Tribalism and democracy in Kenya

politics and culture — By on December 28, 2007 at 7:40 am

Tribalism is an inescapable undercurrent of life throughout much of Africa and the Middle East. And, as this Washington Post article notes, one’s tribal loyalties have also played a significant role in democratic elections in Kenya, even though many voters deny it is an issue.

Although many issues are at stake in Kenya’s presidential election Thursday — by all accounts the most open and competitive since the country’s independence in 1963– one theme has pervaded the campaign season like no other: tribalism, considered the bane of African nation-building.

In some ways, Kenyans have adopted a political system in which leaders tend to trust and favor their own ethnic groups with appointments, contracts and other spoils of power in exchange for votes and, increasingly, campaign contributions.

Kenyans tend to deny being tribalist, though national voting patterns have often suggested otherwise.

In the current election, for example, the two main contenders are expected to draw 80 to 90 percent of the vote from their respective communities — among the largest in Kenya — and duke it out for dozens of smaller ethnic voting blocs in this country of 36 million. Yet in interviews around this politically important city in Kenya’s western Rift Valley region, Kikuyu and Luo voters explained their choices in terms other than tribal.

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