Reply to OJ Hatari: Ethnic Bloc Voting and Power Politics in Kenya are Well Understood

Ask Okoth Osewe

Despite omissions here and there, Hatari remains far ahead of millions of Kenyans who are incapable of attempting an analysis of the thorny ethnic-class dimension of Kenyan politics

OJ Hatari Esq, when I saw your entries on class and ethnicity, I did not bother to respond because you were raising the issues at a simplistic level which was good for the audience because this approach tended to make understanding of the issues much easier. I also noticed that although you seemed upset with the “ethnic status quo” in Kenya, you do not have a solution to the problem. Needless to say, I have chosen to respond to your latest salvo because I notice that you have been away and that you might not be familiar with my writing on the twin issues of ethnicity and class politics in Kenya on the one hand and the solution our movement is offering on the other. To begin tackling the issues that disturb you, here is what you wrote at KSB in a past entry:

“…As a Kenyan who has widely traversed the country, one thing is clear, there are generally three groups of Kenyans: 1. The super rich, economically and politically powerful. (Politicians, Top Civil Servants, African and European land owners, Business and private sector tycoon types) 2. Those who are economically stable and live very decent life styles. (Most Kenyan citizens of Asian and European extraction are in this group) 3. Those that struggle everyday to put food on the table, educate their children and battle 24-7 to etch out a decent life. (Wakenya)”.

Mapping out the different classes
Here, you were attempting a simple class differentiation of the Kenyan society which, you think, is composed of “three groups”. What you call the “super rich” are actually the bourgeoisie while what you refer to as “economically stable” are the petit bourgeoisie. The main difference between these two classes is that the bourgeoisie own the means of producing wealth (mainly factories and industries) while the petit bourgeoisie own the means of distribution (mainly supermarket chains, shops etc). The bottom line is that these two classes own big property while they control big services.

The third category you mention are “Wakenya” whom you say, are struggling to put food on the table. Although at a general level you are right, your approach is simplistic because your class characterization mixes various class layers where they don’t belong while it leaves other major classes unaccounted for. This critical observation might require further explanation.

Contrary to your thesis, not all “politicians” belong to the bourgeoisie class (super rich). Majority of politicians actually belong to the “ruling class” because they are the class in charge of Parliament and Government. The only way many of them try to amass wealth to join the bourgeoisie is by using their positions to steal from the Tax payer. There are politicians (like Raila Odinga, Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta) who have made it to the bourgeoisie class but majority are still trying.

Secondly, “Top civil servants” belong to the “ruling elite” and many of them might not have made it to the bourgeoisie class. You lump them as “super-rich” i.e. bourgeoisie. What you term “business and private sector tycoons” is a general reference but strictly, these could be the petit bourgeoisie who control much of the distribution networks for goods produced by the bourgeoisie (super-rich) or services they provide. When you come to “Wakenya”, you lump so many classes together thereby leaving key players unaccounted for. In fact, the only reason why you may have escaped challenge is because of forgiveness since you were just throwing a comment.

Within “Wakenya”, there exists the middle class (upper and lower depending on education, values and life-styles), the working class (e.g. the matatu dependent poor civil servant; private sector worker), the proletariat (factory worker who walks from Kariobangi to Industrial area daily) and the Jua Kali worker (living below the poverty level). All these Wakenya as you call them could be classified generally as “Workers”. Bundled with “Wakenya” are the students, the vast army of unemployed Kenyans (where you also find school/university drop-outs, lumpens aka makanga/hustlers/hawkers/mama mboga) and the peasants.

While referring to all these layers as “Wakenya” is not wrong per se, this type of reference could be a handicap when dealing with political analysis in relation to ethnicity, class and power politics in a country like Kenya. After setting the record straight on class characterization of the Kenyan society, let me move to the quarrels you were trying to raise with me as KSB Prezzo.

Previous views on tribalism and ethnic voting blocs
In your lamentation, you claimed that you have always raised the issue of ethnicity and ethnic voting blocs but that KSB President has always ignored your views. This was the first tale-tell sign that you may have either come into contact with my writing recently or you did not just bother to check my long-standing position on the various issues long before the establishment of KSB in 2006.

In seeking to have the “last laugh” through a sketchy and non-ideological take on “ethnic voting blocs” and “class politics” in Kenya, you strategically patched on the vantage “I said” position without bothering to check what had been said when you were on vacation in Nyalgunga. My record on the twin issues of ethnicity and class politics in Kenya is so diverse but let me limit the references to KSB which is much familiar. The view below, on “ethnic voting blocs” was presented before elections and it is pathetic that you chose to ignore it for convenience:

“Tribalism is not rooted in lack of equitable distribution of resources in Kenya. It is rooted in a neo-colonial ideology inculcated in the psyche of Kenyans by British colonialists who used this ideology to divide and rule Kenyans. Today, this ideology persists because it has been handed over from generation to generation by the rotten capitalist ruling class which has been using it to achieve the same objectives of dividing Kenyans in order to rule them. The existence of ethnic voting blocs benefits politicians who use these blocs as bargaining chips during their wheeling and dealing especially during electioneering”. As a politician, Raila Odinga was not excluded from this view. (Details here)

Specifically, your reaction was in response to my “Open Letter to Friends in Central and Rift Valley Provinces”. The issues I was raising in this letter were not new because I have raised them in several writings in the past. You did not just look. As late as last year, on May 1st during Labour Day, I raised the same issue of “wealth distribution” to the tribes albeit in a different context. You had not yet surfaced at KSB.

“If say “equal distribution of resources” were a solution, the implication is that there has been an “unequal distribution” of these resources to members of ethnic groups whose ethnic chieftains have been in power. In short, it should mean that members of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin (through Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki) should have been well-off compared to other Kenyans from other ethnic groups. The reality is that majority of Kenyans (in their millions) are languishing in poverty regardless of whether or not members of their ethnic groups have resided in State House and this is how the situation will remain if Kenyans do not wake up to understand the problem of tribalism from a different angle”. (Detalis here)

At that time, neither Cord nor Jubilee had been formed. KRA went a step further and proposed the following alternative Alliance as a solution to the backward ethnic bloc voting system:

“The “Worker-Peasant-Student-Unemployed” Alliance is the “ultimate Alliance” whose politics against the rich need careful study by all Kenyans claiming membership to this Alliance. For the record, the Kenya Red Alliance (KRA) has the politics needed to lead this Alliance to power in the Republic of Kenya and at any election. However, without a clear understanding of the politics of KRA, power take-over will remain a mirage and the capitalist ruling class will continue with its stereotypical manipulations. The consequence is that nothing will change even after ten more elections and this is the sad reality KRA is trying to address” (Details here).

After the 2013 election, nothing has actually changed while the country is faced with the prospect of future election boycott because the rigged 2013 election has decimated confidence of a vast section of the electorate in the electoral process.

In further tackling your concerns, you wrote: “Now the tide has turned and even pro Odinga bloggers like the KSB president have accentuated their opposition to tribalism irrespective of which block (I bet you mean bloc) one supports”.

Once again, where have you been? It is always convenient to ignore what has been stated in the past for purposes of assuming a wiser, fore-sighted or prophetic posture during discourse. In academia, scholars research their topics to access what has and what has not been said before they lay claim to specific views. Below is a passing remark I made on the very position you claim to have been accentuated after election rigging:

“We have two very high profile names – William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta – playing with the idea of taking over the country’s leadership. However, when you look at their ideas, they profess the same ethnic-based politics that has been perpetuated by the old guards since the days of independence. This dirty politics has promoted tribalism and polarized the country along ethnic lines for years. The two are preaching the politics of “we Kalenjins” and “we Kikuyus” so what they need is another Wamalwa to proclaim “we Luhyas” and new side-kicks to surface with “we Luos”, “we Waswahilis”, “we Kambas” etc to complete the circle and head to State House to grab power and share the loot as the question of mass unemployment and marginalization of the youth continues under their leadership”. (Details here)

Moving to Raila Odinga’s status before the 2013 election
While moving on to Raila Odinga, you seem not to understand why KRA supported Raila Odinga’s candidacy. Without a shred of evidence, you attribute this support to ethnicity but what you do not mention is that the Chairman of KRA, Mr. Martin Ngatia, is a Kikuyu. In summary, KRA supported Raila because from the Movement’s analysis, he remained the most progressive candidate in the field. Every Kenyan had a right to support any candidate and even though KRA believes that Raila was short-changed, there is nothing wrong with having supported him. Raila has his weaknesses which were not only well understood by KRA but which have, in the past, been expressed freely and publicly. Once again, you never looked. During the launch of my book way back in January 2009, this is what I said when Milton Obote, a Kenya-Stockholmer, asked a question about the Raila position:

“On the question of Raila Odinga’s status as an opposition politician, Mr. Osewe said that Raila has gone through “a process of bourgeoisification” over the years and that as a millionaire member of the Kenyan ruling class, his role if he were to be in the opposition, would be limited to seizing power by exploiting the existing ethnic alliances to maintain the capitalist status quo and not to question or change the system” (Details here). A video clip of this specific reply is available here.

To help you further, the view above was based on an ideological view of Raila Odinga as a status quo politician who would preserve capitalism, a rotten system which KRA is seeking to abolish. This view does not hinge on Raila’s ethnic origin and this position has been repeated severally at different forums. In my book (Raila Odinga’s Stolen Presidency) about the 2007 election, the same class-oriented view is echoed thus:

“What is known is that Raila is currently a property owner and one of the few millionaires in Kenya with vast business interests inside the country. If one examines Raila’s property-owning profile, he fits more into a bourgeoisie democrat than a daredevil communist ideologue who could seize power and nationalize property of the rich and powerful in Kenya as the basis of wealth re-distribution. Western fear of Raila as a communist was thus unfounded or based on a bogus theory that may have sprouted from the fear of the unknown” (details here).

On the whole, I do appreciate your struggle to contribute to this debate while at the same time acknowledging your limitations because of ideological constraints which sometimes limit the scope of what you can expound on safely. Despite omissions here and there, you remain far ahead of millions of Kenyans who are incapable of attempting an analysis of the thorny ethnic-class dimension of Kenyan politics. I would encourage you to continue digging deeper because at KRA, we have arrived at the conclusion that there is a clear alternative to the crisis facing Kenya. The following is a summary of KRA on how the death of tribalism can come about.

“Once Kenyans begin to see themselves as members of different classes, and once a party is in place to represent their interest, tribalism will die a natural death because politically speaking, any Kenyan walking the streets is either a worker, a student, jobless, a peasant, bourgeoisie, petit bourgeoisie or a member of the ruling class (vulture). These are the key “economic tribes” in Kenya, a reality that is unavoidable”. (Details here)

Okoth Osewe

On Raila Odinga: January 2009



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    KSB: Note that your comments have no relevance to the posts you are commenting on. This is a breach of the general terms of blog commenting so take note. You cannot make any type of comment and include an irrelevant link on any post. This is a warning only.

  • Kenya 2013 elections: reflections on the Supreme Court ruling and the role of the judiciary in democratisation

    Yuhniwo Ngenge 18 April 2013

    If the peaceful conduct of Kenya’s recent presidential elections was any kind of test of the development of the country’s new democratic culture, what happened in its aftermath bears even greater testimony to the fact that the culture of rule of law, democracy and constitutionalism may finally be taking root in Kenya as a nation and Kenyans as a people.

    After Kenya’s election body – the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) of Kenya – declared Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first President, the winner of the March 4 presidential elections by a slim margin (50.07%), his main rival, Raila Odinga, seized the Supreme Court, contesting the results.

    Considering promises by all sides during the campaigns to respect the outcome of the process, Odinga’s unexpected volte face not only froze the electoral process; it also upped anxieties and fears – as people were reminded of the violent experience of the 2007 elections – on what this might mean in the event of a ruling confirming, or voiding, the IEBC results.

    However, the Supreme Court’s confirmation of Kenyatta’s victory on March 30, and Odinga’s peaceful acceptance of the same calls for a reflection of not only how this outcome came about, but also its implications for Kenyan democracy, including the role of the judiciary in the country’s democratisation process. So, why did the same parties, who seven years earlier chose violence, seek a judicial forum to resolve electoral squabbles seven years later? In what ways does the current ruling strengthen the judiciary’s role as a vehicle of democratisation?

    External observers may point to the looming threat of criminal prosecutions against some of the candidates by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), in connection with elections-related violence in 2007, and conclude that there is now a higher deterrent factor for instigating such violence. There is no doubt some truth to this. However, it glosses over some of the experiences and tribulations of Kenyans, as a people, in their own historical search for democracy, constitutional governance and the rule of law.

    Kenya’s 2013 election was probably the most democratic in the nation’s history in terms of turn out, the manner in which it was conducted and the choices that were made. It was the culmination of decades of costly – and often bloody – struggles, for a political and constitutional framework that would facilitate a transition to a more democratic ethos, after gaining independence from Great Britain. This episode peaked in the mid-2000s but then took a downward spiral when the Government hijacked the Constitution review process at the time. Kenyans voted down the proposed constitution following a campaign which polarized the country to extremes not seen before. Two years later, over 1200 persons were killed and 600,000 displaced in elections-related violence, resulting in a carefully managed and closely-watched reconciliation and transition process that finally established a democratic constitution in 2010.

    The approval of this document in a 2010 referendum, setting the ground for the recent elections, is itself a reflection of the wishes of a people clearly in search of a break with the past. As one observer rationalised their voting preferences then, it was “not for politicians, [but] for issues and institutions and the foundations of the problems we [kept] facing”. Still in relation to the constitutional referendum, another observer submitted that they “[were] trying to create a nation that runs on the competition of ideas and individuals rather than forcing people to coalesce around ethnicities in order to defend their interests”.

    Clearly therefore, Kenyans had internalised lessons from the bloodbath of the 2007 presidential elections. The experience had imprinted a bitter legacy on the national psyche which no one wanted to repeat. Any attempts to explain or understand how and why the 2013 elections turned out so differently from those in 2007 cannot discount this collective reality.

    Another explanation perhaps finds expression in some of the features of the new Constitution itself. One of the central features it established is the system of devolution. This allows for the diffusion of political power vertically across different levels of the State, bringing government closer to the people. One may argue that unlike the former centralised system which tends to promote a “winner takes all” electoral culture at the national level, leaving dissatisfied but resolute vanquished parties with limited options to secure power but violence, the possibility of securing the same at devolved levels of the state offered consolation through broad power-sharing.

    Beyond providing for devolution of political power, Kenya’s new Constitution also created a solid institutional framework for rule of law in the form of a Supreme Court. Among its key competencies was the exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine matters relating to presidential elections. The very fact that this Court was given the exclusive jurisdiction over presidential elections is important for a number of key reasons. Firstly, it represents recognition – by the new generation of Kenyan policy makers – that a robust electoral justice system that ensures all election-related matters are handled in full compliance with the law and the constitution is critical if democracy is to take root.

    Secondly, that the parties themselves not only resorted to this institution but also resolved to respect its decision underlines an emerging faith in the institutions of the new Constitution. As Odinga himself indicated when the Court’s ruling came down, “casting doubt on the judgment of the court could lead to higher political and economic uncertainty, and make it more difficult for our country to move forward.”

    Thirdly, the decision to turn to the Court and its handling of the matter demonstrates the increasing role of judicial institutions in promoting the emergence of a democratic culture, rule of law and constitutionalism by ensuring that the dispensation of electoral and constitutional justice conforms to established constitutional and legal principles. In its disposition of the elections dispute, for instance, the Court was careful to ensure that its decision had both legal and constitutional foundations.

    It may be argued – and for good reasons – that the Kenyan judiciary is no new player in the resolution of electoral or political stalemates, and therefore the importance of the Supreme Court’s March 30 ruling need not be overemphasised. After all, wasn’t it the decision of a Kenyan Court in the 2005 case of Timothy Njoya v the CKRC and the National Constitutional Commission that effectively precipitated the premature end of the 2002-2005 constitutional reform process? While all this may be true, the recent Supreme Court ruling and the context in which it was decided calls for special recognition to the extent that it establishes two important precedents.

    Firstly, it is probably the first time in Kenyan history that an independently constituted judicial institution has adjudicated without political interference and pressure – apparent or otherwise – in such a politically sensitive electoral contest as that to elect the president of the republic.

    Secondly, the gracefulness and respect with which the decision was accepted and respected should not be overlooked. As Odinga acknowledged, despite disagreeing with the ruling, “this court process is another long road in our march towards democracy, for which we have long fought”. This message sets an important precedent as it demonstrates political recognition for the important role of the Kenyan judiciary not only in electoral justice but in the democratic process in general.

    The ultimate question that remains is whether these precedents will inform future practices as Kenya forges ahead in carving its democratic pathway. How far will, or can, the courts go? To what extent will there always be political conviction to respect its authority and decisions – whether flawed or otherwise? It is certainly too early to tell, especially when one considers the Supreme Court’s controversial position in recent gender equality-related cases. Looking at this more broadly, one might even argue that the Court has so far only been playing safe in what is a very politically charged environment, as it is hard to tell what a decision annulling the IEBC results might have caused. Yet, the mere fact that it is increasingly becoming the main forum for arbitrating such political questions not only creates room for hope; it also symbolises two important things – recognition that the judiciary has a key role to play in the democratization process, and respect for democratic institutions and processes.

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    How foolish and silly is Musyoka Kalonzo?

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