Navigating the Politics of Fear

The campaign season enters its final leg and all Kenyans have become political analysts. Political power barons and their lackeys dominate the media space competing for eyeballs. We track their every move, tune in at the appointed hour to keep up with their engagements, like fans of a compelling reality TV show. We spend hours discussing their tactics, analysing the moves of our favourite political power barons flexing muscle at mammoth public rallies, exciting adoring masses with their mere presence.

These special ones, exalted by the offices they seek, hold audiences in a daze. On their large shoulders, our hopes and dreams hang. The young boys watching all this, in the innocence of youth, can only be enthralled with the amount of media consumed these days. It is expected. As a young boy growing up in the 80s, I believed that presidents were anointed by God.

I thought very highly of President Daniel Arap Moi in my preteen years. How could I harbour negative feelings for a man who provided free school milk? I was thrilled to have sang in a mass choir, matched past during a scouting parade and saluted my commander in chief at Nyayo stadium.

When I returned home after that memorable Madaraka day event, I told my father about the experience of seeing the president in close quarters. He listened keenly and did not ask a single question and acted like it was not a big deal. I suppose, I was enjoying the bliss of illusion and he did not want to puncture it with the pain of the truth. A new brand of political sycophancy had been normalised under the slogan of ‘fuata nyayo” or dissent at your own risk.

My father worked in the Ministry of Health and he was a career civil servant. I knew he held political opinions because he read the Weekly Review published by Hilary Ng’weno regularly. But he never discussed politics in the house.

It was a different time in the early 80s. Politics was a dangerous thing. People did not openly share their views especially if they were strong ones. In the year 1982, after the attempted August coup by Kenya Airforce officers, my innocence was shattered and I discovered that this thing they called politics was not to be taken for granted. I had an uncle in the 82’ Airforce and the concern for his safety would pledge the family for months before his acquittal.

It was the first time I came to realize that bad things could happen to good people because of politics.

But I lived in a bubble shielded by my parents from the harsh realities of Kenya that affected critics of the government after 1982. It was not until the early 90s as political agitation for multi-party rule increased and the dissent became open that I began to understand the influence of politics on everyday life.

Looking back, I marvel of how easy it was to become a foolish victim of deception in politics and that ignorance was indeed not bliss.

That last point was brought home, while I was in high school as the ethnic clashes erupted in Molo and Likoni and rogue militia began to emerge to chase out ‘outsiders.’ It was not reassuring to be in a boarding school where I was a tribal minority. My names marked me as an outsider and I quickly deduced that I was stereotyped as a threat. It was the first time I truly understood that I could lose my life for no other reason than I was from the wrong tribe, hanging out in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Elections in Kenya bring with them the cyclic threat of violence. Every five years, I go through some level of anxiety even as a seasoned social commentator. It can only be a traumatic event for children who are rudely exposed to the hypocrisy and savagery of political contests before they come of age. They learn that winning at all costs means someone must lose, often innocent bystanders who backed the wrong horse.

Children pick up their influences from observing their parents. They watch them hang on to the politicians’ every word, sieving the news broadcast for meaning like prophetic verses.

The child reading anxiety in parent’s voice, inherits a general distrust for the same politicians that their parents detest.  They believe that they have to choose a side largely informed by their ethnic extraction and base survival.

For the most part, we grow up to be our parents, inheriting the same prejudices and fears that our parents harboured. It becomes a case of classic conditioning when we remain unaware of inbred bigotries buried deep in our psyches. We have learned to associate elections with uncertainty. Young people, inherit the anxieties of their parents and regard competitive elective politics as a space of fear and violence.

Which is why, with every General election, Kenyan citizens despite their best intentions, seem to retreat to the banal cliché of tribal allegiance. In essence, we have been classically conditioned to respond to the politics of fear with every election.



Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Your analysis is partly true! I think right now though the majority of Kenyans are focusing on issues that affect them more than tribe. However, I can not completely deny there is an element of tribal politics in play. I don’t think it’s the major driving factor though.

    • The thing is John, across the tribes the fundamental social challenges are the same. The price of unga does not distinguish between ethnic or class lines. Only that come elections, we get distracted by tribal blame game and many seem entirely unable to analyses the social conditions objectively. As the political alignments show, tribe is still the guiding principle even when we claim it is not.

  2. Carlos Silale

    This has been ACCURATE AND HELPFUL, I can relate to this remembering my parents, and shockingly, how their opinions has shaped my political outlook. This is an eye opener..

  3. Good piece. I concur, it’s typical Kenyan to recede to our tribal cocoons come election period. In my neighbourhood, guys nowadays only drink in tribal oriented pubs.
    I must point out to you however, that not unless you are a member of the armed forces, the president isn’t your commander in chief. The Constitution is very clear on that.

    • Boy scouts need a commander in chief especially when you learn to march in step like armed forces. We called him the Chief Scout.

  4. The chief scout should fight the tribalism by example and it will trickle down to the boy scouts. Good piece OP.

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