Kenyans will vote in a general elections this August to elect both local and national leaders. As always, just like in previous elections, politics is veering to the dangerous line of divisive tribal politics. Even though there is no clear classification for Kenya’s political parties, there are indications that show rightward sway in the country’s politics.In the ongoing electoral cycle, there have been serious attempts to undermine certain candidates based on their ethnicity or religion. These indications show how much Kenyans have either adopted or gotten used to ultra-conservative narratives of religious, moral and ethnic purity. And ominously, the influence of divisive politics is growing in Kenya because, I believe, Kenyans have become so disconnected from the hardship in some parts of their society. Tolerance and understanding comes of experience. Without a diverse mix of people living within Kenyan certain areas, Kenyans are becoming more polarised in their views and less empathetic towards their neighbours. Blogs and social media platforms have become the arenas in which Kenyans refer to their non tribes as ‘other ‘ and it is easy to demonise the other when they are anonymous.Kenyan cities and major towns are becoming so expensive to live in, with even the cheapest accommodation being out of reach for so many, that Kenya is creating slums to house the have-nots. Slums where the more affluent never, ever go.The gulf of inequality is growing, the cycle of disadvantage continues to turn and many of Kenyans are totally disconnected from the real world.Social media has brought unprecedented access and power to ordinary Kenyan citizens but it is still debatable whether it is improving the political discourse or making it worse.The traditional media model in Kenya is far from credible but at least it has given Kenyan people some exposure to a broad range of issues beyond the issue of the day, and on the issues that matter to the country as a whole, not just to individuals. So the danger is that if a traditional media that covers politics more broadly loses its audience to social media, Kenya as a society will lose perspective.
To date, Kenyans have done a good job of taking a larger collective view of problems and issues, but there is worry that Kenyans have this fracturing of the public that risks being amplified by social media especially with upcoming general election.Kenyans sense of being in a collective, a shared country, is at risk of being lost because people are only talking to people who agree with them and the other side is demonised.As a blogger, i know that social media encourages cynicism where what is valued is the appearance of being knowledgeable and being above it all, rather than actually engaging with what are often very complex policy problems. This, in my view encourages a simplistic view on social media of policy problems, and a widespread, but often unjustified, cynicism towards politicians that could undermine government by making citizens apathetic and Kenya is not an exception. It has happened elsewhere including recently in South Africa.Kenyans from all side of politics often have good intentions, it is just that they have different views on how to deal with particular policy problems. But Kenyan politicians must feel incredibly constrained by social media. Kenyans complain that politicians should be more open and speak honestly, but Kenyans have to take some responsibility because as soon as a politician says anything they risk being attacked on social media by their opponents. Its not a bad thing anyway because i don’t know anywhere in the world where politicians are trusted and loved.Kenyans can reach a more mature point in use of social media, and that people realise that listening to people who have some expertise on an issue is better than listening to people who know little or nothing about an issue or are peddling propaganda. The alternative is that maybe what Kenyans are seeing a reversion back to the well known role of the press as a highly partisan vehicle for news. Kenyans online have been expressing their concerns where they have seen gradual replacements of an impartial press in the country, which is, historically speaking, still a new idea, with a highly partisan social media where people write depending on their tribal or political affiliations rather than being objective.
Beyond democratising information and exposing wrongs, the social media is a powerful tool for connecting and mobilising Kenyans, especially in cases where information is actively suppressed.The role of social media in bringing Kenyans out into the street to convey their feelings to the elites who are said to be aloof, arrogant and corrupt. Without social media Kenyans have no alternative sources of information as they hardly trust mainstream media which renowned Kenyan blogger Cyprian Nyakundi has consistently branded corrupt and insensitive. Kenyans need to give social media time, recognising that it has this huge democratising potential and come August this year, could make the unthinkable a reality.At the grassroots level, Kenyans seem to be more and more permissive toward ultra-tribal activities and organisations.In and of itself, tribalism is not a problem. In democracy, people may live their lives based on their beliefs, tribal and religion. However, it becomes problematic when there are attempts to impose these beliefs on a general populace that may or may not share them through legislations and other legal processes. These problems are exacerbated when the issues creep into personal space, such as sexual orientation and consensual sexual practices. In Kenya, this is extra problematic as this practice undermines some local ethnic and religious traditions.So, how did Kenya get to this point? Mostly because hitherto the elite-wing movement in Kenya has been unopposed. Ultra tribalism is a latent movement, existing before independence.Since independence, tribalist have made use of their newfound right to free speech and have thus begun to flourish. Elements of the tribal lords have veered ever more to the right into what political experts call far right. These ultra-tribalist groups continuously hide behind constitutional freedom of speech every time their activities are scrutinised by authority and Kenyans. On the other side, the counter-balancing ideologies on the left of the political spectrum are still suppressed. Compound this with a general lack of political education and Kenyans have the recipe for jargon based scapegoating. Using the latent fear of tribalism, far-right tribalist are quick to denounce opposing ideologies as clueless western countries agents.
Sometimes secularism is equalised with atheism by the more corrupt religions organisations and individuals. To them, liberal is the same as westernised and not Kenyan.This development is not in line with what the founding fathers must have envisioned for their newborn Kenya more than half a century ago. They had an ideology that accommodates a wide range on the political spectrum. It included religious conservatism of all religions, nationalism, humanism of classical liberal and the socialist concept of a welfare state. The other principle embraced participatory democracy. However, none has ever been realised and Kenya is considered one of the most unequal country in the world. Going forward, the Kenyan government should address challenges facing the country with democratic ideals in mind by increasing quality and openness in Kenyans political life.The government needs to provide better political education. At the moment, they are focused on indoctrination of tribalism to the Kenyan youth. The fact is, this one sided political education has made many young Kenyans ill-informed politically. Many cannot differentiate socialism, secularism, liberalism or capitalism. The use of these words as political jargons by Kenyan political elites creates demonising effects, making open intellectual discussions of the topics almost impossible. The Kenyan government could also offer better political studies, integrated with the existing citizenship subject for its school students. A politically active Kenyan citizen should know about the political spectrum and its core tenets, and it should let Kenyans choose the political ideology that suits them best. A better education would make this use of jargon less effective as Kenyans would be able to research their own political opinions. Alternatively, they will always be prey of populist tribal politicians using political jargon in demonising a certain community as a scapegoat.Kenya is a politically confused nation. Kenyans defend democracy as an ideal yet they remain receptive of the tribal ideology which undermines Kenyans nationalism. Kenya is unwilling to ban radical tribalism on the grounds of freedom of speech, yet at the same time Kenya suppress the radical religion with moderates left as collateral damage. Kenyans are still afraid of an obsolete colonial past, while refusing to acknowledge the new rising threat of tribalism being preached to Kenyan youths. Kenyan needs to change and to wake up. Much like the speedster Cheetah needs all its legs to hunt, Kenya needs both of its political legs to balance its speed toward prosperity.