Talking about Elections in Northern Kenya

An anthropologist recalls a conversation with three older women as they reflected on their experiences of electoral politics past and present.

“What politics have people of nowadays seen; it’s only eaters putting on a show,” Bokayo Jillo Tukena tells me, commenting on Kenya’s impending general election. To her, contemporary politics is merely about self-aggrandizement and the plunder of public resources. If one wanted to talk real politics, serious politics, one had to look to the past.

On an unusually warm July afternoon in 2017, I arrived at the house of Bokayo Jillo Tukena and her co-wife Bor Jillo Tukena in Manyatta Jillo, a village northeast of Marsabit town. Manyatta Jillo is reached through a dusty, brown dirt road off the newly tarmacked Marsabit–Moyale highway, which also connects Nairobi to Addis Ababa.The Jillo Tukena family have resided in the village since its establishment in the early 1960s. In fact, the manyatta (Kiswahili for village) is named after Jillo Tukena, the chief of the Borana from the late colonial period well into the post-independence era. The government of Kenya set up the village during the Shifta War insurgency (1963–968) as a policy to protect civilians from attack by insurgents (see Whittaker 2012 for an account of this villagization policy). Subsequently, the previously nomadic pastoralists remained in Manyatta Jillo and other such villages, and so began a process of long-term settlement.

Photograph of a crowd holding signs.
Image description: A large crowd stands together. In the foreground, a number of women stand with their backs to the camera, holding wooden signs with images of a political candidate on them. 
Caption: Women attending a campaign rally in Marsabit, Kenya, 2017.
Hassan Kochore

During my PhD fieldwork in 2017–2018, I was a frequent visitor at Bokayo and Bor’s house. As well as talking to them for my research, their hospitality and house offered a quiet resting place after a busy day of fieldwork in theirs and adjacent villages before I embarked on the long walk back into town. It was always quite cool in their earthen-walled house, with a cool breeze flowing through the back window. Bor, in her early seventies and the younger and chattier of the pair, often excitedly asked for “news of the town” as soon as I arrived. Bokayo, in contrast, often let things settle a bit and finished the task in hand before joining a conversation. On this particular afternoon, Midina Jaldessa, a contemporary and neighbor, also joined us a few moments after my arrival. She was “just visiting,” and so stayed on for a while for some chat.

With the Kenyan general elections only a few weeks away, the whole village and town were a hive of campaign activities. Campaign posters were plastered everywhere: on walls, trees, and in people’s houses as well. Cars mounted with loudspeakers and bodaboda (motorbike taxis) played loud campaign music throughout most of the day.

In our conversation that afternoon, Bokayo, Bor, and Midina spoke about participation in politics and what Bokayo calls “things from when they were still people,” as if to suggest now that she is too old, that she has ceased to be a person. Their stories of local and personal participation in electoral politics past and present offer a small window into the experiences and place of women and the North in national politics and the state.

Brief historical background

For most of the colonial period in Kenya (1890s–1963), only whites and Asians and a few Africans were considered to have “the necessary qualifications” to vote. By the 1950s, however, secret ballot and adult suffrage became features of British colonial rule in Africa (see Willis, Lynch, and Cheeseman 2018). The Legislative Council of Kenya (1907–1963), or LEGCO, was the unicameral legislature in The Colony and Protectorate of Kenya. The first elections in which Africans voted for their own representatives in the LEGCO was in 1957, six years before independence. Before that, the British colonial governor appointed the few African representatives. The whole of the Northern Frontier District (NFD) comprising six districts and covering about half of Kenya’s land mass had only one representative in the LEGCO, essentially representing just one of the six districts. The region was generally excluded from the mainstream political arena and residents mainly left to their own devices. From the outset, the Outlying District Ordinance declared the whole of the NFD a “closed district” and prohibited persons from entering or leaving it without the permission of the provincial commissioner. This was mainly for purposes, inter alia, of securitization and depoliticization. Subsequently, from 1948 a ban was imposed on any form of “political activity” in the NFD. For most of the 1950s, the authorities worked to keep the region quiet and away from outside affairs, especially in the context of the Mau Mau insurgency in the “White Highlands” of central Kenya.

“Have you heard of gaaf chama?”

My interlocutors emphasized that politics came to northern Kenya in the gaaf chama, a combination of the local Borana language word “gaaf,” meaning era, and the Kiswahili national language word “chama,” meaning politics. The gaaf chama was in the early 1960s when the British conducted a referendum in the NFD on the future of the region as part of the constitutional process leading to independence. “Have you heard of gaaf chama’?” asked Bokayo. “No,” she added quickly, “because you’re a very young man.” She went on to summarize it quite nicely for me:

Gaaf Chama nama hagi tok Safarat gal ed,
During the era of political parties, some people said they wanted to join Somalia,

Borani Marsabiti nu Kenya feen jed, Safaraf Rendillti Somalit gal et.
the Borana of Marsabit said they wanted to remain in Kenya, Somali and Rendille said they wanted to join Somalia.

Chamaan ken NPUA edan; ka Safaratif Boran Waso NPPPP.
Our party was NPUA; that of the Somali and Waso Borana, NPPPP.

Bokayo, Bor, and Midina nostalgically broke into old political campaign songs that capture the zeitgeist of the time. One of the popular ones recounts the bravery of a fierce Marsabit Borana woman politician, Bahti Kochore, who apparently whipped the chairperson of the NPPPP, Wako Happi of Isiolo, as a gesture of public humiliation when he came for a rally to Marsabit. In a deeply patriarchal society like that of the Borana and many pastoralists of northern Kenya, for a man to be whipped by a woman was considered great humiliation, especially so for the chair of a political party. However, the more overarching story from that era is that of local boy, Daudi Dabasso Wabera. Bokayo remembered that he was one of the first local children to be enrolled in school: “Wabera was one of the first children of Borana to be taken to school by a ferenji (white man) called Mirta. The Borana did not want their children to go to school and so started cursing Mirta for tethering the children away. The children were needed for looking after the cattle.” As a result, very few Borana children ended up in school. Yet despite initial resistance to schooling, Bokayo and others were quite pleased with how Wabera and some of the other educated children turned out.

The long-lasting images of campaigns are processes dominated by relatively younger men and brokered by old men.

In 1945, at the age of only 19, Dabasso Wabera was hired as a tax clerk by the colonial administration in Marsabit . He later served in other positions outside the district but was always keen on a political career in his hometown of Marsabit. In the late 1950s, he tried to garner support for nomination to the LEGCO to represent the interests of NFD communities, but later abandoned the plan partly because of the political apathy of the people of Marsabit district. The anthropologist Paul Baxter wrote that during his fieldwork in Marsabit (1951–1953), Wabera was “a man of charm and intellectual ability” (1966, 34). Wabera was an outstanding character for his own community as well; his story is central to many Borana individuals’ life histories as far as their engagement with Kenyan politics is concerned. Midina Jaldessa remembers that Wabera was an influential local leader in the 1950s, as were a few chiefs such as Jillo Turkena of the Marsabit Borana and Galma Dido of the Waso Borana, and that the Borana looked up to him.

Wabera provided great leadership as the Borana navigated a world of colonialism and, later, independence. As the district commissioner in Isiolo during gaaf chama, he was one of the Kenyan loyalists (allied to the later ruling party Kenya African National Union) tasked with convincing his people to choose to remain a part of Kenya in the coming referendum. But he was assassinated on June 28, 1962, at the height of the campaigns for and against secessionism in the NFD. Murdered alongside him was the senior chief of Waso Borana, Hajj Galma Dido.

Wabera’s demise, according to Bor, Bokayo, and Midina, extinguished the political hopes and expectations of a generation of residents of Marsabit and northern Kenya. They talked of a “missed future” of strong representation of the North in Kenyan national politics:

Yo gafas Dabasson inhijesiin, Borani sila yafagaat gar sirkal Kenya.
If Dabasso Wabera had not been killed at the time, the Borana would have gone far through the ranks of the Kenyan government.

Ijjechaan issa, waan guddo nudowart. Fina gar Kenya
His killing denied us a big thing, in the [political] life of Kenya.”

This observation is not unique to northern Kenya. The Kenya scholar Daniel Branch has shown how politics and elections in the 1950s “brought to the fore a generation of politicians who dominated the postcolonial Kenyan landscape” (2006, 29). This is something that was also articulated by my interlocutors as they spoke about Dabasso Wabera. Had he made it to the LEGCO, or even come out alive into an independent Kenya, he would arguably have made it to the top echelons of Kenyan politics and governance. Although that trajectory was cut short, he left deep memories in public life that still animated local politics and conversation with the three women.

More elections

“Have you heard of gaaf chama’?” asked Bokayo. “No,” she added quickly, “because you’re a very young man.”

Due to the insurgency in the North that followed Kenyan independence, the region’s relationship with central government has been fraught at best. Although the 1962 plebiscite on the future of northern Kenya showed northerners’ overwhelming support for seceding to Somalia, that wish was denied by the incoming independent government with the complicity of the British. The resulting insurgency lasted for about five years (see Whittaker 2014). There is therefore a direct relationship between hitherto first democratic “voting” in northern Kenya and an insurgency that was brutally crushed by the Kenyan army. It was a bad first experience with voting, but that did not deter further participation in elections and voting as a national ritual. As Italian Catholic priest and anthropologist Paul Tablino (1999) observed in his work on “the Gabra” of Marsabit in the 1990s, even the nomads in seemingly remote satellite villages were excited about voting during elections. Indeed, Midina Jaldessa proudly announced that she has never missed an opportunity to vote and has marked her ballot in every election since the 1960s. She recounted:

Kura qara an gurba Umuro Gurachati dae. Gafas an kaim.
In the first election I voted for the son of Umuro Guracha, at that time I was young.

She went on to tell us the subsequent politicians she voted for as well, remembering this younger generation of politicians by the names of their fathers. Yet unsurprisingly, Midina remembers both names of the politician who helped her get a Kenyan identity card in the late 1970s. Unlike their male counterparts who were issued with identification cards during the colonial era, Kenyan women only gained the right to identification cards, an essential requirement for obtaining a voter’s card, in 1978, about 15 years after independence. While women had suffrage at independence in 1963, how they voted without an ID card before 1978 is a question for further investigation.

“Whoever wins, wins for themselves”

My research around elections in northern Kenya has focused on electoral politics and ethnicity in the context of a new devolved system of counties. Devolution has meant more resources in the northern counties like Marsabit, but has also amplified ethnic politics and conflict. The political process and discourse of ethnicized politics is mainly dominated by men. While politicians tend to be relatively younger men and have strong financial muscles up their sleeves, older men, in the name of the “council of elders,” facilitate the process by endorsing different candidates from their own ethnic groups. Therefore, the long-lasting images of campaigns are processes dominated by relatively younger men and brokered by old men (see Carrier and Kochore 2014).

Women are of an important demographic in terms of providing votes and are involved in the “spectacle,” but are rarely acknowledged as important players. Older women are even more peripheral to such politics. I got a strong sense that Bokayo’s existential statement about feeling like a nonperson is linked to the marginalization of not only older women, but all women, by the social and political structures of the dominant patriarchal order.

Toward the end of our conversation that day, I asked the three women who they would vote for in the upcoming election. After a few moments of silence Bor spoke up:

Abbaan Waqi keneef hinum argat.
Whomever God wills will get.

Qaralle, Abaan hargateefu ufumaa haragat.
Whoever wins, wins for themselves [not the interest of the larger community] anyway.

Note on consent: During the fieldwork for this research the author sought the consent of the interlocutors who were happy and proud for their histories to be written without anonymization.

Hassan H. Kochore is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His doctoral research focuses on notions of time, subjective age, and citizenship on the margins of the state in northern Kenya.

Cite as: Kochore, Hassan H. 2020. “Talking about Elections in Northern Kenya.” Anthropology News website, September 14, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1494

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