With the Kenya election looming, there is an increasing number of anxious voices saying every other day that the country is descending deeper into the sewer of “tribal politics”.
How does “tribal politics” work, and why is it important?
There are four ways in which tribal politics works. First, there are the politicians who rally their people to vote for them because they are the best protectors of their interests.
Sometimes they appeal to their tribal grouping by saying others are out to “finish them”, so unless they unite (behind him), they are kaput.
Secondly, they can appeal to the idea that it is their tribe’s “turn to also eat”, because since independence, other communities, except theirs, have held the presidency.
The first type of politician exploits the fear of his tribe, the second exploits its grievance.
We are mostly aware of these two types of tribal politicians, because we consider them to be the worst. But there are two other types.
There is the third type who exploits his tribe’s hopes. For example, he can argue that the country is too divided, so it needs a leader from a smaller or “non-controversial” tribe to “heal the wounds” — like his, of course.
There is the fourth type, who is more complicated. This is the one who presents himself as “non-tribal” or being beyond tribe, and appeals to the voters who want a “Kenya where we are Kenyans first”.
First, it is a misnomer to talk of tribal politicians, so we shall call them ethnic entrepreneurs.
At first, the fourth type of “beyond tribe” politician doesn’t seem to be an ethnic entrepreneur.
However, he is, because the thing about ethnic entrepreneurship is that it frames the debate in tribal terms.
Politicians who tell you to vote for them because they are “tribeless” are still using the same frame of reference as the ones who asks you to vote for them because you are from the same tribe.
Candidates cease to be ethnic entrepreneurs if they paint themselves exclusively in ideological or deeply philosophical terms.
For example, they stand on the platform that if they become president they would legalise abortion, or like Zimbabwe’s ailing President Robert Mugabe, seize the land held by large owners and give it to citizens who have none.
Ethnic entrepreneurs don’t go this far, so they prefer to talk of things like improving education, ending corruption, and expanding healthcare.
These are important things, but meaningless because it is what governments, irrespective of their ideological outlook, are supposed to do.
It is the equivalent of parents telling their children that they (parents) will feed and take them to school.
The real differences among parents, comes not from whether they feed their children, but whether they will allow them to choose who to marry, or whether they will still love them if they turned out to be gay.
So why do African politicians prefer to be ethnic entrepreneurs, and to campaign on the motherhood role of government, instead of ideology?
Simple. Being ethnic entrepreneurs is safe and cheap. Rallying your tribe might or might not win you an election. Campaigning against other tribes is the same.
It might or it might not win you an election. An ethnic entrepreneur starts out with a 40 per cent chance of winning.
However, you cannot win an election against the “elite consensus”. Elite consensus is when a majority of the upper middle, the middle classes, and the working class agree on something.
In 2002 when President Moi stepped down, Kanu could still rely on a healthy tribal vote in parts of the country, but the elite consensus was totally against it. It lost.
The elite is usually only divided superficially and episodically along tribe. However, it is divided fundamentally on ideology and philosophy.
If a candidate proposed to levy a 15 per cent “property tax”, to fund social welfare programmes for the poor in Kenya, an elite consensus would develop against him.
He would start out with at best only a 5 per cent chance of winning the election. It takes guts to be an ideological politician.
So the opportunistic tactical option for such a progressive candidate is to frame his candidacy within the tribal narrative, by saying he is “beyond tribe”.