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Politics in Kenya is a rivalry between tribes and clans — not ideas



The arrest and arraignment in court of East African Legislative Assembly member Florence Jematia on hate speech and incitement charges once again highlights the tribal nature of our politics. What is the relationship between hate speech and incitement on the one hand, and politics on the other?

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Why is it that hate speech and incitement to ethnic violence become, to quote Carl von Clausewitz, a continuation of politics by other means? The language of hate and violence is not an embarrassing slip-of-the-tongue. Hate speech and incitement are built into our body politic.

We have failed to develop a politics based on policies and ideology. Since independence, those in power have employed a Machiavellian principle. The aim of the principle is to convince members of their ethnic community that they hold power on their behalf in order to ensure that opportunities and resources come to them. Protect this power, the tribesmen and women are told, because should it go, so too will resources and opportunities. 

But only a few well-connected tribesmen and women benefit while the majority languish in poverty just like other communities.

If you doubt this, just look at those who gained most under the presidencies of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi. The majority of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin remained as poor as everybody else. They, just like everyone else, found no drugs in hospitals, used the same potholed roads, attended same dilapidated schools, and lived in the same hellish slums and godforsaken villages as everyone else. Yet members of these two communities were ready to die defending “their” regime.

The way to rise to the top of Kenyan politics is to first convince members of your ethnic group that you are seeking power on their behalf to bring resources to them. Your method is to scare them that resources and opportunities will go to the ethnic group whose sons and daughters take power. And thus over half a century, politics in Kenya has been competition between tribes and clans, not ideas.


Michaela Wrong in her book It is Our Turn to Eat, dissects this cut-throat ethnic competition for power and resources even when, in reality, only a few ethnic elites benefit from power.

Politics has become the art of reducing complex social and economic issues into simplistic and false formulae. That ethnic group is the cause of our poverty. They want to finish us. We must unite and vote as a block for one of our own.

Every politician in Kenya today has — to various degrees — employed this tactic. The media darlings are those who build reputations for notoriety through hate speech and incitement. They are on every TV talk show. Their communities embrace them as heroes.

Jematia’s arrest has increased her political fortunes several fold. Her political competitors will now have to up their ante of hate speech, hoping to get arrested. It’s just Kenyan politics. One day, this politics will lead to an apocalyptic conflagration.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

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