The Long Shadow: Confronting Tribalism’s Threat to Kenya’s Future

Over years political rhetoric centered on which leading “tribe” could capture the presidency, rather than any overarching national vision. Ethnic identity became firmly enmeshed with access to state resources, entrenching inequality and marginalization.

The Long Shadow: Confronting Tribalism’s Threat to Kenya’s Future
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Across Kenya, a profound disquiet permeates national political discourse - a palpable anxiety that tribalism remains the immutable curse that continues to poison the promised dreams of a united, equitable Kenya.

The bitter seeds were sown decades prior under colonial rule, where Britain’s infamous divide-and-conquer ethnic manipulation entrenched hostility between tribal groups. This polarized cleavage was bequeathed to Kenya’s fledgling independent leadership, who faced the challenge of guiding ethnically diverse communities into a cohesive nation.

Yet as Dr. Akech Ochungo incisively chronicles in “The Political Canary of Kenya,” the young republic quickly slipped into the same cycle of tribal ethnic scapegoating and violence that defined the colonial era. By exploiting voters’ ethnic loyalties, the political elite secured power along tribal lines, extending patronage and privileges to their own at the expense of the wider community.

Over years political rhetoric centered on which leading “tribe” could capture the presidency, rather than any overarching national vision. Ethnic identity became firmly enmeshed with access to state resources, entrenching inequality and marginalization.

Eventually this tribal political culture bred the catastrophes of 2007, when disputes over a disputed election triggered unprecedented mob violence and displacement between Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities. For reformist Kenyans, the crisis underscored the need to dismantle tribalism’s grip on the nation’s future.

The Roots Run Deep

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But charting a new course depends first on comprehending how deeply tribalism runs through Kenya’s DNA. As Dr. Ochungo stresses, it must be understood not as ancient hatreds but as a modern “political strategy for accessing state resources.” Ethnic rhetoric relies on creating a “hostile other” competing for scarce resources, inventing bitter rivalries between fluid, ever-changing cultural groups.

Under colonialism, opportunistic administrators deliberately channelled economic advantages along ethnic lines to turn communities against each other. Tribes deemed more loyal and compliant received privileged access to land, trade and basic services. By conferring special status on “martial tribes,” the British also sowed lasting stereotypes of some communities as warlike aggressors.

This institutionalized systemic inequality and fostered grievances ripe for exploitation by emergent Kenyan political leaders post-independence. Lacking genuine policy platforms, opportunistic candidates played communities’ fears and prejudices against each other to distract from elite interests.

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As Political analyst Koigi wa Wamwere argues, the practice of negative ethnic scapegoating became central to election strategy in Kenya - regardless of the politician’s true tribe. Party slogans relied on simplistic binary character framing - “we are the oppressed, they are our corrupt oppressors.”

A Toxic Legacy

Politics in Kenya

In offices across Nairobi today hang portraits reflecting Kenya’s political elite over the decades - an ethnic visual timetable showing “our tribe’s” turn occupying the hot seat in State House. The tacit pact endures - communities expect “their man” once in power to confer preferential access and patronage upon his home region.

Meritocracy or broad investment into national public goods hold little currency compared to the political currency of ethnic token appointments. As chronicled by other analysts, the civil service and judiciary remain crippled by embedded ethnic and political interests left over from previous administrations.

And the cycle self-perpetuates each election cycle at the grassroots, as candidates actively inflame and exploit their base’s grievances and prejudices to mobilize voters along ethnic lines. As Kenyan political cartoonist Gado put it - “they campaign as tyrants, but govern as tribal warlords.”

Escaping the Vicious Cycle

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The toxic question remains for reformist Kenyans - how to break this cycle when ethnic mobilization has become so politically and socially embedded? Constitutional efforts to diffuse access to power across ethnic coalitions provide some redress, as Ochungo notes. Building credible non-partisan oversight bodies and civic education campaigns can also slowly neutralize ethnic disinformation.

But direct policy and legislative reform only treats the surface symptoms. The enduring solution requires tackling much deeper social and psychological underpinnings across communities. As cross-ethnic youth peace activists argue, without truth and reconciliation to address decades of mutual prejudice, fear and trauma, the same hatreds will be passed down across generations.

Glimmers of Light

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Photo by Peter Burdon / Unsplash

There are glimmers of light and hope. Dr. Ochungo profiles Kenyan reformers pursuing inter-community reconciliation through grassroots community dialogues and forgiveness ceremonies at sites of past violence. Ethnic-based Chamber of Commerce groups jointly lobby for non-tribal business policy reforms in Nairobi.

Youth protest movements led by figures like Boniface Mwangi call out and shame leaders across the aisle for pandering to tribal interests at the expense of the marginalized. And as Kenya’s 2022 elections reaffirmed, the majority of voters resoundingly reject ethnic hate-mongering at the ballot box.

The Long Road Ahead

Yet Dr. Ochungo argues ethnic rhetoric continues to act as a dangerous political distraction utilized by elites. He warns economic inequality and perceived state capture will continue to inflame ethnic grievances. Lasting political accountability relies on an active, informed civil society - not just during elections but daily.

Kenya’s future trajectory sits at a crossroads as profound as any since that hopeful dawn of independence in 1963. Tribalism casts a long shadow over the path ahead still, but one the nation’s resilient reformers believe can and must be overcome.

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The Political Canary Of Kenya by Akech Ochungo

Eng. Ochungo’s “The Political Canary of Kenya” offers readers an electrifying journey through three decades of political tumult in Kenya, weaving personal experiences into a compelling narrative that sheds light on the intricate web of political dynamics in the country. Hailing from the Joluo community, Ochungo asserts that his community has disproportionately shouldered the impact of Kenya’s political processes, earning them the moniker ‘the canary of politics in Kenya.’

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Be part of the riveting dialogue sparked by Ochungo's transformative vision. A literary gem awaits you, promising profound rewards for those who take its message of unity to heart. The time has come to turn the page towards a more enlightened political future.