The corruption debate in Kenya is taking a stridently ethnic dimension. In the wake of investigations on the Sh21 billion Arror and Kimwarer dam scandals, a section of the leadership accused state agencies of weaponising the war on corruption in the politics of Kenyatta succession.
They claimed this is a political ploy to deny Deputy President William Ruto the chance to ascend the throne in August 9, 2022.
The ‘weaponisation’ thesis rests on a relativist view of morality that has always perceived corruption in Kenya as a ‘great equaliser’ in ethnic terms rather than as a criminal force.
But the ‘weaponisation’ thesis has also ideologically placed the Kalenjin deep state on a collision course with both the Kenyan state and the Raila Odinga-led opposition, collectively forming the ‘Handshake Coalition’ against corruption.
It prompted the Director of Public Prosecutions, Noordin Haji, to come out in defence of the state against ethnic targeting charges.
Profiling Kenya’s corruption scourge by ethnic communities, Haji argued that anti-corruption is not targeting any one Kenyan community.
He invoked statistics based on cases brought to court since 2018, which show a multi-ethnic focus of anti-corruption: Kalenjin (46), Kikuyu (141), Embu (5), Kamba (31), Luo (56), India (15), Swahili/Mijikenda (34), and Kisii (37).
However, the ‘anti-corruption-as-weapon’ thesis has refocused attention to the perils of ethnic-based ‘deep states’, also known as a state within a state, in the 2022 succession politics.
As a form of clandestine government made up of hidden or covert networks of power operating independently of a nation's political leadership, in pursuit of their own agenda and goals, the deep state in Africa has a strong ethnic base.
The weaponisation of corruption argument is tapping into the deep veins of the Kalenjin deep state, one of Africa's most entrenched, well-organised and scheming deep states in the battle for control of the Kenyan state.
The Kalenjin deep state has its pristine roots in the anti-colonial nationalism. It is historically tethered to the old institution of the Orkoiyot, which occupied a sacred and special role within the Nandi and Kipsigis segment of the Kalenjin.
Beyond its role as a counterforce to colonialism, it has evolved as a special blend of the Christian ethos and intensely nationalistic Nandi ethos.
Over the past five decades, this deep state has proven its mettle in making Kenyan leaders and influencing or capturing state power.
In the 1950s, it anointed a youthful Moi as the bearer of the Kalenjin mantle in the politics of postcolonial transition.
The Kalenjin deep states had a major boost during the Moi state (1978-2002), which massively pulled the older generation of Kalenjin into the modern state sector.
After Moi, a resilient Kalenjin deep state honed its role as kingmaker in the race for state power. During the December 2002 presidential elections, the Kalenjin community backed, to the hilt, Uhuru Kenyatta’s candidacy.
It lost power, but continued to wield great influence in shaping Kenyan politics. As the main force in the opposition, the Kalenjin deep state led the multi-ethnic coalition that defeated the government in the 2005 Constitutional Referendum.
But in 2007, it rejected what Gabriella Lynch calls dynastic ambitions and threw its lot behind Raila Odinga as arap Mibey and the Kalenjin flag bearer.
After a serious fallout with Raila during the grand coalition government, the Kalenjin deep state turned to youthful Ruto as the heir to the mantle of Kalenjin leadership.
This enabled it to make a dramatic comeback in the run-up to the 2013 elections.
The radicals in the Kalenjin deep state were unsuccessful in mobilising the community to support Odinga once again to lead an assault on ‘Kikuyu power’.
Instead, the Kalenjin threw their lot behind Uhuru Kenyatta. Tipping the balance was the fact that both Ruto and Uhuru were indicted by the ICC in regard to the 2007 violence.
But they simultaneously put Ruto on a trajectory to power after Kenyatta. From the outset, Ruto and the Kalenjin deep state have had their eyes fixed on the throne. Kenyatta allowed Ruto to run the government.
In Kenyatta’s first term, Ruto wielded immense power, and was viewed widely as Kenya’s de facto ruler.
During the 2017 Jubilee party nominations, Ruto’s men in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya almost swept the board.
Although this give rise to a powerful Independent Candidate movement in Mount Kenya region during the 2017 election, this resistance was easily crushed. Today, the majority of Jubilee MPs are aligned to Ruto.
In the 2022 succession politics, the Kalenjin deep state see corruption as great equaliser. It is a source of war chest for 2022 election.
In this context, Kenya confronts the dilemma of pursuing corruption as a moralising war against the view that see corruption as a justified means of equalising ethnic nations and classes — the hustlers versus dynasties.
However, in the run-up to 2022, the Kalenjin deep state is seriously divided between its debt to Moi and its ambition to rule the future.
In the Rift Valley, leaders are loyal to William Ruto than ever before.
But the war on corruption has eroded the ability of the Kalenjin deep state to shape the future of power or to make its own king.
It has introduced a class dimension, defining the 2022 politics as a contest between three dynasties and the mass of Kenyan hustlers or the poor.
This is a double-barrelled strategy that seeks to silence the Moi factor in the Rift Valley while tapping into the grievances of the poor in Mount Kenya region.
But the moral divide makes corruption the fault line in the 2022 elections.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and currently the Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute.