NGUGI: Our politics is dangerous, politicians will never feel the pressure to perform

Sunday November 10 2019

Citizens clap as they wait for the arrival of the ‘Kwibuka’ Flame of Remembrance of the Rwanda Genocide. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Politicians from the Mount Kenya region recently met to state their region’s position on various political questions. Their counterparts from the Rift Valley have also done the same.

There have also been calls for “Mulembe consciousness”, a reawakening of the Luhya nation to adopt united positions on national issues.

The progressive way the Luhya community vote—for diverse political parties and individuals, not for tribesmen—has been judged to be detrimental to the community’s well-being.

The Luhya voting culture is, in fact, the one that lives up to the constitutional ideal of mobilising on the basis of “community of interests”, not tribe.

It is instructive of the calibre of our political class that instead of educating the rest of us on the constitutional proposition on political mobilisation, they use the Luhya voting culture as a cautionary tale of how not to vote.

Others like the Kamba community, North Eastern and coastal communities are also encouraged to organise, mobilise and vote as ethnic blocks.


As a matter of fact, it is the ambition of every ethnic group to have their own party, or put more correctly, albeit crudely, to turn their ethnic group into a political party.

The reason the 2010 Constitution proposes political mobilisation based on the concept of “community of interests” is because we cannot build a country on the foundation of republican and constitutional values when we still consider ethnicity to be the primary and most important identity marker.

Before Kenya, as a unitary state, was brought into existence by the British in 1895, the different ethnicities within the territory considered themselves separate nations.

Just like the principalities of Europe before unification or the mini-kingdoms of the Indian Sub-continent before British colonisation, these ethnic nations were quite hostile to one another and constantly warring. The coming into existence of the nation-state called Kenya should have led to a new national consciousness.

A fundamental failing of new African governments was their inability to make the building of single nation-states from the mini-nations that had existed as independent entities for hundreds of years a crucial part of the nation-building project.

Instead, Machiavellian to the core, the regimes quickly realised the political usefulness of ethnic loyalty. Criticism of abuse of power and theft of resources by the ethnic elites that came to power could be explained away as ethnic hostility.

Ethnic consciousness and mobilisation, therefore, were at the heart of the Kanu regime of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi.

By the time Kanu was defeated in 2002, the country had undergone 40 years of ethnic Balkanisation. Tribal mobilisation had become built into our political culture.

Today, if someone wants to be elected to Parliament, the first order of business is to project himself as the defender of the tribe and blame complex socio-economic problems facing his community on this individual and his ethnic group.

Voting for the tribesman, people are told, is defending the tribe’s interests. This is now so ingrained in our culture that human rights crusaders or people of moral integrity stand no chance at the polls against tribal demagogues.

People like Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai or internationally renowned lawyer PLO Lumumba, who in their campaigns talked about the relationship between poverty, corruption and inefficiency, lost out to small-time tribal rabble rousers.

This political culture can only lead to underdevelopment for two reasons. First, tribal demagoguery avoids discussing the objective causes of social and economic problems. So solutions cannot be found.

Second, tribal demagoguery has an inbuilt incentive to be lazy and corrupt because people will not hold their politicians to account. After all, he/she is ‘eating’ on their behalf. Politicians will never feel the pressure to perform to high standards.

Our kind of politics is also dangerous. When people see the cause of their problems as Tribe X, then the solution entails its elimination.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali curates decades-long profiling of an ethnic group as the cause of all the problems facing the Hutu. The same memorial museum also curates the gruesome conclusion to that tribal logic.

We must bring back the politics of class, ideology and policies, because this kind of politics operates on the basis that we are all human and our differences are only on how best to improve our human lot. Good policies, efficiency and accountable governance bring economic benefits to all.

The Kanu regime proved the opposite; that tribal politics only benefits a few ethnic elites while the vast majority of the nation remains poor.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.