This past week, national attention has focused on 8 MPs charged with contravening hate speech and incitement laws, who suffered the rare misfortune of being denied bail and ended up spending all of three nights in jail. After their release, they confessed that the ordeal had precipitated a change of heart and that they are now transformed into paragons of tolerance and brotherly love. If only it were that easy!
Ethnic incitement is an ugly beast that rears its head in every election cycle and is a product of, paradoxically, our obsession with the politics of ethnicity and our concomitant fear of the place to which that road inevitably leads.
It is no coincidence that it is much more pronounced at election time. Elections themselves are primarily framed as zero-sum contests between tribes for a share of government revenues and jobs -the proverbial “national cake”- and not between ideas of how to improve lives of ordinary Kenyans. This framing privileges the problems politicians face in accessing national office and the opportunities for plunder that come with it, above those of the people, whose main interest is in securing government services.
It follows then that any serious attempt to ameliorate the dangers needs to address the basis of our politics and political competition. Kenya is more than just a collection of feuding tribes. That is just one way of imagining the nation. If anything, the problems of ordinary folks, from unemployment to healthcare pay little heed to ethnic cleavages. And many of them are caused and exacerbated by the preying of a multi-ethnic elite. That the class inequalities within any particular ethnic community far outstrip those between tribes is testament to this.
This is neither to say that horizontal discrepancies between tribes in accessing government services do not exist nor that they are unimportant. It is clear that governing elites have perfected a system of patronage, effectively holding communities hostage to the political fortunes of self-declared “tribal kingpins”. The economic and political marginalization and exclusion of regions populated by ethnic communities that have no share in government reinforces the logic that to avoid a similar fate, tribes must have one of their own in power and consequently the view of communities as factories competing for the production of public officials.
Yet the concept of such officials essentially doing their dirty work on behalf of the tribe ignores the fact that the limited benefits accruing to their particular regions from the diversion of national resources are scant reward for the sacrifices they make. They do little to ameliorate the impoverishment caused by kleptocratic governance. The looting of taxes via scams such as Goldenberg and Angloleasing does not discriminate between tribes. Neither are the proceeds funneled to tribal funds. Rather, as the Kroll report demonstrated, the loot is secreted abroad into the personal accounts of the politicians and a small circle of family and friends.
Still, a little being better than nothing, such favoritism does help to cement the idea of elections as an arena where tribes fight for their turn at the dinner table, rather than as a means to discipline errant officials. It focuses energies on ethnicity rather than performance and explains the phenomenon of communities rallying around tribal "kingpins". Politicians become synonymous with "leaders" and all power is increasingly concentrated within the political sphere rather than dispersed across society.
A different conception of what Kenya is could turn this logic on its head. An understanding of class and ideological rather than ethnic affiliation would create possibilities of alternative basis for articulation of group interests and thus political mobilization. As opposed to parties that are little more than tribal enclaves, political entrepreneurs could create multi-ethnic coalitions composed of farmers or labor or social liberals to take on entrenched interests.
This is not an easy task but it is one that holds great promise. That it would require a greater focus on the bread-and-butter issues that matter to ordinary citizens rather than a fixation with power and patronage is just one. It would also incentivize inclusive rather than exclusive political platforms, and broaden rather than narrow the constituencies politicians would need to appeal to. It would transform party manifestos from mere rhetorical flourishes to actual instruments of accountability and raise the quality of political debate in the country.
More relevantly, people choose their weapons and tactics according to the fights they expect to have. When wrapped up in identity, issues and threats can seem intensely personal, even existential and concerned parties ultimately irreconcilable. Responses will tend to be extreme and violent. Hatred and incitement will almost inevitably follow. However, when framed as abstract ideological battles, as contests of wit rather than spit, the issues can appear far less threatening and responses can be far more rational and deliberative.