On Wednesday, January 11, the National Super Alliance (Nasa) launched. The alliance is made up of the member parties of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord) – the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga, Wiper Democratic Movement of Kalonzo Musyoka and the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford)-Kenya led by Moses Wetang’ula – and the Amani National Congress led by Musalia Mudavadi. Also at the launch, but not a member of the alliance, was the secretary general of the Kenya African Union (Kanu), Nick Salat.
Nasa will be taking on the Jubilee Party – which itself started out as an alliance between The National Alliance (TNA) of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) – in the August election.
Every election season in Kenya brings about a new ‘super’ alliance, a new catchy name (remember the National Rainbow Coalition?), and a fresh promise of change.
The names behind the coalitions, however, remain the same and the ethnic loyalties they promise to deliver to the coalitions in the form of votes do not change.
To Kenya’s political elite, it would seem, the masses are a commodity to be divided along ethnic lines, branded and sold.
Mr Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, controls the Kikuyu vote and he has promised to share their votes with Mr Ruto who will deliver the Kalenjin vote for the Jubilee Party. In exchange, Mr Kenyatta will deliver the Kikuyu vote for Mr Ruto when he runs for the presidency in 2022.
On the opposition side, Mr Odinga provides Nasa with the Luo vote while Mr Mudavadi supplies the Luhya vote – he was declared spokesman for the Luhya community on December 31: a position and idea rejected by Mr Wetang’ula who was also in the running.
This may seem like an oversimplification. Breaking down a country into ethnic groups and then doing the maths appears cynical and condescending. Surely Kenyans vote according to issues and not simply along tribal lines, one may interject.
Unfortunately, evidence suggests voting along ethnic lines remains the way the game is played.
Research by Michael Bratton and Mwangi Kimenyi – from Michigan State University and the University of Connecticut, respectively – in 2008 showed that: “Although Kenyans resist defining themselves in ethnic terms, their actions in making electoral choices show a country where voting patterns hew largely to ethnic lines. Respondents also show a high degree of mistrust of members of other ethnic groups and consider the behaviour of these other groups to be influenced primarily by ethnicity. In general, voting in Kenya is therefore defensively and fundamentally an ethnic census”. The intervening nine years have done little to change this dynamic.
The ethnic fault lines of Kenya are well known, and the need to overcome them is well understood. At the launch of the Jubilee Party in September Mr Kenyatta emphasised that the party would unify Kenyans across ethnic lines. At the launch of Nasa similar claims of being a unifying force were made.
But these are the public pronouncements – saying what is supposed to be said. You need to listen for the dog whistle politics to hear the real messages.
Here is an example from Mr Ruto on January 10 appealing to his Kalenjin constituency (commodity): “You have a stake in the Jubilee government, and there is no other alternative party. You must rally your supporters to the last person to vote for President Kenyatta… We need political goodwill in 2022 after President Kenyatta finishes his second term. There is no way I will receive backing from other communities, including the people of Central Kenya, if we do not put all our votes in one basket” (reported by Standard Media).
The “we” here is not all Kenyans but the Kalenjins, while “other communities” is the Kikuyu.
The launch of Nasa is positive in that it will make the August election more competitive, and a competitive election (without violence) is better than a foregone conclusion for democratic development.
However, it is not a game changer. A game changer would be a party that campaigned on issues that cut across the country’s fault lines; a party that lasted more than a couple of electoral cycles. Nasa campaigns against corruption which they would argue is a cross-cutting issue, but it is really just a way of labelling the Jubilee government as ‘bad’.
Until a new generation of political leaders arises, it is simply going to be the same old wine in new bottles.
Attention will now shift to who the presidential candidate of the alliance will be. It is likely to be Mr Odinga, but even if there is a surprise on this front, it is unlikely to make too much of a difference.
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