This election has starkly thrown up the vexing issue of Kenya's identity as a nation. (Photo/COG Kenya/Flickr).

As Kenya Votes, It Feels Like A Beautiful Face And Mind That Are Trapped In An Ugly Body

KENYA voted August 8, in an election that was marked by more than its fair share of ill-tempered campaigning.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, standing on the Jubilee party ticket, and Raila Odinga leading the opposition NASA coalition, reprised their 2013 titanic clash, in which Uhuru prevailed by just about 8,000 votes.

The unease about this election was not helped by the fact that it kicked off with infamously chaotic and often-violent series of political party nominations in April.

While many hoped the kind of violence that followed the December 2007 vote could be avoided, Kenyans were fleeing some multi-ethnic parts of the country fearing attacks after the elections. The voting got off to a peaceful start.

However, denouncing these fears, and the tribalism that plagues Kenyan politics, lawyer and activist PLO Lumumba in a speech that went viral, even wondered who had “bewitched” Kenyans.

Ahead of the election, several groups pushed a peace pledge. (Photo/IEBC/FB).

However, there are really no supernatural forces at work in Kenya’s highly fractured politics. And even if the rhetoric was angry and divisive, it was still not filled with bile as it was in 2007 and 2013.

While in 2007 and 2013, for example, rivals often said Raila shouldn’t be elected president because he is from a community that does not practice circumcision, there was hardly any of that this time.

The accusations and counter-accusations about tribalism, corruption, and incompetence were louder and angrier, but strip away the shrill tone and they were fairly legitimate criticisms.


Still, this election cycle revealed that the “Kenya project” is deeply in trouble.

In the over 10 years I have lived and worked in Kenya, the point at which the penny finally came in 2016.

Last year economist and gadfly columnist David Ndii* wrote two controversial articles in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper.

In the first one, “What Magufuli presidency means for Uhuru’s reign”, he argued that the election of John Magufuli in Tanzania, who was making headlines for his zealous crackdown on corruption and waste, meant that among other things, the country was set to overtake Kenya’s economy as the largest in East Africa in as little as five years. 

Kenya, he argued, was doomed by out-of-control corruption and tribalism.

Ndii returned in March, in “Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talk divorce”, where he posited that “Kenya has never been a more distant idea than it is now at the beginning of the 21st Century. Nationalism is dead, replaced by sub-nationalism. The tribe has eaten the nation”. 

The nation had become an abusive marriage, and it was in the best interest of the various regions that they divorce and go their separate ways, he said.

Both articles caused heated debate, but you would have thought that the bigger storm would have been over Ndii’s argument for the break up of Kenya. It wasn’t. Most of the pushback on that article came from a few public intellectuals, and people in Kenya’s political establishment.

The one that really upset the regular Kenyan commentator and folks on social media, and which had more government officials weighing in, was the January column in which Ndii said Tanzania would soon overshadow Kenya as the region’s leading economy.


In otherwords, more Kenyans’ pride was injured more by the idea that they would be bettered by Tanzania, than the possibility of the break up of their country. That is because, in private conservation, quite a few Kenyans do agree that the national project is broken has become unworkable.

It represents a significant shift in national mindset that does not necessarily have to end in tears.

Most Kenyans, it seems, are increasingly rejecting the elements about their country that can’t be negotiated or changed – the territorial and sovereign entity, the nation state.

More and more they identify themselves with the things that they have made, and which speak to something that transcends the physical nation. Things like a vibrant economy they built, which is why the idea that they would lose their place at the top of the East African rankings is so galling.

The world-beating ways of the country’s middle and long-distance athletes, and its rugby team, also evoke the same emotions. The election of Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, also led to a feel good outpouring and a sense that Kenyans were somehow special. The mention of MPesa, the world’s leading mobile money transfer system that was created by telco behemoth Safaricom, also has the same euphoric effect on Kenyans.

Today’s Kenya therefore is like a beautiful head and mind that feel trapped in an ugly body.


A brave and bold attempt to rectify this was tried in 2010, with an admittedly progressive constitution. Seeking to give marginalised communities some skin in the game, it devolved powers considerably to new counties.

A senate was created, and in the counties too, elected councils.

The powers of the presidency were fairly constrained, although it retains the aura of grand office.

However, as in most of Africa, the rise of Chinese businesses and cheap imports is hitting local businesses hard.

In Kenya’s case, it is complicated by the fact that old money is being edged out by the rise of so-called “Somali capital”, a new crop of adept Kenyan-Somali businesses that are muscling into everything from commerce, transport, to real estate, exploiting the vast global Somali diaspora to good effect following a formula that has served the East African Asian communities well for nearly a century.

One outcome of this is that while the constitution dispersed power and reformed the state, the fact that local African businesses are now more vulnerable, means they are even more dependent on the patronage of the state through things like contracts.

Thus though the 2010 constitution limited the executive, economic changes have conspired to increase its power via its ability to dole out patronage.

The other unintended effect of the reforms is perhaps the most harmful. Kenya was already a country where ethnic alliances defined its politics, and in the last 20 years it has not had strong national parties. 

Parties were cobbled together by ethnic overlords, then they would bring them together in a coalition and share the spoils after victory.

But once elected, in the past the president had freedom. A similar alliance brought Mwai Kibaki to power in December in a vast coalition, which gave East Africa its first opposition electoral victory against a longtime incumbent party. 

Kibaki largely ignored the terms of the coalition once in office, and that partly led the bitterness that fed the violence after the December 2007 poll. But he could. 

However, the extensive independence of the courts and the electoral commission, and new points of electoral vigilance created by having to elect county governors and senators, means that the headroom that previously allowed incumbents to steal the vote has been considerably reduced, though not eliminated.

This in turn led to greater fidelity to coalition terms, because it thinned margins of victory. When Uhuru ran with his deputy William Ruto in 2013, they sealed a written deal that shared the spoils of office 50-50 and committed the former to support the latter in 2022. The terms of that have been kept almost to the letter. Uhuru couldn’t afford Kibaki’s luxury of tearing up the agreement. 

When Raila this time coupled with Kalonzo Musyoka, a similar deal was inked, which provided that if they won, he would be a one-term president and leave the chair and support Kalonzo in 2022. 

The consequence of all this is that a victorious Kenyan president today has virtually no freedom to reach out beyond his electoral alliance to bring in people from outside it in order to give his governt a national face. This only further entrenches the resentment and alienation that we have witnessed in this election.

It’s true then that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Whoever wins, now has five years to sort this out. The good thing is that the malaise is known. Otherwise Ndii will have the last laugh.

*Ndii later became a consultant for the opposition NASA campaign.

-The author is publisher of and Twitter@cobbo3



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