Floyd protests a lesson on tribalism in Kenya and ills it begets

Wednesday June 24 2020
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Youth sit with placards in front of riot police officers blocking the way in Athens on June 5, 2020 during a rally against racism and police brutality and in support to the protests in US, sparked by the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis. PHOTO | LOUISA GOULIAMAKI| AFP


The killing of George Floyd by a policeman no doubt thrust the United States into an uncomfortable light as people around the world took to the streets to decry racism in America.

In many places, Kenya included, crowds turned their attention to practices by their own countries. In New Zealand, indigenous people stressed their vulnerability to racial profiling. In Bristol, Britain, protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent slave trader, into the harbour. In Belgium, protesters set fire to a statue of King Leopold II.

The reaction went beyond a rebuke of racial injustice. The global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks has felt like a shift as monumental as the Berlin Wall coming down or the granting of independence in Africa and elsewhere. In Kenya, the equivalent ‘ism’ that makes the nation look weak in the eyes of the world is, regrettably, tribal.

Despite all the gains since independence, tribalism, like racism in the US and Europe, has remained a central and enduring unique characteristic negating national cohesion. It is responsible for underdevelopment, corruption, alleged rigging of elections and violence.

Protests are a first step to redress. As other nations are challenged about their own legacies of injustice, a serious Kenya political elite reform effort to shun ethnic and tribal politics could be a stride in the right direction.

Since 1992, when the country held its first multiparty election in 26 years, “politics of tribe” has since been blamed for its political tribulations. This led to a system under which leaders channel government resources to their ethnic supporters for political survival and, in turn, the beneficiaries begin to get a sense of entitlement.


Many other African countries are also finding it difficult to manage diversity, and particularly ethnicity.  Kenya’s tribal politics has given rise to rampant corruption, marginalisation, disenfranchisement of entire communities and full-blown inter-ethnic violence.

President Uhuru Kenyatta was right when he said that the politics of ethnicity and tribalism is a threat to nationhood and asked Kenyans to uphold ideals that will hold the country together. He then embraced opposition leader Raila Odinga in the “Handshake”.

No doubt, national unity will remain elusive if every community advanced their own narrow interests. As witnessed in Kenya and elsewhere, fragmentation of a country along ethnic and tribal lines is a recipe for chaos. Unfortunately, a section of politicians have, of late, been engaged in ethnic mobilisation through political party outfits instead of de-ethnicising the country by enhancing nationalism and patriotism.

Once again, the dark storm is gathering for the 2020 electoral duel. Such bitter contests every election cycle have nothing to do with representation and public service and everything to do with the possibility of controlling the allocation of State resources.

The strategy to merge political parties had the net desire to mitigate against ethnically homogeneous political associations. Spurring tribalism, parties have drawn their political legitimacy and capital from their respective ethnic bases. But Kenya’s tribalism is a relatively new phenomenon. It is a product of modern times arising from colonialism, urbanisation and the political culture that sprang up at independence.

Tribalism is, indeed, a major stumbling block to democracy as well as socio-economic development. The vice is responsible for many ills, such as underdevelopment and corruption. There is also no meritocracy as hiring is based primarily on tribe.

Political leaders should stop appealing to people of their own community for support and using them as leverage when they bargain for positions and favours in government.

But then, there is no point in addressing the ills bedevilling Kenya while ignoring the actual causes. The major cause of tribalism is the competition for power and resources. Devolution of political power to regional governments was the only sure way to protect small ethnic communities from those who may wish to exploit and subjugate them.

It is also necessary to enforce strict laws that prohibit discriminatory practices in providing public services. Tolerance is, obviously, a key requirement for unity in diversity, so that the citizens accept and accommodate different customs and practices.

Then, governance would improve, corruption decrease, skilled citizens return home, investment be encouraged, development happens and living standards most likely improve. Most importantly, tribal violence would be eradicated.

Mr Masava is a communication and governance specialist; [email protected]