Constitution is making it hard to change Kenyan politics

Residents of Ganda in Kilifi queue to vote at Maziwani Primary School in the Malindi parliamentary by-election on March 7, 2016. PHOTO | KAZUNGU SAMUEL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Parties will form alliances because they are formed on ethnic basis but there is no group large enough to "outwit" others in the game of numbers.
  • Those who can win in this game will be those assembling the largest groups together.

Recently, I bumped into a discussion on politics and development in Kenya. The discussion was among a group of youth. Some of them were quite agitated by what they considered bad politics and lack of change in development.

What prompted the discussion was a simple comment by one of them on whether voting is necessary or not. The one next to him quickly replied that ‘it is a waste of time’ while another one said ‘voting is a must, I must always vote’. This particular young man pointed out that ‘voting will bring change’.

The mere mention of voting will bring change made the discussion rowdy. Several of them disagreed that voting in Kenya leads to change. They specifically pointed out that the politicians in Kenya are the same irrespective of which party they belong to. To them, politicians are there to enrich themselves rather than enrich anyone else. I had them giving examples of Members of the County Assembly (MCAs), MPs and governors who had become rich after joining politics. They noted how these politicians will do everything to retain their offices.

I sensed a growing sense of disillusionment with politicians and politics. One of them pointed out he has voted in the past two elections but things have remained the same for himself. I could also hear some of them saying politicians speak the same language and act the same way.

They were critical of what they called ‘bad men’ in ‘Kenya’s bad politics’. They saw bad men everywhere involved in bad politics. They were convinced those involved in politics are the same in all parties. They were convinced this is what makes it difficult to bring the desired change. I tried hard to listen to know what they meant by change. The more they talked agitatedly about lack of change, the more I got confused about what they meant. Change appeared to mean different things to each of them.

I could not help but ask what they meant by “change”. I was again confused than I was at the beginning. To some of them, change was a personal matter; it is about direct benefits. One of them was quite specific that he had not got anything from any politician. Others meant improvement of their neighbourhood, basic services, and a few other things they called “development”.


This is the kind of discussion one gets to hear almost every day, everywhere among Kenyans around election time. It is a common discussion among youth idling around shopping centres in many parts of the country. It is also a common discussion among adults around election time.

There are many people out there who still think voting does not lead to change, however defined. But these people still vote at election time. They troop to polling stations quite early to cast their ballot perhaps hoping they are wrong that this time round, their vote will bring change.

One can fully understand the cause for disillusionment among those who think voting does not cause change. A deep look at how political competition runs in the country leaves no doubt that it is a cause for disillusionment among the youth who have voted only in a few elections.

But a look at our politics also leaves no doubt Kenyans are themselves responsible for their own disillusionment. They vote on basis of many considerations rather than a commitment to cause change. They often want things to change even at the village level but they vote for an MCA who will not bring about the change.

This is the conclusion I have come to after looking at the pattern of voting in all regions of the country for a number of years. First, the presidential election results in this country are a mirror image of ethnic settlement pattern. Votes are cast in line with ethnic boundaries.

At the parliamentary level, the pattern takes the form of sub-ethnic groups and even clans. This is repeated at the ward level.

In other words, elections have transformed into competition between ethnic groups and their regions. Parliamentary elections have become a competition between sub-ethnic groups or even between clans.

The March, 2013 election was no different. In some of the counties, the votes for senators and governors reflected sub-ethnic and clan settlement patterns.

Where leaders entered into pre-election bargains, one could see this pattern. Local clan leaders would mobilise their constituencies to vote for the person the elders were supporting. The clan or sub-ethnic leaders would then stand as the conveyor belt through which all the votes would be examined before they reach the post of a governor.


This tribal way of voting has been with us from the early days of independence. It is a legacy of the colonial period. The colonial government threw Africans into the native reserves on basis of tribe. The government disallowed people from travelling from one region to another. This meant limited interactions among African groups. And when the government finally allowed formation of political parties on the eve of independence, the elite formed the parties on basis of their tribal identities. We came to independence organised as tribes. We had limited reference to each other.

After independence, the new leaders competed on ideological lines and enriched issue based politics. But soon divisions among them evolved at the urging of the West during the cold war period. The new elites chose to transform their ethnic constituencies into political shields to defend themselves against one another. They turned these groups into voting blocs. It has remained the same throughout.

To maintain ethnic voting blocs, leaders give jobs and other economic opportunities to their people. People would only relate their support to leaders only if there was something given in return. This is how political leaders began accessing public resources for distribution to their regions in the form of development projects. They would also get public resources to buy loyalty from non-supporters. Jobs, government projects, contracts for the business elites, another opportunities are exchanged for votes and loyalty. Leaders are held to their voters by use of patronage — and this does not matter where.

‘Eating the government’ by those able to access it had several negative consequences. It widened inequalities in development and also made ethnic pattern of voting a permanent feature of our politics.

But it is not leaders alone who can be blamed for ethnic based politics. The ordinary person loves it. The ordinary people put a lot of political and social pressure on their leaders to ‘bring the pork home.’ They put pressure on leaders to secure ‘things’ from the government on their behalf.


If you are unable to ‘bring the pork’ then you are a bad man. Voters think that the politicians who cannot get something for their people from the government are bad men. In their interpretation, good politicians are those who can get jobs for their people, resources for projects, and those able to outcompete others in the chase for opportunities from the government.

This is the nature of our electoral politics. And things will not change any time soon. The focus on short-term gains and electoral pay offs make it difficult to change even how parties are formed.

The Constitution is making it even more difficult to change things. The requirement that a winning presidential candidate must get more than 50 per cent votes and muster at least 25 per cent of votes cast in half of the counties is intensifying ethnic-based politics in an unprecedented manner. The parties will form alliances because they are formed on ethnic basis but there is no group large enough to ‘outwit’ others in the game of numbers. Those who can win in this game will be those assembling the largest groups together.

But this will not bring change. No leader is strong enough to act tough on people brought together to help win an election. If you act tough, they will ship out to join opponents. The game will continue.

However, examples from places that play similar type of politics show that leaders who act tough even on their own supporters end up more popular than they have ever had. They win opponents and solidify those who already support them. To change the practice of politics in Kenya then would require a leader to act tough even on his (they are all men) own ethnic supporters by putting them to order, to obey the law, and to do just.


Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.