We should delink our politics from tribes

Napoleon Bonaparte said that ‘in politics, stupidity is not a handicap’. And so the political season is upon us and political drums have started sounding across the nation accompanied by the usual infuriating political shenanigans and calls for ethnic solidarity. Once again, ethnic identity has been brought to the fore. Are we ever going to separate politics from ethnicity?

All politics is fundamentally driven by identity because it is the lowest common denominator. When you are selling yourself to a huge population with diverse interests, identity becomes the low hanging fruit. Someone once said that we see things not as they are but as we are.

Politicians instinctively understand this so they shape their message around identity and the grievances of a particular group. It’s a formula that has worked time and time again.

Rightly or wrongly, historically our ethnic identity has been strong in Kenya hence our voting patterns. A key outlier here is Mike Sonko who framed his campaigns to appeal to the urban youth identity as a distinct identity from the tribe. It is telling that most Kenyans do not know, or do not immediately think of Sonko’s ethnic background which is completely unusual for a Kenyan politician. Despite operating outside the ethnic cocoon, Sonko has successfully scaled some enviable heights in our politics. Love him or hate him, his blueprint will likely influence future urban political contests.

The hustler-dynasty narrative seems to attempt in its own untidy way to move the conversation away from tribes to a class discourse. The unfortunate incidents of mobs burning property supposedly belonging to ‘dynasties’ may have shifted our understanding and heightened our fears of what the narrative might mean on the ground.

That notwithstanding, a national discourse has been introduced about the growing inequalities in our country. Judging from the hostile reactions in some political quarters, class as a basis of identity politics is resonating across significant parts of this country. The genie is out of the bottle and I expect that this narrative will be a permanent feature in our coming elections.

Identity politics is obviously not unique to Kenya. The same identity politics is at play in the West with Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK and the resurgent right wing movements in Italy and Eastern Europe. Here politicians have powerfully combined identity with grievance, a sure winner at the polls.

Richard Nixon, a peculiarly introverted politician who had powerful grievances of his own, brilliantly and cynically used this strategy in the 1968 and 1972 US elections. He explained his strategy simply: ‘Voters are basically lazy. Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agrees or disagrees; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable.’

The key conversation we need to start amongst ourselves is how to replace tribe as the dominant identity in Kenya. It has been said that for the national identity to take root the tribal identity has to die. The Kenyan experience is that the two do not seem to be able to coexist together. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere set out after independence to systematically undermine the tribal identity while building up the Tanzanian national identity. Today, Tanzania is envied for its strong national identity and its lack of tribal conflicts.

Would Kenyans be willing to shed off their tribal tag for national good? How much does the tribal identity mean to Kenyans? As Kenyans, we have other multiple identities; Christians, professionals, fathers, Africans, Nairobians, global citizens etc. All these identities are battling one another for dominance and for some reason, the tribe keeps winning especially in the area of governance. How do we change that? Do we want to change that?

I really don’t know. But the conversation must start with each one of us. How much are we willing to jettison our ethnic languages, customs and traditions for a national identity with a common language, customs and traditions that will enable the grandmother in Kilifi to have meaningful conversations with her in-laws in Kakamega?

We know that the politicians who are heavily invested in and benefit from the current status quo will not be the solution. The solution starts with you and me.

-Jack Muriuki is a lawyer and a Kenyan patriot

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