assent of their elite to power will provide a route out of poverty, unemployment, insecurity, illiteracy and so on; these are instantly betrayed. The other ethnic communities that contribute to creating the ethnic coalition suffer the betrayal of the Lion’s Share and are also ultimately marginalized and totally excluded. Because ethnic coalitions have only one ideology—the ascent to and retention of power for its own sake—there is a betrayal of how democracy should work: heavily-taxed ordinary citizens now have to "carry" their respective non-tax-paying elite and insulate them against "attack" from "outsiders."  Rather than be servants, the elite now become cruel overlords.

Aesop warned:

One wintry day a Woodman was tramping home from his work when he saw something black lying on the snow. When he came closer he saw it was a Serpent to all appearance dead. But he took it up and put it in his bosom to warm while he hurried home. As soon as he got indoors he put the Serpent down on the hearth before the fire. The children watched it and saw it slowly come to life again. Then one of them stooped down to stroke it, but the Serpent raised its head and put out its fangs and was about to sting the child to death. So the Woodman seized his axe, and with one stroke cut the Serpent in two. Ah, said he, No gratitude from the wicked. Herein, there is a moral to the story with regard to ethnic coalitions: rather than "rattle the snake" we should instead altogether chop off its head.

Herein, there is a moral to the story with regard to ethnic coalitions: rather than "rattle the snake" we should instead altogether chop off its head.

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