Some Kenyans prefer to feign ignorance or pretend about things that are very clear. This pretentious behaviour has extended to people who spend years crafting a radical political biography. They include activists and analysts who claim to operate independent of modern-day Kenyan politics. It is, however, naive if your aim is to be the only radical in town but who also imagines that the lone-ranger tactic will transform the massive institution that is the Kenyan state and its debilitating political culture.
Here, I refer to Kenyans who, on the one hand, claim to be so angry with the current government but who, on the other hand, also dismiss the opposition in equal measure. They claim to operate independent of the existing major parties and are arrogantly dismissive of actually existing politics.
None of them can cite a serious alternative movement that has the potential and capacity to genuinely attack and destroy the political culture that holds the state hostage and prevent us from realising radical change in our governance systems. Most are armchair analysts whose basis for activism is hollow precisely because it has no appreciation of our objective political conditions.
When push comes to shove, however, they will learn the practical lesson that their disassociation from actually existing parties is defeatist, naïve and a classic example of fence sitting. Political transformation in Kenya will not come from blind faith in a weak or non-existent alternative. This blind faith is the refuge for those who don’t think strategically and who, most probably, are condemned to armchair theorizing or ineffective lone ranger tactics.
Refusing to align with any of the current political parties will not instantly wipe them off Kenya’s political landscape. Instead, it gives them free and unchallenged reign that allows them to proceed uninterrupted to entrench themselves even more. In fact, positioning oneself as a radical alternative but without credibly mobilised constituencies means you become the target of the combined attack of the much-maligned existing parties.
Second, the lone ranger approach plays into the hands of one or both of parties. Operating outside allows them to continue their rapacious culture and to translate it into a dominant state culture after they win elections. In other words, the logic of refusing to be aligned ends up aligning our radical activists with one of the dominant parties anyway.
Third, the reality of Kenyan politics is that it is structured around ethnic mobilisation. Though this is the predominant basis of mobilisation, it is not the only one. There are people who are driven by conviction and ideology. What our new radical activists and analysts miss is that it is one thing to casually dismiss ethnicity but a totally different thing to understand it.
For me, it is simply bad activism and lazy analysis that uncritically aligns existing political parties with tribal mobilisation but refuses to go the next step to understand the nature of that intersection and how it can be re-engineered positively. It is hardly revealing to tell us that political parties mobilise ethnically; it is more illuminating to offer cogent analysis of why that mobilisation happens so we can get into the serious exercise of socially re-engineering our politics.
Of course, the wish is that such mobilisation would be less decisive in influencing our politics. Indeed, the wish is that ethnic mobilisation was suffused with a degree of ideology to ensure decision-making is influenced by a combination of key critical considerations. But for now, ethnic mobilisation has to be understood and socially engineered in a direction that allows voters a deeper understanding of how it can be usefully channelled. Being dismissive of it, without developing a capacity to understand its deep structural contours is, in my view, simply arrogant and defeatist.
Ultimately, the persisting dismissal of all political parties in one breadth is nothing but indefensible fence-sitting.
Godwin R. Murunga teaches development studies at the University of Nairobi.