The Devil That Lurks in Kalenjin Politics [opinion]

Although it is a key constituency in Kenyan politics, political commentary on Kalenjin Rift Valley is often surprisingly off the mark. Commentary tends to focus on the actions and utterances of individual politicians, and this becomes the substitute for an examination of the interplay of structural factors and the actions of political actors. For perspective, it seems necessary to revisit the underlying dynamics that shape political contestation in the region.

Kalenjins are a squarely pastoralist society entangled in a newly agrarian economy. In the five decades during which the Kalenjin have socio-economically morphed into an agrarian society, is a blinker. Hence, while the community’s socio-cultural fundaments are pastoralists, the transformation has given rise to new and fraught forms of political-economic relations. The result is a turbulent montage of pastoralist socio-cultural conservatism and agrarian political economic tensions that make Kalenjin politics dramatic, and central to national politics.

As with pastoralists elsewhere, Kalenjins are an ‘acephalous’ society, irreverent to centralised authority, egalitarian in everyday power relations, and valorous to honour. One man is the equal of the other, and the defence of honour is non-negotiable, even if this requires extreme action. While the modern judicial and administrative system is fair recourse for the resolution of conflict, traditional systems, values and sensibilities remain critical in the resolution of transgressions on honour.

The centrality of honour among the Kalenjin undergirds an egalitarian ethic that makes political patricide the norm rather than an aberration in the region’s politics. It is common for junior, often poor and unknown politicians to face off with older politicians, and quite often thrash them at elections. Witness the remarkable fact that in the 24 years of Daniel Moi’s rule, only a handful of politicians, most notably Nicholas Biwott, Henry Kosgey and Daniel Moi himself managed to consecutively win two Parliamentary elections.

Moi’s departure from the scene in 2002 signalled another milestone that heralded the rise to power of a new generation. This was by no means a novelty – the community that has a very long tradition of mandatory generational change in leadership. It is, therefore, unremarkable that in the 2007 and 2013 general elections, young politicians trounced virtually all the Moi-era politicians, among whom were the most influential power brokers in the Moi regime. Today an overwhelming majority of elected representatives of the Kalenjin are in their thirties and forties.

The catch though, is that, in the money-driven politics that is Kenya’s, the younger ascendant group of politicians find themselves in a quandary, for lack of resources to build and sustain a patronage network. The default has been to seek patronage from older and richer Kalenjin influencers with the material resources, and establish political networks that they can preferentially rent out to the youthful contenders for power. The region’s social history gives context to the predicament of the region’s new political leaders.

The harbinger of an agrarian transformation in the Rift Valley was the entry of colonists in the 20s and 40s, but it is land reforms in the 1960s that crystallised an agrarian economy. Agrarian transformation conjured a pseudo-feudal society defined by a class structure of a landed gentry, a rural peasantry and underclass, and a ‘rurban’ working class that splits its time between urban work-stations and their small-scale land holdings in the rural areas.

Structurally, little has changed since the 1960s. As a class, the origins of the landed gentry is in a small demographic of the educated and salaried during the colonial period: teachers, colonial chiefs and administrative clerks, foremen in white farms, enterprising small-scale cultivators and cattle herders and rustlers and a retail traders. Though a late bloomer, Moi, a teacher by profession, a member of the Native Legislative Council, and subsequently the leader of a conservative Kadu, snugly fitted into this class.

As Vice President and subsequently as President, Moi cultivated goodwill among this powerful constituency. He moulded it into the backbone of his patronage network across the Rift Valley, with several of them, his age-mates, or their kin wedging into the apparatchik of the Kanu party. Up to his exit, their ranks continued to provide the bulk of elected representatives of the Kalenjin.

Moi’s exit from national leadership in 2002 has resulted in a rapid decline of this class’ influence, to the point that theirs is a vestigial facade of influence with negligible electoral weight. In turn, other socio-economic groups have gained ascendancy.

The first is a nebulous rural petit bourgeoisie made of teachers, pastors, junior cadres of the security forces, petty traders and small and medium-scale farmers. Blending their salary with other income, this class forms a buffer between the landed gentry and the rural peasantry and underclass, and provides for the latter employment in the form of manual work, farm work and piece jobs.

The second is a newly urban class of professionals – the direct beneficiaries of Moi’s heavy investment in education in the region in the 1980s. They together with a smaller and older second-generation of urbanised Kalenjin middle class form the community’s intelligentsia, influence brokers and the cadre from which a new generation of political leaders emerge. Their real political bite is in their influence across all other groupings. In fact, they are the new political under-gods that occupy the former perch of landed patriarchs.

Eventually, it is the populous urban proletariat made of semi-skilled workers, artisans and small-scale traders in the informal sector that is the most potent political force to emerge in the last 30 years in the Rift Valley. For good measure, this group is the product of rural-urban migration since the 1990s following the collapse of the agrarian sector, thanks to liberalisation and Moi’s inept management of the sector. With the urban lumpen and rural underclass, this group forms the real guts of Rift Valley’s electoral anvil. The ability to manipulate or ride the sentiment of these classes is what moves the region’s politics today. What the landed gentry was to Moi is what these classes are to William Ruto. No one in Kalenjin Rift Valley has shown better facility in winning their hearts and minds.

Pulled together by their pastoralist past, pulled apart by tensions of an agrarian economy, and pulled into a messy process of urbanisation, the mix of political dynamics makes Kalenjin Rift Valley the burying ground for the regular politician. A successful politician would need to be a bipolar apparition of sorts – a say-it-as-it-is daredevil that nonetheless projects a conservative outlook, is fawning in the face of tradition, is irreverent to authority nonetheless, and commands a bulging bank of political resources. The westernised, liberal, cosmopolitan type that is subtle, self-effacing, and detached from tribal loyalties is your perfect anti-politician.

Dr. Kiprono Chesang is a consultant in the private sector. He writes in his personal capacity.