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Kenyans are better placed to write on local politics

Friday March 21 2014

Cord leader Raila Odinga (right), Kalonzo

Cord leader Raila Odinga (right), Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula at a past rally in Kisumu. Cord leaders have been holding political rallies in the city as they prepare their supporters to welcome coalition leader Raila Odinga on his return from the United States on Saturday. Photo/JACOB OWITI 

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As an economist and commentator, Paul Krugman has few peers.

A Nobel Prize winner, he has long been among the most perceptive observers of American and global politics in his weekly column for the New York Times. In his column this week, Krugman highlights what he calls ‘the dog-whistle’ of American politics: race.

Dissecting recent remarks by a variety of Republican leaders, Krugman shows how race remains a major unresolved social issue informing big debates between Democrats and Republicans.

But, he argues, race is not discussed explicitly. Instead, certain phrases are dropped into debates about welfare, employment and other social policies to express an otherwise unspoken language of racial prejudices. These phrases act like dog-whistles by appealing to particular constituencies, in this case white supporters of the Republican party.

In Kenya, politicians slip from English to Swahili and then to vernaculars to convey different messages to different audiences. But what about the dog-whistles?

There are a number of Kenyan examples that spring to mind from different moments of the country’s history since 1963: “radicals”; “local communities”; “outsiders”; and “refugees”, for instance.


Each maintains the pretence of being an objective description of particular individuals or groups, but all are underlaid with implicit coded meanings well-understood by their users and intended audiences.

I was, however, more interested in Krugman’s other, less significant argument: politics is really about historic processes lurking beneath the surface of everyday debate. It is a valuable reminder of the need to step back from the day-to-day stuff of party politics and think about the forces shaping the world around us.

If we strip away descriptions of the rivalry between Jubilee and Cord or put to one side the dynastic battles between the Kenyattas and the Odingas, what are we left with? The obvious answer to that question — ethnicity — is the wrong one.


For all the ferocity with which ethnicity is expounded, it seems it is a way of talking about politics rather than something that explains much of real substance.

Many readers will disagree with that point and have their own ideas about the big underlying issues in Kenyan politics and history, but as a starting point let me suggest three.

One is the way in which gender and generation — the politics of the household — have become the politics of the state. With women still under-represented in political debate and the county’s population continuing to grow, the political marginalisation of youths and women are among the most significant challenges confronting Kenya.

If we adopt a similar view, then much debate of real political substance has been provoked by the way in which migrants — be they Luo in Nyanza, European farmers in the Highlands in the early 20th century, Asian traders in Nairobi over the same period or Somali refugees over the past two decades — have put down permanent roots.

My final suggestion for how we should understand the substance of Kenyan politics is inequality; a legacy of Kenya’s incorporation into the global economy under colonial rule and something which the emphasis on growth rather than the equalisation of opportunity by successive governments since 1963 has failed to address.

The sort of political analysis envisaged by Krugman is becoming increasingly rare. The demise of long-form journalism and the rise of Twitter and rolling 24-hour live news are not conducive to the discussion of the deeper contexts to current politics.

We can see this at the moment with the reaction to the Crimean crisis, where the lack of informed comment is made up for with inaccurate analogies. Moreover, journalists scrambling to learn something about Ukraine simply do not have the time to learn about any other major crisis.

Nor are academics able to step into the breach. The study of Kenyan politics by academics is ever more dominated by outsiders lacking the linguistic skills and local knowledge required to identify the dog-whistles and deep trends highlighted by Krugman.

There is need for locally-produced, academically rigorous and widely accessible studies on Kenyan politics. Where are the outlets for such work?

Prof Branch teaches History at Warwick University, UK. ([email protected])