Dearth of the Political Party in Kenya


Once upon a time, there was a strong institution known as a political party founded on principles as opposed to belonging to an ethnic group or an alliance thereby. Kenya’s first political parties on the eve of independence were such institutions. They were parties of principles albeit tinged with some ethnic element. Unfortunately, this ethnic tinge inadvertently, or otherwise, quickly and easily became the fulcrum on which our national politics revolved.
It is then that we, as a nation, lost the opportunity evolve a clear-headed politics driven by pertinent issues. As a result, our stature in the community of nations and level of political, democratic and economic development remains wanting if not stunted altogether. To recapture the growth dynamic in these areas, we ought to recalibrate our mindset from thinking about our ethnic kingpin or our time to be in power to issue-oriented political agenda. After all, it is just a mindset.

The political party, the world over, has been at the center of galvanizing society and rallying people behind causes, great or great-turned nightmarish. Parties capture the imagination of the people and motivate them to political action. In a sense, therefore, parties account for political participation and engagement of the wider public in the process of governance. It thus, in many ways, enables the fulfilment of civic duties. In the absence of the development of stable political parties, political lethargy and apathy reigns supreme. That has been Kenya’s experience and portion except for one brilliant spot in its history between 1966 and 1969. Unfortunately, the nature of world politics at the time didn’t allow this glimmer to reach maturity. It was doused before it even started and we were back once again to ethnic-cocoon politics.

Although not a panacea for all that besets us as a people, we must all think seriously of the place of the party in our political system. One can hold up the world’s leading and largest democracies, the US and India, respectively, as shining examples of properly adjusted societies where parties play a big role in the execution of national agendas. Granted, it is not always smooth, and Washington, DC is known to get so stuffy that it becomes difficult for congressmen and women and senators to see issues clearly in the fog of party positions. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be held up as a reason not to emulate mature democracies, stimulate and recover the place of the political party where there seems to be almost none at all.

What, one must wonder, are parties in Kenya but opportunistic and ramshackle political dhows to survive the monsoon of general elections and ascend to positions of power and authority every five years? Some might even venture that the situation at some point, save for the 2010 constitution, got well out of hand such that political parties became articles for buying and selling. For the most part though, and as a result of this marketization of party politics, parties have been, and remain, personal property. Chama kina wenyewe is not an unusual or new political statement, and it doesn’t refer to rank and file. No. It means political investors and financiers of a party. This has served to further aggravate and trivialize our national siasa to the politics of personalities, and where revered people of means are elevated to divine status, personal cults are never very far behind. But then, one can argue that even where single or monopoly parties have held sway, personality cults have been known to take root. That, however, is beside the point herein. Such arguments may easily lead to cul-de-sac debates answers for which don’t exist as yet. Otherwise, how might one explain the growing from strength to strength of Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapenduzi despite having to deal with a far more complicated issue of the union, and the diminution and eventual demise of its Kenyan equal, the Kenya African National Union?

Be it as it may that the jury is out on the question above, there is no question that the institutionalization and entrenchment of party politics in the political culture of any society lends it continuity and a reference point of and/or for being a single but culturally diverse collective, and evolution as a nation-state; and gives stability to the political system, and the country by extension. The opposite doesn’t belabor the imagination by any stretch because that would be our story. That’s Kenya’s narrative of near collapse and utter disintegration in the face of multiple bifurcations of political parties. In the wake of atomized differences reigns confusion of identities up to and until they reach the bare minimum, ethnic identities, and parties that appeal to them.

There is, therefore, need to build the old broad-based traditional party with longevity as opposed to the next elections in mind. Although with its own woes, there is a lot to learn from South Africa’s African National Congress. It is not only a party with institutional memory but also acts as the reservoir of a people’s national memory of struggle and the promise that it held a hundred years ago as it still does today. I suppose if we were to do so, we have to start with the last place we saw that champion cockerel of independence, reviving it from its comma on issues and refurbishing it back to the reservoir of our collective memory and vehicle for pertinent agendas that have nothing to do with which ethnic group is in State House. (An entire ethnic group cannot and will never occupy that august house. Only one individual does so at any one time). Or we could just start on a clean slate and form real parties as opposed to personal fiefs.

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.