Kenya and the US: Where ‘language’ and ethnic votes carry the day

What has the US and Kenya have in common apart from President Obama? Wily and opportunistic politicians who will jump at any occasion to boost their images and get the otherwise elusive vote.
Kennedy Ndahiro
Kennedy Ndahiro

What has the US and Kenya have in common apart from President Obama? Wily and opportunistic politicians who will jump at any occasion to boost their images and get the otherwise elusive vote.

They will have to speak the ‘language’ of the voters. In the US, it will be what in Africa we would consider flimsy platforms; gun control, abortion, etc, while in Kenya, it will be kinship and good old vote buying that will do the trick.

No more is it apparent than during the election period where no holds are barred and opponents are free game. Candidates will posture for the cameras, make utopian promises they know they will not keep. But most of all, they will need deep pockets.

But that is as far as similarities go.

 In the US, the losers will slink into oblivion albeit with a publishing contract or a spot on one of the nation’s major TV stations as political commentators, as fresh-faced former vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, did. The Democrat and Republican boxing gloves will be hung until the next ‘season’.

In Kenya, it will be the beginning of marathon court sessions and countless injunctions to annul the results. The losers will manipulate what Karl Marx called the lumpen proletariat to hit the streets in an attempt to force the system to give them a piece of the pie.

Kenyan politicians used the strategy successfully in 2008; politicians won a fair piece of the national cake while lumpens bore the consequences that marked the tragic period.

In most countries, politicians are helped by the gullibility of the electorate who will swallow anything they are fed, either out of emotional tribal or racial attachments, financial offers they “cannot refuse” (remember Don Corleone in The Godfather?), or simply because they hate the guts of their preferred candidate’s opponent.

The electorates’ ballot choices will not be hinged on the issues candidates stand for. It will all come down to the likability aura around their choice.

As the Kenyans were busy ripping into each other five years ago, an underdog Senator from Illinois took the world by storm by clinching the Democratic nominations and the presidency. Barack Obama was swept into the White House by the power of social media and the youth vote because he “spoke” their language; twitter.

A healthy campaign coffer, also the result of a maverick fundraising campaign over the net, helped secure residence in America’s prime real estate.

Back to Nairobi. The last elections are something many Kenyans would like to forget. The former haven of peace and tranquility was shattered by the 2007-2008 post election violence whose wounds are still fresh today.

Thousands of displaced still live in makeshift camps five years down the line. They are now being used as political fodder by those who seek elective posts with hollow promises of ending their plight.

As an East African, and Rwandan in particular, who fully understands the dangers of ethnic politics – what with the numerous mass graves and Genocide memorials as constant reminder – my humble advice to Kenyan leaders would be that if ethnic considerations win the day, they will be treading on minefields they will never recover from.

The main ingredients that fuelled the widespread mayhem in 2007 were the old ghosts of ethnicity. Perhaps the 1994 Rwandan experience was history to them, but the collective murderous hysteria that followed could have been avoided if the population had turned a deaf year to rogue politicians.

Obama’s Kenyan connections also came to haunt his challenger for re-election, Mitt Romney. He edged out his opponent on an ethnic vote – the Latino vote.

Attempts to shoot down Obama’s pet project; health care reforms, played a major part in galvanizing the underprivileged that were fluent in the US president’s language; Obamacare. It was the answer to their prayers, so they turned the urns in favour of the man from Kogelo.

For all those nursing political ambitions out there – especially my Kenyan friends – read this piece like the bible (or Koran, Torah, Sanskrit). Holy books do not give one salvation, they just point the direction. The choice remains with you. After all, this is what is known as democracy, whether Kenyan or American.

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