Future leaders

Nairobi University is one of the most prestigious in East Africa. The annual elections for the representative council are serious events. For an outsider the campaign posters seem standard electoral fare. Scratch the surface and it becomes clear that what happens in student halls echoes that which happens in East Africa’s national halls of power.

At the peak of the campaign I found myself sitting in a dorm with two Nairobi University student friends. Without notice, a troupe of six men invited themselves in and took a seat on one of the beds.

The campaign team shook the hands of myself and my five local friends in silence. They sat on the bed so closely that their cheap suits became ruffled. Our conversation was quashed. Campaigning began.

The smallest member of the group made his opening statement with ceremony. ‘Ladies … and gentlemen, this is our presidential candidate.’ The chap just beyond the end of the spokesman’s finger sat in a silver tie—a 20-year-old trying to act like an older statesman.

‘We are standing for the student elections because we represent the new Kenya. We represent the young Kenyans who want to overcome tribal divisions and to vote for a leader who will represent all tribes. Our vision is to make student politics at Nairobi University the model for the national assembly.’

My friends ‘oohed’ and gave approving nods to one another and the spokesperson at appropriate intervals. When the monologue was complete one of my friends spoke on behalf of the group.

‘We think it is right that the elections be fought along lines of merit not tribe. This is a good thing to see in our potential representatives.’

After fielding some questions on the mute leader’s behalf, the spokesman rallied his troops and thanked us for our time. ‘We can count on your vote, right?’ The room was unanimous, their vote was won. The would-be council president shook our hands again and left.

The door had barely closed when my friends began their hysterical chatter.

‘Beyond tribal lines? It will never work.’

‘How can they say they will overcome such things? Everyone knows a Kikuyu will win.’

‘It is so stupid that he comes in and says this. It is so obvious that they are Luo and who would vote in a Luo for council?’

As we walked out of the dorm room we passed the line of campaign posters. My host walked by each one and named the tribe of the candidates. He stopped briefly at the poster for the inevitable winner, a Kikuyu.

This pattern is not unique to students nor universities nor politics. In Tanzanian hotels and hostels, guests from all over the globe are asked to sign in with their name, passport number, postal address and tribe. This, in turn, leads to a list of non-Africans defining themselves either by Scottish heritage or sports fanaticism (I had no idea that Manchester United was a tribe).

So dominant is tribalism in East African life that eminent Kenyan orator, P.L.O. Lumumba recently noted, ‘Kenyans need to start questioning themselves. Are we really Kenyan?’ Who in Kenya affiliates with nation before tribe? The answer is, few. Ask a Kenyan about themselves and tribe will come soon after their name.
For many, tribe defines your role. For most Kenyan voters too, tribe is ideology.

The issue of tribal labels would not be so important if each tribe was not associated with a stereotype, my Nairobi University friend explained to me.

Kikuyus run businesses and hold political power. Look no further than two of the three presidents of Kenya; current president Kibaki and founding president Kenyatta whose son currently leads in the polls for the 2007 election.

Kalenjin make the best runners and look after their own. The revelation last month that former president Moi was receiving half of all profits from the largest financial scandal in Kenyan history, known as ‘Goldenburg’, confirmed this.

Luo want power but should never have it. They are said to be arrogant and articulate. Akamba are rumoured to be promiscuous and the world-famous Masai should be left to tend their nomadic herds and pull in the tourist dollars.

So established are these stereotypes that I have had conversations with colleagues about non-African counterparts who, according to locals, ‘would be’ a Kikuyu or Luo or Turkana or any of the other 42 Kenyan tribes, ‘if he/she were a Kenyan.’

From a distance, this may seem undemocratic but harmless. However, pick up any African paper and you will see the consequence of the divisions. Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda or Burundi. Fur and Arabs in Sudan. Even in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal region, the most recent elections demonstrated that Zulu and Xhosa vote, in part, along tribal lines.

With this backdrop, one can only admire the silver-tied aspirant at Nairobi University. If only he was Kikuyu.




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