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Kenya: A country of forty billionaires and forty million beggars

Political scions Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga — sons of the country’s first president and vice president, respectively contested for the presidency in the nullified August 8, 2017 presidential polls. PHOTO/PSCU



Although Kenya often appears in the press as a nation split by ethnic discord, it has just two “tribes”: the rich and the poor.

In recent months, presidential politics have dominated the international coverage of Kenya — and for good reason. Political scions Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga — sons of the country’s first president and vice president, respectively — have squared off for the nation’s highest office in an environment swirling with legal battles, corruption, and state-sponsored violence.

On August 8, the initial vote resulted in the first judicial nullification of a presidential election in the African continent’s history. And even after a rerun of the election last month — which returned Kenyatta to power amid a mass boycott — the political crisis hasn’t subsided.

The issues animating the ongoing convulsion are complex. The nation’s colonial past, its struggles with authoritarianism, and its unequal development are all sources of contention. Kenyatta and Odinga’s ideological differences — rooted in their fathers’ political struggles over regionalism and inequality in the 1960s — also generate political conflict.

But ask the average western pundit, and the battle is one over simple tribal loyalty. They refract the entire society through an ahistorical lens of ethnicity, divining in Kenya’s voting patterns blind ethnic allegiance.
Ten years ago, Odinga and Kenyatta were on either sides of another disputed election. That time around, post-election violence left over one thousand dead and six hundred thousand internally displaced. And sure enough, western journalists promoted the idea that “an atavistic vein of tribal tension” was driving the country’s electoral strife.

But Kenyan elections are more than a “ruthless game of thrones.” While ethnicity plays a role in stoking tensions at the polls, it cannot explain the nation’s political fissures. The victims of Kenya’s deep inequities are not any single cultural or regional group; they are the urban and rural poor.

Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta (Right) and his then vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. PHOTOS/COURTESY
And their marginalization — a product of endemic corruption, repression, and pro-capital development — will continue adding fuel to the raging political fire.

A landscape of inequality

In a country where political elites are known by the fancy cars they own (wabenzi­ — those who drive Mercedes Benzes) and roughly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Kenyans recognize that, while they don’t all have a common language or religion, they share a landscape of growing inequality.

“Super highways” in Nairobi cut right through informal settlements that lack running water. Colonial-era country clubs sit against sprawling slums, where golf balls routinely ping off the roofs of makeshift tin shacks. The same elites strolling the nearby fairways often collect rent on the properties behind the concrete barriers.

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city is home to Kibera slum one of Africa’s largest slums estimated have more than 500,000 residents. PHOTO/COURTESY
Rural areas are less starkly divided along class lines, but a number of Kenya’s less urban counties still suffer levels of inequality that would rank them among the most unequal nations in the world.
Political elites stoke ethnic animosity to distract from these class divisions, repackaging the colonial policy of divide and rule in a postcolonial form. Their privileged status rests on keeping tribal schisms intact.
Sporadically, challenges to elite dominance spring up. This year, activist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi emphasized political inclusivity and attacked political corruption in a parliamentary bid. Representing a loud but sidelined voice of dissent, he told voters, “I got news for you, Kenya has only two tribes: the poor and the rich. The good news is, the tide is changing.”
Perhaps it is. But Kenyans have seen this movie before. For as long as Kenya’s been an independent country, the populist rhetoric of class solidarity has enjoyed moments of vibrancy, only to be silenced by brutal crackdowns. Mwangi and other activists are throwbacks to a previous era, when Kenyatta père and Odgina père battled over the direction of the young Kenyan state.
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