The Drums of Politics of Exclusion and Ethnicity are Beating Loudly in Kenya

Kenyan President William Ruto CREDIT: Office of the Deputy President
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Despite suggestions that the 2022 elections saw less overt “tribal” politicking, ethnic politics continues to be part of Kenya’s economic, social and political processes. This is well demonstrated by the appointments that were subsequently made by the country’s new President, William Ruto, which were dominated by individuals and groups that supported the winning party. Responding to public outcry this generated, the Deputy President, Rigathi Gachagua, came out on record in defence of patronage and clientelism. Stating that not only would the government reward its supporters disproportionately, but that this was legitimate.

He went on to describe the government as a corporation whose supporters are the big – and legitimate – shareholders. These comments don’t just serve to encourage a damaging winner-takes-all model of politics, they also run counter to the country’s constitution and legal system. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) Act of 2008, for example, prohibits ethnic bias and discrimination, which is inherently likely when leaders reward their supporters in a country with a history of high levels of ethnic bloc voting. Moreover Articles 27(4) and 27(5) of the Constitution both prohibit discrimination based on ethnic identity.

In addition to the legislation, a sophisticated institutional framework has been put in place to encourage diversity and inclusion in public sector employment. At national level, the Public Service Commission produces an annual assessment report on the civil service’s compliance with national values ​​and governance principles. In this regard, in 2017 the PSC developed a proportional representation formula to guide public service recruitment and promote ethnic diversity. At the county level, agencies such as the NCIC produce periodic reports as part of their mandate that review ethnic diversity and ethnic diversity in public service recruitment.

These thresholds are intended to ensure that both the presidency and government includes a wider slice of the Kenyan society, and specifically, includes people beyond their ethnic group. Yet they do not seem to be working. A review by the office of the auditor general and periodical audits by the NCIC reveal a worrying picture where dominant ethnic groups account for the largest shares of government appointments.

To be fair to the Ruto administration, this trend dates is not new but can be traced back to the first appointments after Kenya’s independence. The cabinet appointments by the first President in Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta – a Kikuyu – for the period 1966-1978 was dominated by the Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups. Kikuyus made up 28% of the cabinet against a population share of 21%. One of the largest ethnic groups that was markedly underrepresented was Kalenjin, at just about 6% against a population share of 11%.

During the tenure of the second president, Daniel arap Moi – a Kalenjin – from 1978 to 2001, the balance of representation in cabinet was almost the reverse of the pattern seen under his predecessor. Although initially overrepresented as a hangover from the previous regime, Kikuyus quickly became underrepresented in the latter period of President Moi’s terms from 1994 to 2001. Conversely, the overrepresentation of the Kalenjin became increasingly notable. Most of this pattern and movement were driven by the politicization of ethnics.

This phenomenon of politicization of ethnicity has been a major challenge to the country’s efforts towards achieving national unity and integration ever since. It has also contributed to the perpetuation of corruption and nepotism in the political system.

Unfortunately, recent regimes have seen little change – though it is not always members of the presidents own community that are over represented. During President Uhuru Kenyatta’s rule, for example, his early cabinets over represented the Kalenjin – the ethnicity of the deputy president but not the president – and the Somali community.

Under President Ruto, it is his Kalenjin community, and the Kikuyu community of Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, that have been prioritised. Out of the 51 persons recently announced as principal secretaries, 13 are Kalenjin (25%) and 13 hail the Central Kenya region (25%). This means that half of all principal secretary appointments went to just two ethnic groups. This helps to explain why the Law Society of Kenya argued that the list lacked gender, ethnic and regional balance, contravening the Constitution of Kenya, which states that the composition of the national executive shall reflect the regional and ethnic diversity of the people of Kenya (Article 130 (2)).

Other aspects of recent appointments have also been deeply worrying. Most notably, the number of appointments made to the post of chief secretary rose from the legally permitted 23 to 50, indicating a willingness to flout the law, and the use of government positions for partisan political purposes. The current governments approach is therefore financially, legally and socially irresponsible.

The concept of diversity and inclusivity, as well as the idea that Kenya’s “rich tapestry” should be reflected in all facets of life, are not simply abstract principles – they matter for national unity and ensuring that the country does not return to the political violence of 2007/8. It is therefore critical that civil society groups campaign for organisations such as the PSC and NCIC to be empowered, and the courts begin taking cases that enable them to ensure that the government upholds the law and the constitution in its appointment procedures.

If this is not done, the stakes of the next election will be higher than ever, increasing the risk of another contested outcome, and further political instability.

Darmi Jattani (@DJattani) is an economist with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Statistics from the University of Nairobi, pursuing a Master of Economics at Kenyatta University.

Oscar Ochieng (@JOchieng85) is a communication specialist and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Sociology from the University of Nairobi.

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