Voters queue at NSSF grounds in Nairobi during the General Elections in 2017. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

The future of Kenya does not lie in hands of the Wanjikus. It is in the hands of our political elite. Recently, political “restaurant caucuses” have increased in frequency and intensity, as politicians explore and sound each other, in political bargaining, elite-pacting and alliance-making.

New alliances or permutations are expected as the 2022 General Election beckons. Given the complexities of Kenya’s ethnic architecture, political alliances are necessary and essential for a united, peaceful, and progressive Kenya. No political leader today can win the presidency, without being in one form of alliance or another.

History does not repeat itself, but historical conditions do. The conditions under which alliances are being made today are similar in many ways to the conditions prior to the 2002 election. I was involved in alliance-making at that time, and on that basis, I make these observations.

Just like in the final days of Kanu, we are about to undergo a regime change. We are in a deep financial crisis, for which IMF has been invited to help to sort out. Our revenues have dried up, Covid-19 has caused widespread impoverishment and suffering, especially among the poor. There is a depressing economic stagnation and social decay, and a mood of hopelessness, dissatisfaction and rebellion especially among the youth.

Many Kenyans have lost hope and become cynical. They feel fatigued, cheated and abandoned by their leaders. They believe politicians just talk and tell endless lies. They only care about themselves and their families and cannot be trusted to change people’s lives. Kenya is not yet a nation. There is no deep national consciousness. We are still a tribal society. Ethnicity remains our principal means of political mobilisation.

Among the political elite, nobody completely trusts anyone else anymore. Past alliances have left many leaders stranded, dejected and heartbroken, with their political careers in shambles.

Elite backstabbing, dogfights, squabbling, betrayal and bitterness have been the legacy of most of our past political alliances. We should have our eyes wide open to alliances’ limitations and the underlying contradictions.

On the positive side, alliance-making has become part and parcel of Kenya’s political and electoral culture. Kenya is not yet a mature democracy. Our struggling democracy is facing serious challenges, from mass poverty, ethnic polarisation and weak governance structures. Inclusive political alliances will help us move away from politics of ethnic tensions, conflicts, and confrontations, to politics of negotiation, compromise and consensus-building.

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We should be awake to avoid follies of the past. Political alliances are first and foremost electoral vehicles for the political advancement of the top political elite. There is a lot of alliance euphoria whenever there is a General Election around the corner. Its intensity increases during regime change. These electoral vehicles are usually demobilised, dismantled, or simply left to die a natural death after the elections.

Ruthless Machiavellian game

Politicians want power. They want to be insiders, pulling the strings, making decisions, enjoying the privileges and the glory. Alliances are about cutting deals and horse-trading. The top dogs negotiate behind closed doors, cut private political deals, and enter into “gentlemen’s agreements” as to “who gets what and who will be what.”

They are primarily instruments for “sharing the spoils” and advancing the political and economic interests of the political elite and their networks of political support. 

Alliance leaders are usually self-obsessed high-fliers who have big egos and an appetite for power and visibility. They crave recognition. Unbridled personal ambitions, political rivalries and suspicions make it difficult for the elite to form lasting alliances. The game is ruthlessly Machiavellian. Some leaders are always ahead, scheming on how to use and dominate others.

Coalitions are not a mere brotherhood of pals, comrades and friends. They are built of architecture of numbers. Leaders from major ethnic groups call the shots.

Alliance partners are classified as heavyweight, middleweight, or lightweight with reference to the number of votes they can bring to the table. The lightweights have little or no political clout. They are often ignored, overlooked, short-changed, or jettisoned at will, as excess cargo.

To enhance their political value, alliance partners go overboard, solidifying their ethnic block consciousness and exceptionalism, and where necessary fanning ethnic fears and hatred through lies and propaganda. Sometimes this leads to emergence of fanatical tribalised groups and a culture of hero-worship.

All alliance leaders, without exception, rely on the ethnic bases in their struggles for power. The leaders do not publicly talk about their secret power deals.

They hide them behind a façade of rhetoric such as inclusive and transformative leadership. As they say, bulls are caught by the tail and people are caught by words.

Some alliance leaders are populists with charisma, personal magnetism and “people skills”, which they opportunistically use to whip up emotions and passions of the masses against their rivals. Sometimes they use religious leaders to serve their political interests. They generally talk of radical reforms, social transformation and liberation of the poor, but few have any concrete programmes or specificity.

The language of reform is merely rhetorical strategy. Once they win, such things are quickly forgotten. Sometimes reckless whipping up of the emotions of the masses in our ethnically diverse areas has led to civil unrest and violence, which have caused permanent social and economic damage. Rest we forget, Adolf Hitler rose to power by mobilising the poor and the unemployed with propaganda against the Jews.

Large alliances can be captured by a few predatory elites, who routinely undermine their partners and surprise them with ingratitude. In the matrix of power, you do not waste too much time with your loyal supporters. Sometimes large alliances are bogged down in endless boardroom battles, massaging egos and managing ambitions, which makes it difficult for such alliances to win.

From a studious point, we must analyse the political genius of President Uhuru Kenyatta to arrive at possible formations or permutations. President Kenyatta, the “new professor of politics” has brought his former opponents under his wings.

However, at the very minimum, we should expect two or three solid alliances ahead of next year’s duel.

Self-preservation imperatives dictate that the incumbents try to capture alliance-making to perpetuate their own interests.

While the so-called ‘Deep State’ remains invisible, State agents are key architects of some of the alliances. They too have their interests to protect.

While power remains the universal focus of politics, our new alliances should try to move beyond mere backroom political intrigues, and pay more attention to nation-building, institutional reforms, debt management and poverty eradication.  

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