Kenya’s digital election, analogue politics – lessons from Rwanda



Kenya’s digital election, analogue politics


We had two contentious elections that turned out to be quite ordinary, the Western media came baying for blood in Kenya, hoping for a repeat of the 2007 violence. They were sorely disappointed when there were no massacres, they were quick to post old or staged pictures, and were often giving voice to incitement in the name of equality. In the end the result was not much in doubt, Uhuru had more tribes than Raila, it all comes down to tribes. The western media was always quick to point this out, but never asked why Kenyans are so tribal? It is just in their nature, in their primitiveness, or so they said in politically correct words. No one ever sees the real reason Kenya is tribal and has tribal leaders, it is not prejudice, it is how the system is set up. Kenyans do not have land titles to the land they live on, and even the ones who do have titles are worthless unless backed by political clout and money. Kenyans rely on tribal rights for access to land, apart from cities, in most rural areas land is still tribal. When you are going to visit a place in Kenya, you ask two questions. How far from Nairobi? Which tribe lives there? Politicians exploit this, band tribes together again other tribes in competition for land and access to government services. Forests are cleared to make new settlements, squatters are brought in as a new voter base, the politician has a hold of the people. It is not in the interests of the politicians to have land reforms, it would make them obsolete in minutes. Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are two of the richest tribal Oligarchs, Uhuru owns 50,000 kmsq of prime land, he’s the landlord.



Then there was the Rwanda election, a nice 98% win for the incumbent and a chorus of shock from elsewhere. How can I explain this 98%? Many in the media were saying it was intimidation, proof of oppression. The pro-Rwanda twitterati do a bad job in persuading doubters, they are believers, deep believers but cannot explain their faith. Rwandans like to believe first, then understand, so they can never explain themselves so they resort to insults and sarcasm. Never refuting the central point, and presenting their own point rationally. The jokes about Kikukiro which was labeled an enemy stronghold with only 3% voting otherwise, it showed politics is now a sport where we’re looking for a record score. In politics, like football, a win is a win, a 98-2 goal win still gets you 3 points, and you still go to training next morning. Faith is not the absence of doubt, it is going ahead despite your doubts. None of the analysts could explain the result. One said “it is a giant middle-finger” to the West. The West has invested billions of dollars in Rwanda, they don’t want to see their money lost. Most Rwandans, apart from the analysts, can separate Ken Roth from the “West” in general. The average Rwandan has immediate problems so they don’t have time for middle fingers.

I have a rational reason for Kagame’s win – land rights. Land rights were always at the heart of political crises in Rwanda, it was used a pretext for the genocide, and as a promised reward for killers. In 1954, the Umwami abolished the Feudal Ubuhake system, but it was futile to abolish feudalism without giving land titles to people. Into this feudal vacuum came tribal Hutu politicians, they cleared the forests and settled new people, and then organized the nation into strict communes. There was little movement allowed, even going from one commune to another required a stamped pass, the people were hostages to their feudal masters who benefitted from the situation. In order to get the support of the people, this government had to solve the land issue. Now most Rwandans own the land they live on, with a digital satellite image and coordinates. It was the biggest transfer and formalization of wealth we have ever had. The problem is not solved forever, land shortage will always be an issue, but the ownership issue is solved. Then you have the Hutu opposition outside wanting to bring back their old tribal politics, but people aren’t fooled, their power relied on communal ownership with feudal lords to distribute land in exchange for votes. If people already own their land, what is their purpose? They would most likely revoke the titles and hand out to their cronies.


So when we look at Kenya, their tribal politics, we understand it comes down to land usage. We have the populations in mini-tribal reserves, all reserves are in competition for government resources. This leads to Big Men, local people hype up their local demagogue to fight for their rights in Nairobi. The Big Man always disappoints, but reverts to tribal excuses as to why he failed. I asked a British journalist “What if Blair gave every Brit the land they live on? The houses they live in, even council or estates, free of charge, just as their right?” He would get all but the richest voters. What if Uhuru renounced his land and gave it free to the tenants, forever, not 10 year leases? Kenya’s land issue are deep, and precolonial even, Arabs in Oman owned the coast, then came white settlers who took prime Kikuyu land and dumped them elsewhere. After independence the issues were not solved and have been allowed to fester, resulting in occasional killings, massive internal displacement and the toxic politics we see. If any Kenyan president solved the land issue equitably, they could expect a win in the 90’s. Now the incumbent government becomes the guarantor of land ownership, and the opposition becomes a threat to ownership. That must be the reason why he won 98% because he did the impossible. No Rwandan can own over 25 hectares, you cannot grow a political base though tenants and squatters. So now our politics are about service delivery, not tribal grievances based on land disputes. External opposition must adapt or die, but they can’t change because they see the world differently to their former voters, who now see them as a threat.

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