“We are tired,” said Gedeon Kipyator, a 45-year-old father of six who sells newspapers in the middle of Nairobi, his eyes red and several days’ of stubble on his chin.
“It’s a repeat of the two families’ competition, the Kenyatta and the Odinga. Yes, we are balkanized and divided,” he said. “We cannot continue like this, otherwise we will not have a country anymore!”
In an editorial at the weekend, The Nation newspaper pleaded for “an inclusive system that gives everyone a chance to access state resources and participate in decision-making, where one is not defined largely by ethnic or racial extraction.”
Since independence in 1963, three of Kenya’s four presidents have come from the Kikuyu ethnic group. The other was Kalenjin.
Elected in 2013, the current incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta is Kikuyu, as was his father Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president.
As Kenya’s biggest ethnic grouping, the Kikuyus have also wielded a monopoly on economic power ahead of the Luhya, the Kalenjin and the Luos.
– ‘Exhausted’ –
Such dominance has generated a growing sense of frustration in other communities, particularly among the Luo of veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga, 72, who successfully challenged the August reelection of Kenyatta, overturning his victory and forcing a fresh ballot which is slated to take place on Thursday.
That election was Odinga’s fourth failed bid to secure the presidency following previous efforts in 1997, 2007 and 2013. Following the 2007 election, politically-driven ethnic tensions exploded into months of violence which left at least 1,100 dead.
Despite recent advances in Kenya, an economic powerhouse seen as the most democratic country in the east Africa, it remains riddled with corruption and persistent social inequalities due to geography and the ethnic distribution.
And with Kenyan society also polarised along tribal lines, the fight for power becomes brutal at election time.
For weeks, the country has been plunged into an unprecedented impasse following the Supreme Court’s September 1 decision to annul Kenyatta’s reelection, with Kenyans now called to vote again in a ballot that Odinga has vowed to boycott.
“Many Kenyans are exhausted by the extended election drama, one that already has damaged the economy and further polarised the country,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report earlier this week.
– ‘Arrogant leaders’ –
Some Kenyans told AFP they would not vote if the election goes ahead as planned on Thursday, not only because of Odinga’s absence but because they were disgusted by the increasingly toxic political climate which has seen politicians exchanging a barrage of insults, threats and populist rhetoric.
And the constant U-turns and confused messages issued by Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition has also put off voters.
“Whenever we come to elections, we start to fight,” complained Odhiambo, a 48-year-old Luo businessman chatting with friends in a Nairobi street.
“We say we are a digital (economy), that we are the first democracy in Africa but our leaders are cheating us! What kind of example is this for our children?”
Standing next to him, retired civil servant Paul Assila said he was very worried.
“We are going backwards, the constitution is being disregarded,” said this 79-year-old Luhya.
“Our leaders… are so arrogant… they fly with choppers and they don’t have the interests of the common man at heart.”
– Debunking the myth –
In an unprecedented first, many Kikuyu experts and activists have recently called to end the monopoly on power by their ethnic group in a bid to increase democracy.
“My call to the Kikuyu people is that we need to debunk the myth that we can only be safe in this country with a Kikuyu president,” human rights lawyer Njonjo Mue told AFP.
“It is actually a call to strengthen institutions which would make all Kenyans safe, regardless of who occupies State House at a particular time,” he said.
Sprawled on a bench in the city centre, Edward Irungu, a 31-year-old Kikuyu, is desperate to see the situation return to “normal” and to be able to work again.
“I’m a Kikuyu and having a Kikuyu president doesn’t help me,” grumbled this young technician, saying the crisis had brought everything to a “standstill”.
“What helps me is to have a president that will make me happy to live in Kenya, who will give me development.”
He’s not alone in wanting better leaders and Mulinge Mwende, a 29-year-old bank worker has a good idea for how to go about it.
“I think people need to vet… (those) who are going to be nominated to become the president through a series of interviews and checks of what they have done on the ground, their background,” says Mwende, who has striking red freckles and comes from the Kamba tribe.
Look at Coke Studio, she says, referring to a popular TV talent show where singers and dancers face brutal competition to reach the final and that for a sport which “doesn’t harm anyone”.
“But politicians, they are going to affect us and the future generations with their policies, so we need to vet them!”