“The thing about saying something is happening is that change comes to everyone in its own time. And so to say that something is happening is to forget the millions that it is yet to happen to. It is to forget those who will die before that thing happens. And if the thing that was supposed to happen doesn’t happen in time for you – then did it happen?”
Something is happening
It’s been particularly well known that, while Kenyan elections run on tribal math, this has always just been a narrative used by people in power to maintain their status as the ruling class. Still, tribe has been to blame for most of the problems facing Kenya’s political landscape. So much so has tribe been at the root of our problems that “tribless Kenya” is a movement hoping that, in organizing across tribal lines we can work towards a united country.
It makes sense that we can be herded around using tribe. The concept plays on our base ideas of “us” “ours” and a “sense of belonging.” (and participates in creating “them,” “theirs” and a “sense of unbelonging.”)
“In this narrative, corruption becomes a machine for the redirection of resources back to the people (idealized). Of course, in the absence of a colonial overlord, it just becomes stealing the meat from your own soup and serving it to the dogs. But institutions remember, and so corruption becomes the embedded language of the August house.”
– When something has to give
So what happens when the tribal numbers stop making sense? When it increasingly becomes apparent that “our man” will not help us?
“When my competitors are through with(mon-sun)sponsored headlines, paid opinion polls & fake news they are welcome to the real contest based on real mwananchi issues SGR, roads, connecting people to electricity, equipping our hospital &Tivets and matters water. Nawangojea huko.”
– William Samoei Ruto
The narrative changes.
“Siasa ya 2022 imengoa nanga (…) hii siasa si ya monarchy ukiamka asubuhi enda kwa huyu, jioni kwa huyu, kesho kwa huyu – hapana. Hata sisi maskini tutazaa kiongozi wetu maskini 2022 William Samoei arap Ruto”
– Mohammed Ali
It’s impossible to ignore that sanitizing effect that the defection of Mohammed Ali has on William Ruto’s character. How can you claim that a person is corrupt if the very person who was voted into government to fight corruption has aligned themselves with them? Buildings are destroyed, commissions are called, rumours are started, reports are written, life moves on – we forget about corruption.
Instead we focus on kiongozi wetu maskini.
The new narrative is the same old narrative. Just the objects that hold space of fearing the “other” have been changed. We begin to see battle lines drawn along the story of the people versus the empire.
“As three generations of firstborn sons, our childhoods couldn’t have been more different. One lived through the early years of colonialism. The next through the Emergency years. I lived through the austerity years of Nyayoism, in the dying embers of the political revolution that begun in the early 80s. Did that define our chosen crafts? From a health officer to a teacher to a writer?”
– Writing to awaken, Owaaah
It’s worth understanding why these narratives are sticky. One theory states that the independence struggle, while won, took its toll on the country. The only hope left on the other side was catching up with an ever-moving world. In this sense the goalposts shifted from self-determination to gathering resource (I imagine because it became more apparent that resource was the key to this self determination). It is from here single career stories were birthed (be a lawyer doctor engineer or embarrassment to the family). This kind of thinking thrived strongest in the Moi error where following a template and keeping your head down was a surefire way to success. But time passed and we are looking for different definitions of freedom, beyond the pursuit of capital to sustain a life that hadn’t been chosen. Increasingly people are looking for agency over their decisions and looking to where this agency will take (would have taken) them, making the gaps in infrastructure are becoming more apparent.
And the people are getting impatient (Africa is rising, why are we being left behind please?)
Juxtapose this emotion onto the landscape with dwindling tribal numbers and the stage is set for class to thrive as a key driving story.
And it’s not that hard a story to sell. Kenyatta the first’s government systematically grabbed and redistributed resources amidst the political elite. Every government that has come after has participated, to some degree at least, in this tradition of creating wealth for the elite. And this wealth never translates into proper economic growth because it is not created with a plan or structure but rather through pilfering public funds and redirecting public resources.
So in this way, the Kenyan populace remains vulnerable to the “working president” as a narrative. Change, to the Kenyan people, looks like having a president who did not come from legacy and has no ties to empire because this is something we have no experience of.
Elections, however, are in 2022 and this is only 2018 – a lot can happen in 4 years. And it is impossible to say the age of political patronage is over. But it might be worth pointing out that it will not be enough to get by on “my people” alone moving forward. Already loud declarations are being made about holding the value of labour over identity so much so that the president had to say that he will not protect his brother if found guilty (he said he will, whether he will well…)
So how can the current landscape be used to the advantage of the people?
First, as already explained the narrative is strong because it is true. Kenya is long overdue a leader that is not part of empire (that leader is not the guy who stole land from a primary school or sold the country’s grain). Look around and find ways to support the leaders you think are actually working.
Second, use the narrative and circumstances to create pressure for the people currently in power. Remind them that the tribal numbers won’t help them next time and that it is the current scorecard that matters. Keep track of the things you and members of the community need done and present them to the people who need to get them done (you can email, tweet or whatever). Make sure your issues are heard – then watch for who is listening. If the battle is for who is listening to the people – then speak your truth.