Reginald M.J. Oduor (Nairobi, Kenya): Identity Politics in the Twenty-first Century: A Kenyan Perspective

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Published on February 22, 2014

Author: thomashuebel



Reginald M.J. Oduor (Nairobi, Kenia):
Identity Politics in the Twenty-first Century: A Kenyan Perspective

Audiofile of the lecture (IWK, Vienna, 5.2.2014)

Over the past four decades, ethnic and religious minorities, organisations of persons with disabilities, and feminist organisations among others have contributed significantly to the growth of identity politics, that is, competition for state power among interest groups. Nevertheless, many centralist regimes continue to suppress this mode of political expression through a »nationalist« discourse.
This paper examines identity politics in the twenty-first century, with special reference to the Kenyan experience. It observes that the dominant variety of identity politics in Kenya is ethnically-based, with more than forty-two ethnic groups competing for state power. Consequently, Kenya is a multi-ethnic state forcefully created by colonialism rather than a nation-state formed by a largely homogenous cultural group. Yet the dominant public political discourse continues to refer to the country as a »nation« or even a »nation-state«. Furthermore, although the Constitution of Kenya promulgated in 2010 to some extent acknowledges the right of ethnic groups to pursue their aspirations within the Kenyan polity, the elites of dominant ethnic groups continue to publicly castigate the articulation of ethnic interests while simultaneously executing political strategies based on those same interests.
The central argument of the paper is that for most of Kenya’s fifty years of political independence, the suppression of ethnically-based politics among the non-dominant ethnic groups has significantly contributed to socio-political instability in the country. Consequently, it proposes that Kenya’s long-term political stability is dependent on a shift from liberal democracy with its focus on the atomic individual to a mode of democracy that takes cognisance of the ethnic loyalties of the bulk of the country’s population.
Reginald M.J. Oduor: is Lecturer in Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Nairobi. Latest Publication: »Ethnic Minorities in Kenya’s Emerging Democracy: Philosophical Foundations of their Liberties and Limits«, Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrücken 2012.

Identity Politics in the 21st Century A Kenyan Perspective

Outline 1. Background. 2. Kenyan Ethnic Groups Introduced. 3. Aspirations of Kenyan Ethnic Minorities. 4. Politicised Ethnicity. 5. Inadequacy of Liberal Democracy in the Kenyan Context.

Background (1) • Identity politics refers to the struggle for state power based on the interests of a relatively stable group in a larger society. • In sub-Saharan Africa, identity politics can be traced back to the 19th Century partition of Africa. • The politicization of ethnicity quickly became one of the most intractable problems in independent Kenya.

Background (2) • This is a work in political philosophy. • The essential nature of the task of political philosophers is to take what is known about human societies and the ways in which they are governed, and then to ask what the best form of government would be, in the light of aims and values that they believe their audience will share.

Background (3) Among the questions that political philosophy asks are the following: • Does it really make a difference to our lives what kind of government we have? • Do we have any choice in the matter, or is the form of our government something over which we have no control? • Can we know what makes one form of government better than another?

Kenyan Ethnic Groups Introduced • The official number of Kenyan ethnic groups is forty-two. • However, this number was arrived at in an arbitrary manner by the British colonialists. • There are five ethnic groups with considerable numerical strength, and that often form political alliances that can hope to capture state power. • The rest of the groups can therefore be termed as ethnic minorities. • Consequently, Kenya is a multi-ethnic state, not a nation-state.

Aspirations of Kenyan Ethnic Minorities • The agitation for federalism by a number of ethnic minorities. • The Somali and coastal secessionist aspirations. • Efforts of national minorities to ensure that they enjoy all the privileges of citizenship. • The struggle of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers to protect their culture and natural resources against encroachment by agriculturalists and industrialists. • The struggle of ethnic minorities generally for adequate representation.

Politicised Ethnicity (1) Definition: • Politicized ethnicity (or ethnicised politics) the mobilization of sections of the population on the basis of cultural identities with a view to capturing or retaining state power.

Politicised Ethnicity (2) Causes: 1. The absence of a single disproportionately large Kenyan ethnic group. 2. The relative equality of the five major ethnic groups (Kikuyu, Luhia, Kalenjin, Luo and Kamba). 3. The existence of many smaller groups whose combined share of the country’s population is under 14%. 4. The sense of kinship among members of individual ethnic groups.

Politicised Ethnicity (3) Manifestations: • Colonial Era: divide and rule. • Jomo Kenyatta: dominance of Kikuyu elite. • Daniel arap Moi: dominance of Kalenjin elite. • Mwai Kibaki: return of Jomo Kenyatta’s Kikuyu inner circle. • Uhuru Kenyatta: struggle for dominance between Kikuyu and Kalenjin elite.

Politicised Ethnicity (4) Impact: • Disparity in development between and among various regions of the country. • The stunting of the growth of issue-based politics, as ethnic personality cults have taken centre stage. • Violent inter-ethnic conflicts. • People from ethnic minorities and mixed marriages are disadvantaged with regard to business and job opportunities.

Inadequacy of Liberal Democracy (1) • Traditional Western liberal democracy assumes that the political actors in a democracy are individuals, with no fixed allegiance to a group of other individuals. • However, Africans have a communalistic outlook based on kinship, and this results in political choices based on the interests of their ethnic groups.

Inadequacy of Liberal Democracy (2) • Liberal democracy arose out of the West’s unique socio-economic experience. • Consequently, condemnation of the African ethnocentric approach to politics is a manifestation of the imposition of the Western outlook on the politics of independent African countries.

Inadequacy of Liberal Democracy (3) • Just as Western democracies draw from their traditional institutions such as the monarchy, African countries must formulate their own models of democracy different from liberal democracy and catering for the communalistic outlook of the African masses.

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