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Do not act surprised about corruption in Kenya, it’s a thing

By Franklyn Odhiambo

In the past few months revelations have surfaced of high-end corruption in Kenya’s ministries and county governments, including Kisumu County, the devolution ministry, and most recently internal security. Some members of parliament are so angry at the revelations that they want to punish someone for the exposé. If we consider Kenya’s recent history however, these revelations should not really come as a surprise to anyone. In fact, what we see today is a trend carefully sustained by Kenya’s tribal honchos.

In 2002, Kenyans voted for their first democracy since 1992, or the 1980s depending on where you choose to begin blaming the then president, Daniel Moi. The 2002 election, while low profile in current history, revealed the trajectory of Kenyan politics for decades to come. This is due both to the manner in which this election was won and the resulting government. Post-2002 Kenyan politics is thus the blueprint for corruption today. Let me explain.

The Kenyan election of 2002 was in some ways a repetition of Kenya’s immediate post-independence politics. First, Kenya is an openly tribal country, and election contests and wins almost exclusively depend on the tribal calculus of the contestants. Therefore, when in 2002, the son of Kenya’s first vice-president, allied himself with a former vice-president, most of the optimism in their tribal backyards was that the tribal alliance that had gone awry in the Kenyatta era would resurface. Raila Odinga invested his political capital from his predominantly Luo support to deliver the vote for an ailing Mwai Kibaki who had the de facto support of his Kikuyu backyard, with Uhuru Kenyatta as an irrelevant newcomer mostly due to the now vilified Kanu party. How does this compare generally to 2013? Well, if we ignore the breakdown of the Nark coalition and the reconstructions of Kanu orphans into different political parties before 2007, and instead focus on the development of the Jubilee coalition, it turns out the process underwent only nuanced change.

On the one hand, the Jubilee coalition brought together two tribes that had dominated Kenya’s high office and the civil service since independence, on the other, it reveals the convenience of time and a common enemy that unites otherwise bitter rivals. If the Luo and Kikuyu were dominant just after independence in 1963, the Kalenjin and Kikuyu are today, and if their enemy back then were the British coloniser, their enemy today is the tribal hegemon perceived in Raila Odinga. If the coalition government that had formed and disintegrated twice between 2002 and 2013 had achieved anything, it was the definition of the grieved tribe, and this time it was the Rift Valley region. Hence, William Samoei Ruto took the same risks that Raila had in 2002, he delivered a regional vote that cemented a win for Uhuru Kenyatta with 50.7 of the vote, thus creating an unlikely coalition especially considering the events of the post-2007 election violence.

How does this alliance-building process relate to anything? The first result of any coalition is the creation of a nexus of personal rule networks. Patronage. Since Kenyan politics are rarely issue based, tribal calculations have to be sustained through other means. In the Moi and Jomo Kenyatta eras, this meant selective development and the systemic exclusion of dissenting tribes. In today’s Kenya, it is a combination of this disenfranchisement and what Michela Wrong calls It’s our Turn to Eat philosophy. It is the belief that if sections of Kenya practice any democratic right of dissent at the ballot and in their political view, then the people in power can have their fill at the expense of the dissidents.

Don’t get me wrong, this part of the equation is not a Jubilee monopoly, as was witnessed during the Raila Odinga premiership, the theory holds true for the current government as it does for the opposition. Alliances of convenience have certain costs, and in Kenya most of this entails looking the other side when a coalition partner is involved in any unscrupulous dealings. It is immaterial if you dislike each other or whether your motives are right, all that matters is that the coalition survives for the moment. It does not matter if policy issues go unattended, or if ethnic tensions continue to rise in a country that has barely healed from its election violence, what matters is the construction of a war chest for the next election. Building this war chest entails both the patronage of minority dissidents and creating the financial muscle for a massive buyout of the most relevant alliance at the time.

Franklyn Odhiambo is a student of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

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