But today, I’ve decided to go ahead and just do it, because I felt I need to respond to this passionate plea by Boniface Mwangi, certainly one of my heroes.
Maybe there’s a political scientist who has explored this, but the reality is that voting is a rather emotional and value-laden exercise. We vote based on how we feel and what we value, not just on what we abstractly think is good for the entire country. I suspect that it’s because we ordinary citizens are given this responsibility of making a ground-breaking choice, with an impact on the next five years, through putting the single mark on a strip of paper. That’s a heavy burden, and so we can’t go to the polling booth thinking only about who will build a dispensary or tarmac the roads.
The idea of voting only based on abstract things like economic growth, inflation and taxes is largely for the benefit of the press who need to feel that they are reporting issues and not personalities. And the Kenyan press just mimics the Western one because the journalists eventually want to work at Aljazeera and BBC.
But worse, this focus on “development” as criteria for choosing leadership has made us Africans suffer very stupid and short-sighted decisions, where politicians build iconic development projects, but ones which have little impact on the lives of the people. Worse, privileging development has meant that philanthropy, by everyone from Sonko to Bob Geldof, Bono and Western donors, has robbed us of our dignity and self-determination, and has reduced us to beggars and praise singers.
Even in the West, from where we borrowed the idea of a secret ballot, voters do not vote on purely the belly. In the US, Obama won partly because at the time, the United States had lost its international moral capital with the war escapades of George W. Bush. At home, the handling of crises like Hurricane Katrina brought the US great embarrassment, especially due to the racist comments about New Orleans resembling the third world. Americans no longer could rule by the gun alone, and a black president could restore a lot of the moral ground they had lost.
And their bargain worked. The whole world focused its attention on that election, and when Obama won, the goodwill overflowed. Even from the Nobel Prize committee. Michelle charmed us, and the Obamas changed the disposition of leaders. We started to see stuff like Putin riding shirtless on a horse, getting into an arm-wrestle with an ordinary Russian, or Uhuru and Ruto appearing with just a shirt and tie, no blazers, bending over in laughter, or the president wearing rugby shirts and military gear. That’s not to say that Obama was not the better candidate. He was. He had no competition partly because the Republicans didn’t read the signs of the times and they instead fronted a candidate who didn’t sound much different than George W.
What Americans voted for in Obama was for the vision of their country as the land of opportunity for every human being, regardless where they came from. For black Americans, Obama’s win was the fulfilment of a promise fought for, ever since their ancestors landed at Plymouth. And regardless of the disappointments under the Obama administration, including the police shootings of unarmed black men, the Obamas have fulfilled that promise. They are still the symbol to the world of the unlimited possibilities that the United States represents.
A less flattering example is that of Jean Marie Le Pen of the National Front, the anti-immigrant party in France. After his surprise runner-up position in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, the shocked French voters rallied to give the unconvincing Jacques Chirac the largest percentage win by a French president in recent history. Despite the majority of French having little sympathy for non-Europeans, they voted to keep their belief in France as a tolerant nation that is the home for human rights.
Similarly, when we Kenyans are voting for someone from our ethnic group, we are not voting simply for tribe. We are voting for certain values. And it is those values that we need to expose, and more importantly, fight by offering alternatives. Uhuru is not just a Kikuyu; he’s a landowner, in the colonial settler sense, and a prince – which is always romantic because people love babies of royalty (just look at how much attention Prince George’s birth received, and how paparazzi almost die to get photos of Hollywood families). Most of those from Central Province who voted for Uhuru embrace the values he and his family represent – of buying plots and selling land at a profit without having built any ideas or industry. Kenyatta II also represents the narrow minded mentality that only those who are business-minded can be efficient leaders, and the business-minded come from only one tribe.
And then there was ICC. To a country where a white man arresting a black man reminds us of colonialism, the ICC indictment was the feather in Kenyatta II’s cap, especially because the crimes he was accused of were seen as the salvation of the Kikuyu nation. He was the modern Dedan Kimathi – never mind how warped that historical interpretation is.
Unfortunately, Ruto buys into the same values on property and power. So the Jubilee ticket was, ultimately, a feudal ticket. Recall that feudalism is a system where landowners wield power, and own the destiny of the peasants on their land. And as much as the peasants are disempowered, they share the value system of their landlords. It was the same during colonial times; as Fanon said in The Wretched of the earth, the native wants to be the settler, to live in the settler’s house, and sleep with the settler’s wife if possible. So Uhuru and Ruto brought their serfs together, and with the help of some chicken eaters, won the presidency. And the two men don’t need to develop anywhere, by the way. Unless their supporters’ values change, they will still receive the same support in the next election.
And that is probably why Raphael Tuju didn't stand a chance running on a PNU ticket. Tragically, he bought into the development-first ideology and initiated innovative projects in Rarieda that would later be copied by Margaret Kenyatta. But a strong-minded Nyanza, tired of the monopoly of this country’s leadership, would not abandon its belief in the one family that has been consistent (never mind how flawed) at putting up a formidable resistance to the idea that one tribe is born to rule this country in person or by proxy.
The only way to beat the so-called tribal voting is to offer a different set of values. That is why we at Ajenda Afrika vehemently argue for a republican class-consciousness as the basis of voting. We point out at how unfair the current social structure is. We insist that everyone, regardless where they come from, should have an equal opportunity to fulfill their valid dreams, whether it is to be an actor, a teacher, a doctor or a president. Also, everyone should have equal access to second chances. It’s unfair that the young sons of the rich can overcome a chaotic past to finish their education and even become presidents, while the young sons of the poor don’t expect to survive till adulthood because they’ll be killed by a disease, poisonous alcohol, or bullets. And equal opportunities come from good public services – public education, public health care, public transport and public recreation.
And that was why I voted for James Ole Kiyiapi. I think it was in an interview I read or heard, where he said that his candidacy was proof that Kenya is a great country, because he was once a Maasai herdsboy who was now running for President. Those words appealed to my dream for Kenya where anyone, from Turkana to Kwale, has a fair chance at becoming president without being the son (it’s almost never a daughter) of an important family. I dint like Kiyiapi’s campaign or his running mate, and I’m disappointed that he has gone quiet. But unless a similar candidate appears, and if he stands again, I would vote for him again, and again, because he embodies what I believe in. And I believe that a win by someone of Kiyiapi’s profile, like that of Obama, would produce a radical change in the Kenyan psyche. It would affirm our conviction that Kenya is indeed for everybody, no matter where they are born. It would make Kenyans see that we need public services to be available to all Kenyans, in order to give all children the chance to be the best they can be. It would make students from marginalized communities stop feeling like guests at the pleasure of the dominant tribes, because they would see their possibilities as limitless.
So Boni, Kenyans need to believe in something as compelling as tribe in order to stop voting on tribal lines. Development, unfortunately, doesn’t cut it. Development is soulless. It does not stir values of pride and belonging. Worse, development does not affirm our dignity as citizens. But I think there’s potential for fighting tribalism in exalting the values of a true republic, where leaders are not just those born to the right families, but are also nurtured through education and opportunity, and where leaders serve in the interests of the common good, not the interests of family and personal wealth. I think we can create that ideology with the legacy of grassroots resistance in Kenya, from Mekatilili wa Menza, to Elijah Masinde, to the Mau Mau, to the multi-party legacy of the 1990s, to the demonstrations against the Mpigs, the Ballot revolution, Justice for Liz and even “My dress, my choice,” to even the power of social media. Kenya is a republic ruled by the colonial legacy of the settler (feudal) economy. We need to change our nation into a republic ruled by republican values.