This has led to a system under which leaders channel government resources to their ethnic supporters to ensure their political survival. In turn, their supporters begin to feel entitled to government resources.
The politics of ethnicity therefore becomes an inter-community competition, not merely for representation in governance, but for resources.
This isn’t a problem exclusive to Kenya. Studies show that many African countries are finding it difficult to manage diversity, and particularly ethnicity.
In Kenya, tribal politics has given rise to rampant corruption, marginalisation, disenfranchisement of entire communities, and full-blown violence.
As the country goes into another general election this August, two questions are frequently being asked. Has anything changed since 2007 when violence broke out after a disputed election? And are there any real ideological differences between Kenya’s two main coalitions?
A stock take of the present ethnic reality shows that tribalism is more entrenched than ever. The two coalitions are a cluster of parties that represent regional ethnic blocs.
In fact they have split the country down the middle along a clear tribal fault line, with the populous Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes on one side and the Luo, Luhya and Kamba on the other.
The history of ethnic loyalties
But why are there such bitter contests every election cycle? It has everything to do with the possibility of attaining control of state resources and being in charge of their allocation.
Kenya has been governed by four presidents from two ethnic communities since independence: the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. The 40 other communities now believe that it’s their turn to hold the presidency.
Kenya is home to 42 ethnic groups. The major ones are the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, and Kamba. Combined, they form 66% of the country’s population.
The behaviour of Kenyan voters has remained largely consistent over the past five multi-party elections. Regardless of where they reside, ethnic allegiance has been the most influential motivator at the ballot.
This pattern of political allegiance based on ethnicity has a long history dating back to Kenya’s colonial past.
KANU represented the populous Kikuyu and Luo tribes and KADU represented the smaller Masai, Kalenjin, Luhya and Mijikenda communities.
This was partly because colonial policy barred the formation of nationwide political movements. It only allowed the formation of district political associations.
The effect was to encourage ethnically homogeneous political associations to emerge across the country. As a result, parties have drawn their political legitimacy and capital from their respective ethnic bases since independence.
At Lancaster House – where Kenyan delegates held a series of meetings to negotiate Kenya’s independence constitution – KANU and KADU leaders wore their ethnic hats.
And in 1966 when Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga left KANU he retreated to his ethnic backyard and formed the Kenya People’s Union.
So historically speaking, political parties have never really been divorced from tribal affiliations.
But the problem runs much deeper than tribal politics. In Kenya an ethnically diverse society is responding to an imposed political configuration which, thanks to its colonial heritage, is a democratic competition for resources.
Fixing the problem
If we regard democracy as elastic rather than rigid, it allows us to recognise that it can be forced – or negotiated. Negotiated democracy can lead to stability whereas forced democracy can lead to instability and violence.
A case in point is Zimbabwe where a power-sharing deal was reached between Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change in 2008.
In Kenya, negotiated democracy can be reached by creating more executive positions beyond the president and deputy president to accommodate feuding tribes: mainly the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo and Luhya.
Kenya has tried this model before, and it worked. The power sharing model put in place after the 2007 election quelled the post-election violence.
Constitutionally, a power-sharing agreement may not be as simple to effect as the 2008 National Accord and Reconciliation Act.
In that case, a simple Act of Parliament was passed to create the positions of a prime minister and his two deputies. Today the government would need to call a referendum to create substantive positions.
But that shouldn’t be a deterrent. Changes like this could lead to a realignment of political parties. If representatives of a majority of Kenya’s ethnic groups were guaranteed senior positions in government, politicians would gradually move away from ethnicity as a tool for political mobilisation, and towards ideological campaigns that prioritize socioeconomic development.