Young voters will perhaps trump political tribalism

Officials of various youth groups in Mathare constituency, Nairobi, gesture during a meeting to plan for the upcoming peace concert scheduled for July 15, 2017. They were at Mathare Social Justice Centre. The youth category will perhaps trump political tribalism. PHOTO | ANDREW KILONZI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Regionally, at 28, Mboya was elected Chairman of the All-African People’s Conference.
  • In the 2017 elections, two main “super identities” will decide the winners and losers.

Ethnicity is a world-wide social fact. But nations must rest on shared values, not shared ethnicity.

The tragedy of Africa is that politics is not about a higher idea of the nation.

It is all about the use of ethnic identity in political competition with other groups.

This is what British scholar, John Lonsdale, perceptively called “political tribalism” as opposed to “moral ethnicity” as a positive force that makes us moral — and thus social — beings.

Understanding “political tribalism” is key to ending conflicts in Africa.


July 5, 2017 marked 87 years since the birth of Joseph Tom Mboya, and 48 years since an assassin’s bullet prematurely ended the life of one of Kenya’s most celebrated nationalists.

But Mboya’s legacy is a great paradox.

On the one extreme, as a trade unionist, educationist, pan-Africanist, nationalist, Cabinet Minister and one of the founding fathers of modern Kenya, Mboya was a man of pan-Kenyan, pan-African and globalist vision and achievements.

Born and raised in Kilimambogo, Central Kenya, Mboya was a polyglot who spoke Dholuo, Kikuyu, Kikamba and some Luhya dialects, enabling him to cross language barriers that keep ethnic groups apart.

Regionally, at 28, Mboya was elected Chairman of the All-African People’s Conference, the precursor of the African Union, convened by Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in 1958.

Globally, he worked with US President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr in the African Airlifts of the 1950s and 1960s.

The election of Barack Obama as US President drew attention to a nationalist icon, David Goldsworthy, described as “The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget” (1982).

Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr, benefited from Mboya’s airlifts to America, and during his stay there married and sired the future President.

Professor Wangari Maathai, later Nobel Peace Laureate, was a beneficiary of the airlifts.

At Mboya’s requiem mass, President Jomo Kenyatta eulogised his fallen compatriot: “Kenya’s independence would have been seriously compromised were it not for the courage and steadfastness of Tom Mboya.”

On the other extreme, Mboya’s brutal death intensified the instrumental use of the ethnic identity for political ends.

In his autobiography, Freedom and After, Mboya graphically captured the bad blood between the Kikuyu and the Luo in the 1930s: “The antagonism between [them] was such that they fought on sight” (1963:71).


However, “Bwana Tom”, as the Kikuyu voters fondly referred to Mboya in the late 50s and 60s, thrived in politics in a predominantly Kikuyu urban constituency.

By 1969, he was far and away the most eligible successor to Kenyatta, inclined more to the “House of Mumbi” than to the “House of Ramogi”.

This is my thesis in the re-published book: In My Mother’s House: Tom Mboya and Identity Politics in Kenya (July, 2017).

Academics love thinking of ethnicity as an invention of colonial state power — as a gambit to divide and rule the natives.

However, the Mboya aftermath signified the strident re-invention of “political tribalism” in post-colonial Africa.

In life, Mboya’s political adversaries caricatured him as not a true Luo (“jamwa”), and rallied behind Jaramogi Odinga, his political rival since the 1950s.


In death, he became a martyr in the narrative of Luo ethnic exclusion in post-colonial Kenya.

And, true, Mboya was not a Jaramogi.

He was a Suba, a Bantu people in Kenya, estimated at about 350,000 who speak both the Suba language and Dholuo — but whose language is classified as endangered.

In a recent Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) Heads of State Summit on refugees in Nairobi on March 2017, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni depicted Mboya’s ancestors as Baganda royalists.

Having lost a bitter succession struggle in Buganda Kingdom during the reign of Kabaka Wasaja Semakokiro Nabbung (1797-1814), the Suba fled as refugees and settled in the Lake Victoria Islands of Rusinga and Mfang’ano and the mainland areas of Kaksingri (Suba South), Gembe (Suba North), Gwassi and Migori.

An additional 80,000 Suba settled in Tarime District, Mara Region, in Tanzania.

Today, Mboya’s Suba are an integral part of one of Kenya’s invented mega tribes — the Luo — based on the logic of “unite and rule”.

In line with this logic, in the run-up to independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the “Kalenjin” and “Luhya” emerged as hybrid tribes to counter the hegemony of “majority tribes” — the Kikuyu and Luo.

Similarly, faced with the political challenges posed by the politics of Mboya’s death and Kenyatta succession in the late 1960s, former Mau Mau communities — Kikuyu, Embu/Mbeere and Meru — launched Gema as a supra-ethnic identity.

From the late 1980s, the ruling Kanu elite responded to the threat posed by the “Bantu-based” (Kikuyu, Luhya, Kisii) opposition by launching a “pastoral” alliance known as Kamatusa (acronym for Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu).

A détente between Jaramogi Odinga and Daniel Moi after the 1992 election inspired an even larger “super tribe”, celebrated by the eminent historian, Bethwell Ogot (1996), as the “Jii-Speakers” or Western Nilotes (the Kalenjin and Luo).

The “Jii ethnic ideology” propelled the short-lived merger of Kanu and Raila Odinga’s National Development Party (NDP) on March 18, 2002.


As Secretary-General of the “New Kanu”, Raila believed he was Moi’s heir.

But the Jii alliance collapsed in the run-up to the 2002 elections when Moi named Uhuru Kenyatta as his anointed successor.

However, the Jii-Speakers Alliance soon resurfaced ahead of the 2007 election with the birth of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) as a Luo-Kalenjin entente. However, by 2013, the Jii ideology had collapsed.

In the 2017 elections — and possibly the politics of Kenyatta succession in 2022 — two main “super identities” will decide the winners and losers.

One is the Muslim identity — an estimated 11.1 pc (4.3 million) Kenyan Muslims.

These are dominant in over 10 counties, and present in other counties and cities.

The other is the youth category. Comprising nearly 70 per cent of the voting power, the youth category will perhaps trump political tribalism.

Prof Kagwanja is Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute and former government adviser


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