The state of pre-election Kenyan politics has become a huge feast for cartoonists and comedians.
Indeed, some aspects of Kenyan politics would be strange to Tanzanians and Ugandans.
More interesting, is how can Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, three countries that have been joined together in many enterprises by history for a long time, still have such different political party traditions?
Right now, there is a frenzy of “party shopping” and speculation about which party some prominent politicians will run on in the forthcoming elections.
The words “party shopping” do not even exist in popular Tanzanian or Ugandan political vocabulary.
Among the explanations for this is that compared to Kenya, there are few parties in these countries.
One reason for this, in Uganda for example, is that unlike Kenya, few parties actually die.
The two active oldest parties in Uganda are the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC), formed in 1958, and the Democratic Party (DP) formed in 1954.
The UPC has been in power twice, but the DP has never tasted State House. Despite that, it has remained a leading party, sending MPs to Parliament and controlling local councils.
The UPC has been out of power since 1985, and it too still enjoys handsome parliamentary and local government fortunes.
That wouldn’t happen in Kenya. Once a party is out of power, it starts to bleed and is all but dead within two election cycles.
There are good and bad reasons for this. In Tanzania, partly because of the country’s history of “socialism” and founding father Julius Nyerere’s dedication to building a “tribeless” society (an ideal that is fast-fading), politics was highly ideological.
The alternative to a socialist party was a capitalist one, so when multipartyism was introduced, opposition parties could only be to the left or right of the long-ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
However, socialism fell out of fashion and CCM became capitalist, thus occupying the only viable position in Tanzanian politics.
Chadema, which gave CCM a run for its money in the 2010 election, succeeded by invoking Nyerere’s spirit and positioning itself as an upgrade of CCM.
That makes it hard to have dozens of parties as in Kenya, some of which are sold to the highest bidder.
In Uganda, politics is organised largely around religion. The DP broadly represents Catholic interests, and the UPC — and now President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement — the Protestant side of things.
Muslims in the north and east usually go with UPC and NRM, those in the south and west with DP. There is, like in Kenya, ethnic politics in Uganda.
But ethnic politics is not how you win elections. It is how you distribute the groceries after you get power.
Other parties, like Dr Kizza Besigye’s outspoken and stubborn Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), are offshoots or stepchildren of either UPC or DP.
The NRM was a stepchild of UPC, and FDC is a stepchild of NRM. This means that in Tanzania and Uganda, you have little political mobility, unlike in Kenya.
The likelihood of changing governments peacefully at elections as happened in Kenya in 2002 is very low, and chances of a new party or politician emerging and shaking up things are quite few.
Kenya, on the other hand, is very flexible, although it is dogged by too many regional and, even, ethnic parties.
An East African observer trying to understand this difference by looking at objective factors would justifiably think it accounted for by the fact that Kenya was the only settler colony in East Africa.
As in Zimbabwe, land stolen from the “natives” by settlers is usually a huge political problem.
It will always give rise to a land rights struggle, which is partly what the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, was.
And a struggle for land anywhere in the world is always a fight over cultural and spiritual rights, which gives rise to identity politics (a high sense of ethnic rights or injury).
Secondly, it creates a differentiation in the experience of colonialism for different communities in the same countries.
The parts of Kenya where settlers took land had a different experience from those where they didn’t.
With independence, that difference sometimes gives rise to a very deadly form of regional politics.
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