Elections in Kenya have a reputation for being heated, controversial, and driven by ethnicity. In the popular imagination, election campaigns largely involve Big Men trying to mobilise their communities en masse, and the outcome of the polls – if they are free and fair – represents little more than an ethnic census.
However, this simplistic cliché has never been accurate – and it looks like it will be particularly inaccurate in relation to the upcoming general elections on 9 August. Though still a significant factor in political calculations, ethnicity may play a smaller role in the 2022 elections than usual – for three key reasons.
This promises to help the country to make it through an election that might otherwise have proved challenging for political stability due to the personal fallout between Deputy President William Ruto and outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Ever since 2002, when the opposition National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) defeated the ruling Kenya Africa National Union (KANU), Kenyan politics has been a game of coalition building. This tendency became even more marked following the introduction of the 2010 constitution, which stipulates that the winning presidential candidate must win at least 50%+1 of the vote.
Alliance building typically involves trying to gather support from different ethnic groups in Kenya, the largest of which make up between 10-25% of the population. This encourages the formation of large heterogeneous coalitions, whose success depends, in part, on maintaining a degree of cohesion and harmony between their communities.
In 2022, the decision of senior leaders from the Kikuyu community not to stand – perhaps to demonstrate they are willing to share power and so secure the community’s long-term interests – has created a distinct political landscape. The Kikuyu are one of the most numerous and influential groups in Kenya and have contributed three of Kenya’s four post-independence presidents.
This decision has left the presidential race as effectively a two-horse race between Deputy President William Ruto, a member of the Kalenjin community, and main opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo leader. One of their main challenges if they are to win is to secure the Kikuyu vote. This is why they have both appointed Kikuyu running mates and go to lengths to highlight their ties with Central Kenya. This dynamic has served to complicate Kenya’s usual political arithmetic and helped reduce tensions between the Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin communities, all of which were involved in the deadly post-election violence in 2007-8.
It’s the economy, stupid
As the late academic Joel Barkan pointed out, economic performance has always mattered to Kenyan voters. However, in 2022, this issue will be particularly pertinent amid the collapse of tourism, the effects of the pandemic, and rising food and fuel prices. As the BTI Report 2022 points out, Kenya’s economy contracted by 1-1.5% in 2020, pushing two million people into poverty, and increasing the unemployment rate to 10.4%. Kenyans of all ethnicities are frustrated by the government’s failure to deal with the rising cost of living as well as by frequent news of high-level corruption scandals.
The economy has also gained particular traction in 2022 because of Ruto’s decision to frame his campaign around these popular frustrations. Depicting himself as a “hustler” on the side of ordinary hardworking Kenyans, he is appealing to growing public disaffection with the country’s long-running political dynasties of which both the outgoing President Kenyatta and Odinga are a part. There is a clear populist tinge to this strategy, implying that both ordinary people and Ruto himself have been betrayed by the elite.
This narrative has its obvious flaws. Despite his public falling out with Kenyatta, Ruto has been deputy president for nine years and is believed to be vastly wealthy. Yet it also has resonance. Ruto’s campaign appeals to many Kenyans, especially younger voters, and he has been able to mobilise support in areas that would not have been open to him were the election purely an “ethnic census”.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ruto’s cross-ethnic appeal is that he has recruited several MPs and Governors in Central Kenya and become the most popular candidate in what used to be Central Province, a Kikuyu heartland. Remarkably, he has managed to do this despite the fact that President Kenyatta – the most prominent Kikuyu leader – is backing Odinga, and that Ruto was previously accused of orchestrating crimes against humanity against members of the Kikuyu community.
Performance has always mattered
One reason Ruto’s strategy has been effective is that it has built on a long history of elections that have revolved around the ability of incumbent politicians to deliver development. Those who appear to provide education, healthcare and infrastructure have often been able to mobilise support beyond their homeland. J.M. Kariuki did this after independence, as has Mike Sonko, whose populist form of service delivery enabled him to first get elected as Governor of Nairobi and then emerge as a serious candidate for the Governorship of Mombasa, some 450 km away.
Ruto’s campaign is effective in part because it taps into a deeply rooted desire for effective government and accountability . Leaders who ignore the fact that their supporters expect them to be responsive to the community often find they rapidly lose political clout – and their seats. Ruto is not the first to try and harness this dynamic. Now his faux-populist stylings have mobilised large numbers of individuals, he is unlikely to be the last.
The long shadow of ethnic politics
What we are seeing in the 2022 election is an evolution, not a revolution, in how politics in Kenya works. It shows an increasingly demanding electorate can promote democratisation.
However, all this is not to suggest that ethnicity is no longer a major force. While some ethnic groups will vote for leaders from other ethnicities, others – including the Luo and Kalenjin – are less likely to do so. There is already widespread evidence that negative ethnic stereotypes and hate-speech are circulating on social media. And just as economic issues have been mobilised in 2022, ethnic divides will return to prominence if senior political leaders choose to make them the focus of their messages in the future.
As the BTI report notes, politicians uphold such divisions when it serves their interests: “In times of decreased polarization, politicians are disinterested in resolving conflicts arising from the exploitation of ethnicity, preferring to keep them simmering for exploitation in the future.”