Why Kenya is better off with regional political parties

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I have been watching the Orange Democratic Party election campaigns with a keen interest as I believe it is the latest demonstration of the true nature of Kenya’s politics.

It started out with the political leadership from Nyanza stating publicly that the Secretary General position must be reserved for the region due to it being the bedrock of ODM’s support. This was not received well in other regions where ODM has a strong presence, especially the Coast and Western regions. This reaction forced ODM Party Leader Raila Odinga into a charm offensive that included lambasting his own region’s political leaders, who he told off for what he termed as ‘trying to treat a ‘national’ party as if it was a regional party. A public relations exercise was also rolled out to present his actions as a sign of how ‘national’ ODM is.

Unfortunately this then led to the perception, real or imagined, that the party leader’s preference of who would take over from Professor Anyang Nyongo; the current Secretary General (who ironically is from Nyanza) was Dr Agnes Zani from the Coast. Western regional positions have now gone on the warpath and ODM finds itself struggling with internal party divisions last seen in KANU in 2002 when Moi decided Uhuru Kenyatta was his preferred successor for Party Chairman.

I am convinced neither TNA and URP, the other two parties sharing in the political party’s fund, will do no better than ODM when they finally get around to doing their own party elections. We will also hear calls from the top leadership; that members must ‘remember’ that the party is a ‘national’ party, but see intra-regional negotiation for party positions going on as each party consolidates its presence in their strong-holds. Token positions will then be given out to political personalities from regions where the party is weak to ensure the party has a ‘national face’.

This is the conflict that exists between the idealism and reality of Kenya’s political system.

The ideal situation is defined by Kenya’s Political Party’s Act; where all registered political parties must have a ‘national character’; demonstrated through structures and modes of operation that reflect ‘national’ rather than regional/ethnic interests, and that propagates these accordingly. This has been interpreted as having at least 1,000 registered members, in at least 24 Counties; and the party top leadership having ‘faces’ from different parts of the country.

The reality however, is that Kenya has 6 main ‘political’ regions; Coast, Central, Nyanza, Western, Eastern and Rift Valley, and the social, economic and political interests in these regions vary to such an extent that they could very well be different countries. It has even been suggested that the terms ‘national interest’ ‘patriotism’ and ‘Kenyan’ mean different things, in each region! It can also be argued that the reason national efforts against corruption and related social ills, or in pursuit of infrastructural and economic development; or in support of national security, cohesion, and reconciliation, often fail is because different regions interpret each effort based on how it affects other regions, rather than the nation.

This also means that, with politics being about managing the allocation of national resources, each region organizes on how to ensure that it is represented at the ‘table where the national cake’ is being divided. However, because of that idealism, parties must then pretend that they represent all the regions, while in reality their policies actually threaten some of these other regions. This means that Kenya’s parties end up having ‘sub-parties’ within them, where the party’s ‘real’ interests are articulated; and then general elections become near-death experiences because each party has unspoken interests that they are scared will be affected if the ‘others’ win; all this is happening while we all pretend how national we are.

The ODM party elections, and last two general elections, are a reflection that Kenyan politics is really about independent ‘sub-nationalities’ negotiating with each others, within common national borders. This is why a post-election coalition government was the only way to stop the post election violence in 2007; why the ICC cases are is collapsing; and why pre-election coalitions was the only way to ensure peace in the 2013 general election. This is also why, even today, ‘national’ leaders still talk about certain government positions, or parastatal offices, or party positions, going to, or staying within, certain regions.

Maybe its time we stopped pretending that our politics is ‘national’ and ammended our constitution accordingly. These might be the how we get to the point where we can hold candid discussions on what how different regions relate. It could also be how we dal with regional issues; eg; a Coast-based political party could be the most appropriate platform to engage with on what is leading to Muslim youth radicalization, and negotiate for political solutions with (or in) government.

Maybe when all is said and done, regional parties is how Kenya will achieve genuine national unity.

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  • james

    At the moment, the reality is that, all the big parties ODM, TNA, URP, and wiper are regional tribal parties. The only limitation for this option of regional parties is the small tribes or the unpopulated regions will be marginalised.

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