It is time to set aside retrogressive dependence on tribe in our politics

Thursday February 25 2016

Kilifi Woman Representative Aisha Jumwa addresses an ODM rally at Mere grounds in Ganda ward on February 23, 2016 to drum up support for the coalition's candidate Mr William Mtengo. PHOTO | BRIAN MWANGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kilifi Woman Representative Aisha Jumwa addresses an ODM rally at Mere grounds in Ganda ward on February 23, 2016 to drum up support for the coalition's candidate Mr William Mtengo. PHOTO | BRIAN MWANGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

It is pre-election season again, the season of alliances, defections, threats, contradictions, promises, and empty rhetoric.

As political equations dominate the national discourse, it appears that yet again, the most consequential variable for both the electorate and the politicians is tribe.

Kenyans are a curious people. On any ordinary day, their tribe is rarely of concern.

They interact with one another without regard as to who comes from where. For all intents and purposes, on an ordinary day, Kenyans are a nation.

Until, of course, it comes to elective politics. Here, all reason escapes the otherwise reasonable men and women of this nation.


The educated and the unschooled alike read from the same book — The Holy Book of Tribes.

The book that advances as gospel truth the belief that an individual’s ethnicity is the ultimate measure of their competence, aptitude, ability, and character.

The book that not only promotes tribal divisions, but also ascribes traits and attributes to individuals based simply on what group they belong to.

The Holy Book of Tribes cannot be read like a novel. No. You must have, deep within you, a “holy spirit” — one that will bestow upon you the necessary tunnel vision and rigid, immovable mindset.

In fact, The Holy Book of Tribes cannot be read by just anybody. You need the guidance of tribal kingpins (read politicians) to properly interpret the writings therein.

Only they can tell you when your tribe is being “finished”, which alliance to join, whom to vote for and which leader is a “friend” of your tribe.

Because tribalism is the only winning card for our beloved politicians, others who attempt to “add or deduct” from The Holy Book of Tribes are labelled heretics, modern-day Pharisees.

These non-believers are vilified as nothing but puppets of some mysterious opposing force of Western origin, intent on destroying the unique “African culture”.

We Kenyans have accepted, as fait accompli, the fictionalised assumption that only tribes can securely and prosperously organise our society.

We are now, sadly, completely married to the idea that tribalism is an inescapable reality of our time, a  feature of our African culture.


Yet absent from The Holy Book of Tribes is the proper historical context that underpins our current scenario.

You see, before the creation of the modern nation-states in Africa, the tribe was everything.

One relied on the tribe for physical and food security as well as social, economic, and political support.

The tribe was, therefore, the ultimate political unit. Identifying with and belonging to a tribe ensured one’s survival, prosperity, and happiness.

This is no longer the case. The sovereign nation-state now provides physical, socio-economic, political, and food security — albeit with varying degrees of success.

Allegiance to the state, identifying with the state is, therefore, more important than identifying with a tribe.

Indeed, in the 21st century, the tribe at best provides nothing but a misplaced sense of loyalty, useful only as a tool for political mobilisation.

In the increasingly globalised world that we find ourselves in, a Kenyan national culture and identity has never been more necessary.

Indeed, in a world where borders are becoming ever more fluid, where regionalism makes more economic sense than nationalism, that tribalism is still the basis of our politics is as shameful as it is patently ludicrous.

Particularly so given the many issues the country is grappling with, including the rising cases of elaborate and convoluted corruption schemes and the debt we are accruing, the repayment of which the government is constantly devising new and creative ways to tax its populace.

With a robust media keeping us updated about the shenanigans in the government and the painful cost of living, the time for a us to depart from tribal politics is now.

The writer works for the American Chamber of Commerce, Kenya. [email protected]