NAIROBI Kenya — During a work break, Dennis Ouma Ochieng sips his soda and declares the one thing that will decide his choice in Kenya’s upcoming presidential election: tribe.
Ochieng, a Luo, will vote later this month for another Luo, Raila Odinga. And not because he thinks Odinga will do a better job than incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, on the economy or fighting corruption.
“Tribalism is the key factor because in Kenya most people vote along tribal lines,” said Ochieng, 29, a technician at a local TV station. An opinion poll the International Republican Institute commissioned recently found that 39 percent of the people interviewed said they believed voters would base their choice on tribe.
Odinga was ahead in polls leading up to the Dec. 27 presidential, parliamentary and local government election. This is the first time an incumbent president has faced a credible challenge in Kenya.
Tribal allegiances have always been a factor in elections in Kenya, where there are more than 40 tribes. On the campaign trail, candidates usually use a mix of direct and indirect appeals to tribe. They use phrases like, “It is our time to eat,” knowing voters understand that whoever controls the presidency has power to allocate money for projects and simple things like patrol cars for police countrywide.
In an attempt to force candidates to reach beyond their own tribes, Kenyan lawmakers amended the constitution in 1992 so that to declare a victor, the winning presidential candidate has to get the most votes as well as garner at least 25 percent of votes in five of Kenya’s eight provinces.
Different provinces tend to be dominated by different tribes, so the amendment was aimed at ensuring a president has some support in most of the country. Since some tribes are larger than others, a first-past-the-post system would usually mean members of larger tribes would win and not have to seek support of other tribes.
But the importance of tribes has persisted. Kenyan politicians resort to using tribe to organize their parties and sustain their political ambitions, says Musambayi Katumanga of the University of Nairobi.
Duncan Okello of the Society for International Development believes that tribe will be the big issue this year.
“There are other issues, there is corruption, unemployment, economic growth that are important, but they will be marginal to the decision making of the electorate,” said Okello, director of the group’s eastern Africa office.
Kibaki’s government is seen as having favored the Kikuyu and their allied tribes with key government appointments and allocation of government resources. It denies having done so, “but it cannot run away from it,” says Okello. “For the opposition, that will be the club to hit the government.”
When former President Daniel arap Moi relented in the face of local and international pressure in 1991 to reintroduce multiparty politics after 22 years, the key opposition parties fractured into tribal outfits within a year.
In 1992, the opposition parties campaigned primarily in their perceived tribal strongholds. It was easier for parties that were, after all, only a year old. And government officials stopping them campaigning elsewhere.
That year, tribal clashes fanned by politics killed hundreds and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. To date many have been unable to return.
Similar violence followed in the build up to the 1997 elections, though on a smaller scale, with scores dying.
This year so far, human rights organizations and police say, more than 20 people have been killed in election related violence in the past two months.
In the current campaigns, both Kibaki and Odinga have emphasized that they have a national vision for Kenya and want to unite the country rather than appeal to tribe.
During celebrations Wednesday marking 44 years of independence from Britain, Kibaki that if reelected he will have a Cabinet free of tribalism.
“My next government will also reflect the face of Kenya, appointed from every part of the country,” he said in his speech.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger told journalists recently he believed Kenyan politics were beginning to move in a different direction.
“I think the Kenyan voter will surprise people by focusing on voting on the issues, as obviously to some extent, the tribal dimension of politics,” Ranneberger told reporters recently.
James Muga, a Luo, may be part of that trend. Muga said he will also vote for Odinga but it is a coincidence that they are from the same tribe. Muga says he has compared the platforms of the three main parties and their presidential candidates and concluded that Odinga has the best to offer Kenya. It also appeals to him that Odinga has only served four years as a Cabinet minister, compared to President Mwai Kibaki’s 31 years as a Cabinet minister or president.
“Change only comes if we bring in new people,” Muga said.Top