We need to stop calling people who missed their party nominations independent candidates. They are not. They are opportunists. There is a famous quote by the Roman philosopher Seneca that says “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”, meaning that there is no such thing as luck; we make our own luck. This election year, we have observed several people step up to the mantle and grab opportunity by the horns.
The Office of the Registrar of Political Parties has recorded an all-time high number of independent candidates, approximately reaching 4,000. In 2013, we only had five independent candidates vying for elective positions. This time round, we have up to 18 candidates vying for the presidency on an independent ticket. This sudden shift is historic in Kenya’s political climate. But what does it really mean?
Kenya has been a nation that selects leaders based on party and, by extension, ethnic affiliation. We may not quite know the difference between manifestos, but the characteristic nature of the party is something that individuals choose to identify with. We love seeing party colours, wear clothes that match the colours of the party that we support and every election year, there is a campaign song that becomes a hit. Parties are important to the people. But when parties grow bigger in Kenya, they become little kingdoms.
And in our case, these kingdoms have one structure in place: a monarchy. Our political parties are owned by families or ethnic groups and if you are not in the bloodline it becomes difficult to manoeuvre without the approval of the majesty. This is not a secret. What is interesting is the fact that nepotism has become an accepted part of our culture, it is normalised. The corruption has also become a part of larger party structures. People are beginning to realise that it is expensive but worse still, unpredictable.
If you have not been ordained to serve a particular community, then forget trying to fight fair and square. A particular independent candidate vying for MP in Emgwen Constituency said, “Why would you pay the high nomination fees to belong to a particular party only to find that you have been rigged out of the race?”
Then arises the alternative, or so we hope. For a country of up to 40 million people, we have approximately 70 political parties (and counting). It is not that difficult to form a political party in Kenya, it is actually a bit trickier to file and pay your taxes. Belonging to a political party has proven to have conditions that have become expensive, time wasting and not very beneficial.
First off, many parties remain dormant once an election is complete. Doors remain open but there is barely life in their grounds until an election year approaches, then it becomes a beehive of activity. When the majority of our political parties are briefcase agencies, going independent is enticing. Could this be the slow death of larger political parties? The majority of them survive due to membership fees.
However, are our candidates really independent? I have come across very intelligent aspirants speak about why they chose to vie independent. For the majority of them, fighting for a party ticket through a large party was just too competitive and the battles are simply not fair. They complain about how their parties have no structures yet in the same breath talk about how they support a certain candidate for president. Then continue to explain how it is difficult to really be independent. You have to pledge your allegiance to one of the two king parties. “Our people do not quite understand what an independent is” an independent MCA aspirant narrated to me. I wonder if they are aware that it can be viewed as campaigning, and they could actually lose their independent seat on that accusation legally.
On the flip side, when party hopping was banned within a certain period, we did not predict the influx of independent candidates. What we have here is a statement: Independent candidates show us that they have grown tired of the political elite class that feels that they belong in power.
It is not about winning, it has never been. It is a change in direction. When a ship sets sail for a long distance journey, we focus to look at the captain who controls the helm.
The captain makes several smooth turns in the wavy waters, controlling the comparatively small rudder underneath the water, which forces the ship to gradually turn. Independent candidates are our helm, we have to wait and see where the rudder will sail us.
Nerima Wako is the executive director of Siasa Place.