Why Kenyan’s will always vote for someone from their ethnic group

The real reason why Kenyans whether professor or shepherd, pope or prostitute, consistently vote for one of their own

Guest Post by Gilbert  Muyumbu who is a Kenyan working as a Regional Training Advisor with an international NGO based in Tanzania

Kenyans are a fairly educated people, especially in Africa. Indeed, Kenya is hailed as among the few countries in Africa with a competent human resource base.

According to modernization theory, being an educated society, Kenyans should have long discarded habits that are considered not modern, including intolerance in political choices and nepotism in sharing of national resources. Yet in any presidential election since the re-introduction of plural politics in 1992, Kenyans, especially, the so-called big tribes (except perhaps for the Luyia) have consistently voted for one of their own.

Why is this so? One must have heard arguments that this is a mere passing problem, and will eventually be dealt with using more education, civic awareness programs such as URAIA and when all Kenyan youngsters grow up ‘detribalized.’

Other arguments is Kenyan are mere victims of ethnic manipulation by ethnic demagogues, and they will eventually outgrow this through civic awareness and intermarriages. It is counter-intuitive if the supposed innocent victims of demagogic manipulation are among the best lawyers and most up to date users of the most sophisticated information technology available in the country.

Modernization theory assumes there are certain traditional behaviors that are inconsistent with modern living. This includes intolerance in Kenyans’ electoral choices that has been alluded to above. The solution to this traditional behaviour, according to the theory, would be more education, which will expand people’s worldview, and have them embrace modern habits such as tolerance that would be exhibited even in electoral choices that people make.

in practice Kenyan voting hasn’t been constituent with this theory- the most educated ones, are the most ethnically intolerant, the best defenders of the most ethnically-manipulative regimes in Kenya are some of Africa’s best lawyers and scholars educated in some of the best institutions of education in the world, including those in the West.

So what explains the inconsistency between education and persistence intolerance despite education and exposure- behavior considered pre-modern? The answer could be provided by a theory that traces the persistence of old bad habits to the way institutions are developed and used in society. Let us call the theory ‘the institutional arrangement’ theory.

Promulgated by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson, according to the theory those Kenyans who have benefitted consistently from a certain institutional arrangement in Kenya would wish to retain such a status quo. For instance, the Kikuyu community has contributed three presidents since Kenya’s independence. As a result, the community has benefitted both symbolically and materially from having one of their own as a president. Therefore, Kikuyu’s first instinct is to continue enjoying this privilege. And whether professor or herdsman, pope or prostitute, housewife or hustler, governor or the governed, all Kikuyu share in symbolic benefits and advantages, especially the elite, of the institutional arrangement that has consistently handed the presidency to them. And the very few Kikuyu who go against the tribal drift are considered to have ‘tribal suicide,’ to paraphrase VI Lenin’s ‘class suicide’ concept. They betray their own and jeopardize the benefits that accrue to them by wanting a change to those institutions.

While not all Kikuyu’s benefit materially from Kibaki and Kenyatta being presidents, the psychological bragging rights resulting from having one of their own is hugely attractive. Simultaneously, we should no ignore the psychological burden that befalls an Omondi when a Kenyatta wins the presidential election and an Odinga loses it. Often we are in a hurry to brush off this as an immaterial benefit that resides in Njoroge and Omondi’s fertile imaginations. In reality, having observed how people react to election victories and loses. the psychological benefit of a loss is real and determines how ordinary Kenyans vote in and react to elections.

Therefore, it is not correct to claim that after every election, the real winners and losers are confined to the elites who contest the elections. Ordinary people are as much beneficiaries and losers in the outcomes as the elites in the race. For elites, real tangible benefits come in the form of power and economic benefits; for the ordinary masses, the benefit is largely psychological – much like the benefit that a Gor Mahia fan gains over his AFC Leopards when his team beats AFC Leopards. As such, the interests are shared between the elites and masses.

If we seriously considered the psychological benefits and burdens, we perhaps may make things better by ensuring that no whole tribes feel happy while other whole tribes feel sad after elections since this is not a good indicator of national unity, and can easily jeopardize the enjoyment of the right Kenyans have to live wherever they may wish within the country.

How then does this link to the theory of institutional arrangement? According to the theory, those who benefit from the way institutions are arranged are likely to be against any change to those institutions that touches on the advantage they are currently enjoying. They are likely to continue wanting to retain the way institutions are arranged in order to retain the benefits that accrue to them from the status quo.

Given that the Kikuyu gain some advantage- however, intangible, in producing Kenya’s presidents, they are unlikely to ever want to change that arrangement. They are unlikely to support anything that takes away this distinct advantage from them. And this is why the Kikuyu, as beneficiaries in the production of Kenya’s presidents, whether psychologically or materially, will always vote to retain the advantage of producing Kenya’s presidents. This will happen, whether a voter is a professor in political studies at the University of Nairobi or a herds-boy herding goats in the semi-arid villages of Kieni.


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