After accepting his nomination as the presidential candidate of the main opposition coalition recently, Raila Odinga likened himself to Joshua, the biblical figure who led the Jews to the Promised Land.
Odinga was appealing to people disaffected with the performance of the Jubilee government. But he was also appealing to the religious sensibilities of the Kenyan electorate where Christianity has a strong presence.
Religion is omnipresent in Kenya. The line between religion and politics is often thin. This is well illustrated by the fact that gospel music serves as an important vehicle for political mobilisation. Most of the National Super Alliance’s campaign rallies feature a rendering of the popular gospel song “Mambo yabadilika” (things are a-changing).
Odinga, as well as President Uhuru Kenyatta who is seeking re-election under the Jubilee Party in the August 8 polls, have sought to endear themselves to the main religious communities. Kenyatta even had members of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, the National Muslim Leaders Forum and the Jamia Mosque visit State House where they pledged their support for his re-election bid. Religion and politics are entwined, each to some extent complicit in the providential authority of the other.
Odinga and Kenyatta aren’t alone. In their quest for the votes of the religious constituencies, all political aspirants have sought to present themselves as people of faith.
But other equally important dynamics shape political relationships in Kenya. Religious symbols operate cheek by jowl with what political scientist Jean Francis Bayart has referred to as the “politics of the belly”. A third factor makes for an even headier mix – ethnic affiliations. Combined, these three factors distort democracy, and the way in which elections are run in the country.
On a recent visit to western Kenya during the party primaries I was struck by how voters’ actively sought cash handouts from politicians. And there is no shortage of candidates ready to offer money to the electorate as an inducement to vote for them. A young man who gave me a ride on his motor cycle taxi spoke with pride about his busy schedule these days – “eating campaign money” by night and working by day.
Elderly men and women were seated along village lanes looking out for election candidates who might offer them “something small.” They were open to offers from whichever politician turned up. The amounts they got ranged from around 100 shillings ($1) to 1,000 shillings ($10), often not enough even to feed a family for a day. But the money counts for a lot in the context of extreme poverty.
I also attended an election campaign rally in which a candidate presented what seemed to be a well thought out blueprint for the development of his local ward. At the conclusion of the presentation, one person in the audience broke the silence with a bold demand for more tangible results:
That is enough speech-making, can you now talk to us?
“Talking to us” was easily understood to mean that it was time to give cash gifts to seal the bond.
Demands like this are not unusual during election campaigns in Kenya. They have been a regular feature of elections as long as anyone can remember. One can only imagine what this year’s campaign will be like on the back of a severe drought that has deepened inflation and led to economic hardships.
Building a democratic culture in the context of extreme hardships is a big challenge. As in many African countries undergoing democratic transitions amid conditions of high poverty, economic circumstances hinder or dissuade people from participation in the political process.
So what’s the relationship between religion and handouts? They interact and influence each other in myriad ways. Politicians distribute goods for the bellies of their clients in return for political loyalty. In this context democracy as a competitive process in which citizens freely elect their leaders is thrown out of the window.
The Kenyan Muslim leaders’ assurances of support for Kenyatta needs to understood against this background. The leaders – hint, hint – expressed gratitude to the president for
appointing the highest number of Cabinet secretaries and Principal Secretaries from the (Muslim) community.
A common pattern of religious accommodation in post-colonial East African states has been documented. Reflecting trends in Kenya, various religious groups have worked with governments and parties, irrespective of their political philosophies and ideologies.
It is also important to locate religion and politics in Africa within the broader context of ethnicity which has been sustained, and even strengthened, through the political distribution of goods and wealth.
The logic here is not based on universal ideas of human rights and citizenship but rather on networks of tribal patronage and clientilism. Politicians offer their ethnic clients certain material and symbolic gestures such as invocation of tribe, money, jobs in exchange for political support. It is an insecure means of organising support, admittedly, and one that is constantly at risk of corrupt indulgence in order to fund private benefit.
Thus Bayart’s politics-of-the-belly casts a long shadow on the deployment of culture in African states. It demonstrates that religion has followed patterns established by the politics of ethnicity in which merit and common good does not matter.
The current campaign confirms these various forms of symbolic and symbiotic relationships within Kenyan politics. Religious services and rhetoric, money tokens and ethnicity are an integral part of the political system. They will likely again be the main influence in the coming election.