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At the approach of the 2022 elections, and with every vote crucial, populist candidates from the major national political parties are appealing to pastoralist communities, especially those in rural areas. However, nothing substantive is promised would improve the well-being of these communities. Instead, candidates focus on programmes that are based on “individual well-being” and nothing at all on the “group rights” that are so critical to the livelihoods of the (historically marginalized) pastoralists, minorities and indigenous peoples.

Such framing could result in under-representation, inequality, and discrimination in policy and development processes. Pastoralists and other minorities should carefully interrogate the policies, strategies, and programmes of such leaders. They should be wary of candidates that are averse to the respect for pluralism. Most populists do not acknowledge the different conditions obtaining for certain segments of the population such as pastoralists. This is even when the constitution recognizes the same. They would rather see pastoralists’ social-economic challenges through the same lens as that with which they view other Kenyan social-cultural groups. This demeans the constitutional prescription that the historical marginalization of groups that depend on group-based livelihoods requires special interventions such as affirmative action programmes.

Rising Populist appeals

Populist appeals by Kenyan politicians have a rich history. Since independence in 1963, populist appeals have been variously employed by politicians during election periods to mobilize support from rural and urban poor. J.M Kariuki and Bildad Kagia are known to have taken sides with the “marginalised poor” against the corrupt elite; the two were up against the confluence of economic, and political power (in Kenyatta and his close co-ethnics) which had rendered redistributive policies unworkable. More recently, populist overtures by presidential candidates target segments of the voting population such as the pastoralist communities of northern Kenya and other ethnic minorities or marginalized groups, including those that self-identify as indigenous peoples.

While seemingly persuasive programmatic promises have been liberally made by populist candidates to Kenyans in general, pastoralists and other minority groups are beginning to realize the inability of political parties to respond to their issues. To them, parties have yet to become effective agents of democracy, national development, and national cohesion. Instead, major parties only articulate the communal and personal interests of their respective leaders.

Personal interests are therefore conflated with communal or ethnic interests. Usually, substantive issues and interests of pastoralists and other minorities are merely glossed over, if not altogether ignored. For instance, in spite of comprehensive and authoritative economic, social, cultural, and political records of historical injustices that have for decades been visited upon the pastoralists of the north and other minorities, politicians hardly address these issues on the campaign trail and no mention is made of how the recommendations of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission and other offices could be implemented.

Even as drought continues to ravage northern Kenya, leading to massive deaths of people and livestock, little has been heard from the various presidential candidates in terms of remedial and developmental programmes for the region. That is, with the exception of Democratic Party leader, Justin Muturi, who, during the inauguration of his campaign, promised to develop a “Marshal Plan” for northern Kenya once elected.

Local politicians have not been any better at profiling the needs of pastoralists in their parties or national platforms. Mohammed Guleid, CEO of Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC) noted that: “Unfortunately, the political class, even those from the hardest-hit regions who are supposed to lobby for more intervention from the government, are lazing and drinking cappuccino in fancy Nairobi hotels,” adding that the “Majority of them are hanging around presidential candidates who seem not to have any feelings for the dire situation. The country is in an election mood and politicians don’t care about the plight of the pastoralists.”

It is noteworthy that nothing substantive seems to come of the closeness pastoralist leaders enjoy with the various major party leaders and prospective presidential candidates. While leaders from other regions are cutting substantive “deals” with other national parties and presidential candidates, northern Kenya leaders are presiding over internal/intra-regional incoherence and fragmentation. This has substantially weakened advocacy struggles towards more inclusive, representative, and democratic norms and structures for the political participation of the marginalized. Perhaps it is for this reason that Guleid saw the need for the region to have a spokesperson that could better project and protect the interests of northern Kenya pastoralists.

Alienating minorities

The political parties only reflect the approach of many previous governments where policies were designed and implemented to fit all social-cultural groups irrespective of their different circumstances, leading to greater marginalization for some groups. In this respect, the dominant political parties have demonstrated their inability to positively respond to minority demands. For this reason, minority groups are slowly but increasingly becoming conscious of the need to re-calibrate their advocacy work, particularly through civil society.

At another level, and as a default mechanism, minorities are beginning to form their own parties. In effect, when the political paths through which to channel their demands are blocked, minorities and indigenous peoples resort to more radical mobilizations. Advocacy occasionally turns into armed movements. The refusal of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico to form a relationship with any political party or to participate in electoral processes, clearly demonstrates this trend. The Biafra insurrection in 1967 Nigeria and the recent Pwani Si Kenya movement of the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) at the Kenyan coast are indicative of this trend.

It is noteworthy that nothing substantive seems to come of the closeness pastoralist leaders enjoy with the various major party leaders and prospective presidential candidates.

The insignificance of the issues of pastoralists and minorities is best demonstrated by their minimal interaction with major political parties and candidates during the campaigns compared with other segments of the Kenyan population/groups and regions. Very few campaign rallies have been held in pastoralist areas such as Moyale, Mandera, Samburu, or Turkana.

Research by Pewresearch.org in 2016 showed that nearly half of Kenyans had attended a campaign rally. Yet, in reality, pastoralists in the north have had fewer encounters with presidential candidates compared to other regions. This is because fewer rallies have been organised in their regions. Leaders from pastoralist areas may occasionally be compelled to fund such campaign forums themselves. Otherwise, occasionally, delegations of leaders from the north appear not to have much choice but to converge on Nairobi, often at the invitation of the national patrons.

Given the history of populist presidential candidates and parties ignoring pastoralists’ issues and interests, even in cases where agreements have been reached through pre-election negotiations, it behoves pastoralists from northern Kenya, and other marginalized groups, to studiously interrogate the politics, strategies, programmes, and campaign and leadership styles of populist candidates to determinate their alignment with their substantive issues and interests before voting for them. This should include exploring how pastoralists and other minorities should engage with the candidates or craft a new path for future advocacy if need be. Otherwise, all the invitations they receive from populist candidates to vote for them will be just an invitation to further marginalization and discrimination.