Did Uhuru victory divide Kenyans? Well, that is what all elections do

What you need to know:

  • The last campaigns in America were nastier than the Kenyan one”

On Tuesday, Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as Kenya’s fourth president and William Ruto as deputy, the first person to hold the position after it was introduced by the 2010 Constitution.

President Kenyatta promised to serve all Kenyans, a reference to the now widely discussed fact about how this election left Kenya “deeply divided down the middle”.

Commentators on TV, columnists in newspapers, churchmen and women are agonising, some very worried that Kenya could end up being “ruled by the Kalenjin and Kikuyu”, with the rest locked out, stewing in the anger of alienation, and ready to burn the country down — so everyone loses — at the next election.

I fear Kenya is letting sentimentalism get in the way of hard-nosed realism. Had Raila Odinga won, Kenya would still have been pretty much “divided down the middle”, as it likely did, with a Kenyatta victory.

Perhaps the only candidate who wouldn’t have divided Kenya would have been the earthly Mohammed Abduba Dida, who came in fifth. Dida was the surprise of the race, beating veteran Martha Karua, considered a far substantial figure.

Which raises the question, if Kenyans dislike division, why didn’t they vote Dida? The best answer is that elections are messy and divisive not just in Kenya but everywhere.

In America, when George Bush Jnr was president, Democrats hated him so much, many kept threatening to flee to Canada and France and quite a few actually did.

Things have been worse with President Barack Obama. The last campaigns in US were nastier than the Kenyan one. After Obama won, citizens in 18 states, most of them staunch Republicans, petitioned to secede from the US rather than be ruled by him.

The choice of leaders and rulers has always been traumatic. In times gone by, when a prince became king, he would slaughter all other princes who might eye his crown. What makes the difference, however, is how these divisions are handled after the vote.

One of the most notable examples is US President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865). The chap lost various elections a record eight times, but didn’t give up.

At the end of 1860, he eventually won the presidency. The US was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. Lincoln opposed the extension of slavery outside the south. So when he won the presidency, seven slave states in the south formed the Confederacy, and declared secession.

Lincoln went to war with them, won and abolished slavery in May 1865. He was assassinated a month later.

Why did Lincoln make such a difference in four short years and prevail? Some historians argue it is partly down to his skill in managing factionalism.

When he became president, three of the men he appointed in his Cabinet — Attorney General Edward Bates and Cabinet Secretaries Salmon Chase and William Seward had all run against him in 1860.

That would be the equivalent of Kenyatta appointing Raila, Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi to key Cabinet posts in his government. That, in all probability, would be the easier thing to do. The more difficult thing would be for Raila to accept because, as several columnists have already commented, it would “diminish his status”.

Therefore, while Kenyatta might not do a Lincoln, he has other options. Closer home, there is the case of Rwanda, which teaches us that dedication to transparency can heal some wounds. Take one example. Every year, Rwanda sends over 1,000 students on state scholarships on specialist courses abroad.

Critics accuse the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front of being a “minority Tutsi” regime that excludes the majority “Hutu”. So every year, the short list of the students for the scholarships is published all over the country. Then the final list of those who are finally selected is also published.

Though the students’ ethnicity is not listed, still the tribal mathematicians count to see how many Tutsi and Hutu have got the scholarships. Generally, many have been happy with what the figures tell them.

As long as Kenyatta is alive to the fact that some people will always do an ethnic head count, and he gives them good numbers to work with, he can pull it off.


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