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Time to break stranglehold of political elites?

One was born with a silver spoon dangling from his mouth, another does not have the spine to stand on his own and hangs onto the coattails of his contemporaries. One swims in the thick soup of controversy and scandal, another can’t tell the difference between ambition and the pathetic desires of his heart.

What do they all have in common? Each one of this varied bunch of men wants to be Kenya’s next president, and that would be okay were it not for the frightening fact that they have all been at it for so long that they seem to have taken Kenya’s political space hostage.

As the Uhuru succession debate hots up, the line-up being fronted has the usual suspects: Musalia Mudavadi, William Ruto, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetang’ula, Raila Odinga, or Gideon Moi. Which begs the question: Is this all? Can an outlier third-force candidate wrest the remote control for Kenya’s political home theatre from this group of politicians? If not, what are the consequences of this dominion on the country’s nascent democratic space?

Prof Winnie Mitullah, Director and Associate Research Professor of Development Studies at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, says there is indeed a prevalent concept of circulation of the elite, “to the extent that you first have to work so hard to get into that circle even if you want to be an alternative voice”. This, she adds, is because there are some benefits embedded within that circle. This is what makes one feel that the voices are the same and the same people are the ones claiming to be new.

“Remember the Thirdway Alliance? It fashioned itself as a true alternative voice but you also recall how the elite dealt with it by creating internal strife. They had not penetrated the elite circle. You cannot just wake up and think that you can change stuff, unless you do a popular movement equivalent to the Arab Spring,” says Prof Mitullah.

Anything different from that will still perpetuate the culture of the same elite sharing power “and calling themselves ‘new’, ‘hustlers’ and other names to suit a particular situation”.

Intellectual prowess

This stranglehold on Kenyan politics appears to suggest that a Kibwana, or a Kituyi, or even an Obama, cannot be a Kenyan President, their intellectual prowess notwithstanding. The Makueni governor is well-read, has a grassroots understanding of the Kenyan socio-economic fabric, and ranks high up there in the league of former President Mwai Kibaki. So does Dr Kituyi, who has scaled the heights of global leadership and is regarded as one of Kenya’s best economic and planning minds.

But the two are political minions in the collective Kenyan psyche. Dr Kituyi himself lost an election for MP, while Kibwana is regarded as lacking in political colour and drama. None of this two will make you blush at a political rally. None will redden your cheeks with hyperbole, razzmatazz and the characteristic theatrics of a dyed-in-the-wool Kenyan politician.

That is why, should elections be called today, Mr Jack Momanyi would vote Raila Odinga for president. He does not have any doubts about it and does not even think twice when we ask him. But it is when we ask this caretaker of a city building why he would vote him that the conversation gets interesting. Jack does not know why, but he knows who.

And that’s it. He is not alone. Many Kenyans “just know” whom they’d vote in an election but can scarcely explain why. Their political leanings are not informed by ideologies or philosophies. They do not wake up one day and proclaim: I have read the Ford-Kenya manifesto. I like it.

And so I will vote Mr Wetang’ula. Their support does not stem from the more perceptive depths of their brains, but the more emotional wells of their hearts. It is as if the ethno-social greatness of the political operative matters to them more than his or her ideological conceptions.

Something amiss

Mr Herman Manyora, a political commentator, agrees that something is wrong with Kenya’s political mobilisation. Maybe it is the way political parties are born, run and financed. At the very core, the average Kenyan political party is a basic, one-man operation that revolves around the egos and eccentricities of singular personalities.

The Wiper Democratic Movement, for instance, does not seem able to fathom a future without Mr Musyoka, its head. Neither does the Orange Democratic Movement grasp a post-Raila future, or Ford-Kenya minus Mr Moses Wetang’ula. Party politics, therefore, remains personality-based, with a heavy serving of tribal arithmetic, notes Mr Manyora.

“Systems produce similar people,” he notes. “Occasionally, an odd number may appear, like an Obama or a Trump. An outsider might appear, but the system soon catches up with them and brings them to the way the system operates.”

By “system”, Mr Manyora is referring to a nebulous, vague group of well-connected individuals who are believed to control governments and their succession. There is no proof of its existence and so it remains this mysterious, formless and shapeless creature that somehow dominates Kenyan political contests. Deputy President William Ruto has himself referred to it on numerous occasions as an illicit impediment to his Uhuru succession drive.

If systems produce presidents, then those who rule nations are the metaphorical emblems of all that is right and wrong about a society. In Kenya, that would be a mixture of our colonial heritage, recent post-independence past, quality of education, and even political intelligence. “That system cannot produce anybody that is different,” notes Mr Manyora. “When an ‘outsider’ occurs, the system moves fast to contain him or her. It is a zero-sum game.”

He continues: “The system cannot produce alternative voices because you must have been a person of a certain calibre, perhaps gone to certain schools, worked in certain places and amassed wealth. Perhaps I, Manyora, can run this country better than this crop of leaders, but can the system give me the chance? And if it did, how long before it captures me?”

“Power by accident”

That sober realisation then places a heavy premium on the voting masses. Their decisions will determine the future political trajectories of nations, and whether an outlier third-force candidate stands any chance. In the Kenyan context, therefore, can a Matiang’i, or a Kituyi, or a Kibwana, or a Ngilu, or a Karua, stand any chance against the big boys?

“This group can only get to power by accident,” says Mr Manyora. “And accidents happen. But if we were to stick to what is normal then you wouldn’t expect anything from them. They will remain on the fringes because at the moment you cannot see politics beyond Raila, Uhuru and Ruto.”

Mr Tom Mboya, a political scientist at Maseno University, agrees, and suggests that Kenya’s alternatives at the moment appear quite slim because the country’s politico-dogmatic culture since independence “has been dominated by a political elite that has been setting the agenda”.

“Barely a year to the 2022 General Election, alternatives away from that group are a long shot,” says Mr Mboya. “The only way out is for alternative voices to start their campaigns early and sustain them through the electoral cycle.”

And, even then, they would still face serious challenges from the dominant political elite as the Kenyan voter has been weaned on a top-down approach to political mobilisation, hence those seeking alternative routes to power are the unwelcome exceptions.

“That is the kind of a complicated scenario that makes it impossible for alternative voices to emerge and make an impact,” says Mr Mboya. “Over the years, this alternative can only emerge from and have the blessings of the dominant group.”

Prof Mitullah says the “system” that Mr Manyora and Mr Mboya are referring to has the power to sustain the political elite and contain the alternative voices. It is so good, she adds, that it co-opts these kinds of persons.


“Look at what happened in 2003. The civil society then was a strong voice that brought us change, but then the elite were too good and too fast and co-opted them into the Narc administration and they became part of the system. They co-opted them so seamlessly by giving them jobs in government and the civil society forgot about the cause.” So what needs to happen? “We need to expand the political space,” says Prof Mitullah.

“We should not give up even though the citizens sometime appear to have given up and think it is only Raila and Ruto who can contest to make sense, or somebody that Uhuru supports. We are also closing up as citizens to seeing alternative voices. We will need a radical, who must have a pillar upon which he can rally the people.”

Historical patterns
Despite these compelling arguments for a third force, there are those who still believe that Kenya’s brand of political mobilisation is not unique, and that dynastical associations have always ruled the world.

A 2018 study published in the journal Historical Social Research showed that, on average, one in 10 world leaders comes from households with political ties. Researchers in the US had examined the backgrounds of 1,029 political executives — presidents and prime ministers — in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America from 2000 to 2017 and found that 119, or 12 per cent, of all world leaders belonged to a political family.


The study defined “political family” as having either a blood or marital tie to someone already involved in politics, whether as a judge, party official, bureaucrat, lawmaker, president or activist.

As early as 1978, American governance studies scholar Stephen Hess noted that it was perhaps not very surprising that so many children of politicians go into politics. “After all, it’s daddy’s business. Lots of doctors’ children go to medical school,” he noted. But, even as he studied this dynastical problem, he could not understand why politicians seem to have a stranglehold on voters across social and economic classes.

“If there are explanations why certain families gravitate to political life, it is less clear why the voters choose members of the same families to represent them generation after generation,” he said. “This is one type of voting behaviour that cannot be blamed on television.”

America’s political dynasties go back to the colonial period. There have been some 700 families in which two or more members have served in Congress, and they account for more than 1,700 of the 10,000 men and women who have been elected to the federal legislature since 1774.

Mr Hess argued that voters may be inclined to favour political royalists because often — though not always — they are rich enough so as not to be tempted to steal from the public till. That same argument was used in Kenya during the last political transition, and appears to suggest that having financial muscle makes one incorruptible. But does it? For the Musalias, Rutos, Odingas, Mois and Kenyattas, it appears that “brand name” identification is worth something in politics as it is at the supermarket shelf, as Mr Hess notes. Yet how far can office-seekers go on the basis of a famous name?

The answer to that question is a simple, mono-word phrase: far. Consider this: Voters tend to give political royalists one “free” election. In Kenya, two of the Moi sons are MPs, two of the Oginga sons have been MPs and one a prime minister, one of the Mudavadi sons has been an MP and vice-president, and away from the thick top layer of political families, Kenyan voters still elect the sons, daughters, widows and widowers of politicians “to complete the projects” the incumbents started.

So, can a name take you far? Yes, of course. But it might also stand in the way of the true change makers as dynastic tendencies deny a society the chance to experience — and experiment with — new ideas, the opportunity and live in the energy of the moment.


Sir Winston Churchill, the great English ruler, was born to lead the war against Adolf Hitler’s Nazism. Barack Obama was born to show the deeply divided American society that even black people can make great presidents. Who will be Kenya’s Churchill, or Obama? And were he or she to emerge, would he or she get a listening ear? –