Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. Photo: World Trade Organization _DSC6747 / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Kenya’s Upcoming Vote: Three Reasons Why Ethnicity is Less Important

Ahead of the national election on 9 August, all eyes are on Kenya amid signs that the once all-important factor of ethnicity is being diluted by other, more pressing, concerns.

Kenyan elections have a reputation for being heated, controversial and driven by ethnic politics. In the popular imagination, Big Men line up to try and mobilize their communities on mass and the outcome of the polls – if they are free and fair – represents little more than an ethnic census. But this cliché has never been an accurate way of thinking about the complexity of political competition in Kenya – and in the case of the 2022 elections it is positively misleading.

A combination of coalition calculations, the importance of the economy, and the fact that leaders know that performance is important to their ability to mobilize support means that ethnicity is less prominent that it has been in the past. This promises to help the country weather an election that might otherwise have proved challenging for political stability due to the personal fallout between Deputy President William Ruto and outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta.

This is a positive development, suggesting that voters are unwilling to be constrained by historic sociological constructs if leaders fail to perform. But it does not mean that inter-communal tensions are a thing of the past – or that the outcome of the polls is likely to be any less contentious.

Coalition calculations

Ever since the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) alliance comprehensively defeated the Kenya Africa National Union in 2002, Kenyan politics has been a game of coalition building – and this tendency was exacerbated by the introduction of the 2010 constitution, which stipulates that the winning presidential candidate must win at least 50 percent + 1 of the vote.

Because each of the main ethnic groups makes up 10-25 percent of the population, support from a number of different communities is required to win power. This encourages the formation of large ethnically heterogeneous coalitions, whose success depends, in part, on maintaining a degree of cohesion and harmony between these communities.

In 2022, the decision of senior leaders from the Kikuyu community not to stand – perhaps in order to demonstrate that they are willing to share power with other groups and so secure the community’s long-term interests – has created a distinctive political landscape. The presidential contest is effectively a two-horse race between William Ruto, a Kalenjin leader and Deputy President, and Raila Odinga, a chief of the Luo and long-term head of the opposition. In a twist of fate that demonstrates the capacity for Kenya’s political elite to form new alliances whenever it is in their interest to do so, in this contest it is Odinga who is widely viewed to be the establishment candidate after President Kenyatta brought his former rival into a new alliance. Meanwhile, Ruto is now seen as the most prominent opposition leader after being marginalized within the government.

One of the main challenges facing both Odinga and Ruto is to try and secure the vote of the Kikuyu community, one of the most numerous and influential groups in the country. This helps to explain why both leaders appointed Kikuyu running-mates, and highlight their strong ties with Central Kenya. The coalition logic in 2022 has therefore helped to reduce tensions between members of the Kikuyu community and the Luo and Kalenjin groups, which is important given that these groups were involved in some of the nation’s worst post-election violence in the wake of the disputed 2007 elections.

It’s the economy, stupid

As the late, great, Joel Barkan pointed out, performance on development has always mattered, both at the local and the national level. The importance of the economy has been brought into sharp relief in 2022 because of the collapse of tourism combined with rising food and fuel prices that are being driven ever higher by the war in Ukraine.

As the BTI Report 2022 put it, the COVID-19 pandemic “has devastated Kenya during a sensitive political period as it prepares to hold a general election in 2022”. Already in the first months of the pandemic, the economy contracted by 1 – 1.5%, pushing two million people into poverty, increasing the unemployment rate to 10.4 percent by mid-2020. Against this painful backdrop, many Kenyans – of all ethnicities – have become increasingly frustrated by ongoing corruption and the failure of the government to deal with rising unemployment and a rising cost of living.

Issues don’t drive election campaigns unless leaders decide to use them to frame their appeal, of course, and so William Ruto’s decision to play on economic frustrations rather than ethnic grievances was critical. Depicting himself as “hustler” who is on the side of ordinary hardworking Kenyans, Ruto has cleverly appealed to growing public disaffection with the country’s long-running political dynasties. There is a clear populist tinge to this strategy of seeking to identify himself with the struggle of ordinary Kenyans, implying that both they and he have been betrayed by the elite.

This argument may have flaws – Ruto was Deputy President for two terms and is now believed to be vastly wealthy – but it nonetheless appeals to many Kenyans, especially younger citizens. Partly as a result, Ruto has been able to mobilize support in areas that, had the election been determined by an “ethnic census”, should not have been open to him. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this cross-ethnic appeal is that, along with recruiting a number of MPs and Governors in Central Kenya to his side, this strategy enabled Ruto to become the most popular candidate in what used to be called Central Province, a Kikuyu heartland.

This is remarkable both because Odinga is backed by the Kenyatta – who remains the most prominent Kikuyu political leader, and because Ruto was previously accused of orchestrating crimes against humanity against members of the Kikuyu community by the International Criminal Court. This clearly shows there is nothing inevitable about the centrality of ethnicity in Kenyan elections.

Performance has always mattered

One reason that Ruto’s strategy has been effective is that it has built on a long history of elections that have revolved around the ability of incumbent politicians to deliver development to their citizens.

Those who appear to provide education, healthcare and infrastructure have often been able to mobilize support beyond their homeland, as J.M. Kariuki did after independence. A classic example is Mike Sonko, whose populist form of service delivery enabled him to first get elected as Governor of Nairobi and then emerge as a serious candidate for the Governorship in Mombasa – some 450 kilometers away.

The long shadow of ethnic politics

All in all, it is therefore important to keep in mind that what we are seeing in the 2022 election is an evolution, not a revolution, in how politics works.

The ability of William Ruto to mobilize support in Central Kenya demonstrates how an increasingly demanding electorate can promote democratization. However, it is important not to suggest that ethnicity is no longer a major force in Kenyan political life. Ethnicity will not determine the elections, but it remains integral to how the campaigns are understood. While some ethnic groups will divide their vote or vote for leaders from other ethnicities, others – including the Luo and Kalenjin – are unlikely to do so.

Political competition and election-related controversies could exacerbate inter-ethnic distrust. There is already widespread evidence that negative ethnic stereotypes and hate-speech are circulating on social media. Just as economic issues have been mobilized into the 2022 campaign, ethnic divides will return to prominence if senior political leaders choose to make them the focus of their message. As the BTI report notes, politicians often seek to uphold such divisions: “In times of decreased polarization, politicians are disinterested in resolving conflicts arising from the exploitation of ethnicity, preferring to keep them simmering for exploitation in the future.”


A version of this article was published by African Arguments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *