Since the historic merger of opposition parties ahead of the 2002 elections, political party formation and composition in Kenya has changed dramatically. In those elections, the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC)—the coalition of major opposition parties—was able to oust the Kenya African National Union (KANU) that had been in power for close to four decades. Whereas the defeat of KANU by NARC was seen as a historic democratic process, the seeds of ethnic divisions in Kenya remained intact.

Many political parties in Africa are categorized as ethnic parties, meaning they draw much of their support from particular ethnic communities and aggregate their interests around those communities. Writing about political parties in Africa, Sebastian Elischer has averred that when multiethnic parties emerge, they are not sustainable overtime.1Sebastian Elischer, Political Parties in Africa: Ethnicity and Party Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). This is because they are bankrupt beyond the ethnic ideology. NARC was itself a multiethnic coalition led by presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu; as well as Michael Kijana Wamalwa, a Luhya; Raila Odinga, a Luo; and Charity Ngilu, a Kamba; among members of other ethnic communities. In the 2002 elections, KANU received much of its support from the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru—known as the GEMA communities. The aftermath of the NARC’s success in 2002 marked the beginning of multiethnic coalition formation. Discord within the coalition led to a break up after the 2005 constitutional referendum.

The constitutional referendum of 2005 saw the formation of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM)—a political movement that emerged victorious in its opposition to the new constitution. Its composition was also ethnic in nature. It brought in former renegade ministers that had been sacked by President Mwai Kibaki after the referendum. Going into the 2007 elections, a new political outfit was formed as the vehicle for power of President Kibaki. The Party of National Unity (PNU) became the reelection party for Kibaki while the ODM became the main opposition party. Again, the composition of PNU was ethnic in nature, drawing members of the GEMA communities in support of the reelection of Kibaki. ODM was also a multiethnic coalition with a politburo of some sort in the form of a “Pentagon”—five principal leaders representing their ethnic communities. The anatomy of both the PNU and the ODM was based on tribal “kingpins” representing the interests of their ethnic communities.

In the 2013 elections, new multiethnic coalitions were formed. With the enactment of a new constitution in 2010, political parties could now enter into pre-election coalitions. Driven by ethnic calculations and ethnic balkanization, two major political outfits emerged. Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, whom at the time were facing charges before the International Criminal Court, formed a political alliance called the Jubilee Alliance. Kenyatta, an ethnic Kikuyu, had by then inherited the PNU’s GEMA ethnic base through his newly formed party, The National Alliance (TNA), while William Ruto’s new political outfit, the United Republican Party (URP), brought in the Kalenjin people of the Rift Valley—previously a base of the ODM. Leonardo Arriola, in his book Multiethnic Coalitions in Africa, has advanced that candidate jockeying and ethnic clientelism are characteristics of multiethnic coalitions.2Leonardo R. Arriola, Multiethnic Coalitions in Africa: Business Financing of Opposition Election Campaigns (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). In what came to be known as the “tyranny of numbers,” the Uhuru Kenyatta–William Ruto alliance was based on ethnic mobilization of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities. On the other side, the ODM of Raila Odinga; the Wiper Democratic Movement (WDM) of Kalonzo Musyoka, an ethnic Kamba; and the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD)-Kenya of Moses Wetangula, an ethnic Luhya, formed the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD)-Kenya. The Jubilee Alliance won the elections of 2013.

The ethno-political landscape in this year’s elections is similar to the 2013 elections. Citing their intention to build a national party, the Jubilee Alliance’s constituent parties united in September 2016 to form the Jubilee Party (JP) ahead of the 2017 general elections. CORD-Kenya metamorphosed into the National Super Alliance (NASA) with the entry of Musalia Mudavadi of the Amani National Congress (ANC) Party in late 2016. The NASA coalition is the latest multiethnic coalition in Kenya. Political parties are important agents for political socialization and democratic consolidation. They are also agents of interest aggregation and articulation. It has been argued that in ethnically segmented societies, ethnic parties are a source of political instability and conflict. In such situations, democratic consolidation becomes difficult. Despite the democratic gains made by Kenya through the new constitution, ethnic parties and coalitions hinder democratic consolidation. Ethnic parties in Kenya are polarizing and detrimental in cementing democratic inclusion and national unity.


  • 1
    Sebastian Elischer, Political Parties in Africa: Ethnicity and Party Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  • 2
    Leonardo R. Arriola, Multiethnic Coalitions in Africa: Business Financing of Opposition Election Campaigns (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).