NAIROBI — With few obvious differences between Kenya’s top two presidential contenders, the tribes they and the country’s 14 million voters were born into could play a key role in next week’s vote, analysts said.
“We as Kenyans don’t vote on issues, we vote on ethnic grounds,” said Maina Kiai, the chairman of state-run Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
“We have not had that conscious approach to accepting that negative ethnicity is a problem,” he told AFP, adding that tribalism has its roots in Kenya’s post-independence history.
According to Maina Kiai’s organisation, some 70 people have already died in election-related violence since the campaign kicked off, in incidents that often had strong tribal undertones.
Ahead of Kenya’s fourth multi-party polls on December 27, voters would be hard pressed citing ideological differences between President Mwai Kibaki and his main challenger Raila Odinga.
The incumbent’s Party of National Unity was cobbled together in September and Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement splintered two months earlier, resulting in what some observers describe as little more than tribal alliances.
Kibaki is from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest, which has dominated the country politically and economically since the 1963 independence.
Kibaki’s tribe represents around 22 percent of the population and many of the other 40-odd tribes have rallied under the ODM banner of Odinga — himself a Luo — in a bid to topple Kikuyu rule.
Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta appointed most of his Kikuyu tribesmen to top government jobs, fomenting resentment from other tribes. His successor Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year rule worked hard to reverse this.
Kiai bemoaned the country’s inability to move the political game beyond the endless tribal tug-of-war.
“Then we came to 2002. We had really high expectations that Kibaki would reverse that but he didn’t,” he said.
Corruption and the economy also loom large as Kenya goes into the homestretch of what promises to be its closest ever election, but the tribal rhetoric is what polarises many.
“There is so much anti-Luo, anti-ODM sentiments among the Kikuyu people at this particular time,” said one Nairobi resident, himself a Kikuyu and whose Luo wife was recently beaten by a gang of six men.
“The popular sentiment is that the Luos are coming for Kikuyu power,” he said, requesting anonymity. “They never beat me, but they told me not to talk about it. They told me that if I talk about it they will come for my head.”
Stephen Mwangi, a Nairobi vendor, begged to differ with the widespread belief that the tribal vote will decide the election.
“I do not consider tribalism as a factor for my choice of candidate because I want unity,” he said.
Omweri Angima from the Nairobi-based Centre of Multiparty Democracy explains that the impact of tribalism on the vote has its limits.
“Not every ethnic group has a presidential candidate and yet the whole country will vote,” he told AFP, citing poverty, constitutional reform, graft, crime and access social services as so many crucial determinants.
But a September opinion poll by the International Republican Institute showed 38.4 percent of respondents saying Kenyans consider ethnicity key to their choice of candidates ahead of personality or issues.
With the vote less than a week away, the top candidates have nevertheless refrained from “going tribal” and adding fuel to the simmering embers of the last deadly ethnic clashes that marred the 1992 and 1997 votes.
Most Kenyans recognise the tribal debate is a dangerous one but old habits die hard and obfuscate the real issues, political analyst Ludeki Chweya explained.
“If Kibaki loses, it will not be because he failed to deliver on social and economic issues. Similarly if Raila wins, it will not be because he will do any better,” he said.
“It’s all about us against them.”Top