Third Eye

Contests in elections put ethnicity, integrity to test

Tuesday, May 17th, 2022 02:00 | By
Voting silhouette. PHOTO/Courtesy

Kenyans were finally relieved from breathtaking anxiety when the leading contenders in the presidential race named their running mates.

After a weekend full of drama, opposition doyen turned national conciliator-Raila Odinga and Deputy President (DP) William Ruto-turned vehement government critic unveiled their preferred choices.

Amid the theatrics playing out in the fierce contest, one thing remains clear – despite all pretences about addressing issues, ethnicity continues to hold an overwhelming influence on Kenya’s politics. 

One would think we have learned the historical lessons of this bane of our society that has spooked us since independence, more so following the return of political pluralism in 1991.

Alas, the curse of ethnicity haunts us to date, as witnessed in the saga of the naming of the DP candidates.

A journey down memory lane helps reflect on the genesis of this festering wound on the national conscience that refuses to heal, desperately crying for a salve to soothe it.

Scholars of politics point out that successive Kenyan governments, beginning with the Jomo Kenyatta in 1963, perfected the aspect of ethnicity that dovetailed with patronage, rent-seeking and what they refer to as ‘prebendalism’. 

This is a political system in which elected (and potential) officials and government workers, feel they have a right to a share of government revenues, and they use them to benefit supporters, co-religionists and members of their ethnic group, to the detriment of the nation state.

The dilemma facing the Kenyan nation today is a situation where political contests up to the highest level in the Executive are entangled in the vice-like grip of a power struggle combined, with rapacious competition for vast national resources that has culminated in malignant corruption.

For a few years after independence, Kenya maintained a reputation for interrupted peace and economic prosperity, registering impressive growth.

Then the nascent plural democracy was suddenly muzzled, negative ethnicity and the single-party era set in.

Soon a system of violence as an alternative to the free trade in ideas eventually mutated into a phase of ethnic clashes, following a return to multiparty democracy dubbed the “Second Liberation”.

A pervasive culture of impunity, irregularities relating to land allocation, an overbearing presidency, ethnicisation of power, wrongdoing by public officials and sheer dishonesty among both the political elite and the masses almost pushed Kenya over the precipice.

The structural rot in the country’s system finally exploded in the controversial 2007 presidential election, nearly plunging the country into civil strife. Until the 2010 Constitution brought a sense of relief and optimism.

As we enter the home stretch of this year’s General Election, we are in a situation akin to the era of the 1990s when the country went through a perilous political trajectory of intolerance, subdued opposition and entrenched corruption.

Now that the frontrunner presidential poll candidates have named their running mates, this election will prove to be the ultimate test of the credibility of our democracy, the weighing scale of integrity. 

Instead of addressing cancer gnawing away at the country’s body politic, political leaders indulge in a dance of self-deception, exacerbating endemic challenges such as corruption and intolerance while inundating citizens' woes and perpetuating extreme poverty.

This dangerous game where impunity and deceit reign and vitriol is spewed on state institutions and political adversaries, undermining democracy and pushing society to the brink, must not be condoned.

Let the forces of democracy prevail over negative ethnicity as we seek to cast our votes wisely.

—The writer is a veteran journalist who comments on political, justice and environmental issues—[email protected]

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