Queuing to vote in Kenya's last general election. In a survey, when asked to describe the political party they dislike the most, 59% said it was because that other party was tribal.

Kenya’s Tyranny Of Numbers: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy If There Ever Was One

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KENYA is almost in full election mode right now, with less than a year to go to a general election in which President Uhuru Kenyatta will be defending his seat.

Like all sitting presidents, he has the benefit of incumbency – we at Africapedia recently put a number on it: incumbents have lost power outright in only 15% of election contests in Africa since 1960.

But one thing that sets Kenyan politics apart in the past fifteen years is the quick rise and fall of political parties – even for incumbents. Since the long-ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) was ejected from power in 2002, a president is elected on new party ticket every election cycle, and this time it will be no different.

Last month, President Kenyatta launched the Jubilee Party to great fanfare, an ode to unity that is supposed to banish “tribalism”; in 2013 he stood on The National Alliance (TNA) party.


Shifting alliances are the bane of multiparty politics in Kenya, driven by what is understood to be a kind of “tribal arithmetic” – no single ethnic group can win the presidency alone, thus all are forced to calculate their allegiances in such a way as to maximise the chances of winning power.

The subtext is a presumption that Kenyans vote as tribal blocks, the (in)famous “tyranny of numbers”. Election results seem to confirm this, and the political discourse certainly frames it so. But it deserves more interrogation.

Do Kenyans really vote according to ethnic identities? If they do, why? Which Kenyans vote according to ethnic identities, and which ones are more swayed by talk of manifestos and development plans? And are there overlapping identities, shifting allegiances in the mind of the individual voter, that actually mirror the musical chairs on the national stage?

Data from a probability sample survey conducted in December 2007 gives us a hint of nuance in voting behaviour, in a landscape that is said to be a homogenous, undisputable “game of numbers”. The survey results were published as a working paper by Afrobarometer, authored by Michael Bratton and Mwangi S. Kimenyi.

To see how Kenyans see themselves, respondents were asked for a self-ascribed group identity. The question was phrased like this: “We have spoken to many Kenyans and they have all described themselves in different ways. Some people describe themselves in terms of their language, ethnic group, race, religion or gender; and others describe themselves in economic terms, such as working class, middle class or a farmer. Besides being Kenyan, which specific group do you feel you belong to first and foremost?”

The results may not be what you might expect – just one in five (20%) Kenyans opted for an ethnic identity, ascribing to clan, tribe, or language.

More than twice as many (43%) chose non-ethnic identities, notably those based on occupation, social class, gender or religion.

Importantly, more than a third (37%) of respondents disregarded the interviewers instruction to discount their “Kenyan” identity in answering the question, and insisted on identifying themselves first and foremost as Kenyans, that is, in terms of national identity.

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So how does the tyranny of numbers work exactly, then, if 80% of Kenyans do not prioritise their ethnic identity?

The data shows that although Kenyans downplay ethnicity when portraying themselves, they are less charitable in their assessments of fellow citizens. The data revealed that Kenyans do not easily trust others who hail from ethnic groups other than their own (just 8% said they trust people from other communities “a lot”).

They also think that political conflict is all too common among people of different ethnic backgrounds; 46% of Kenyans consider that violent conflicts occur “often” or “always” among different groups in the country.


Most importantly in explaning the “tyranny of numbers” phenomenon, they worry that other Kenyans tend to organise politically along exclusive ethnic lines, and to govern in discriminatory way. When asked to describe the political party they dislike the most, 59% said it was because that other party was tribal.

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The result is that people – including those who self-identify as “Kenyan” – tend to vote defensively in ethnic blocs.

They do not need to be primarily motivated by their own ethnic origins in order to behave in this way, the researchers say; they only need fear that their opponents will rely on the formula of ethnic exclusivity.

In other words, as much as many people would like to escape it on a personal level, other people in Kenya are the ones who are incorrigible tribalists.

Ethnic favouritism is believed to be the rule, which means one end up losing out in access to resources (or “development”) if they ignore this in their voting calculations, even though privately they truly believe tribalism is wrong — a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

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