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Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness.

William Ruto, who was declared Kenya’s next president in a disputed election on Monday, credited his victory to citizens who didn’t necessarily vote along ethnic lines.

“Gratitude goes to the millions of Kenyans who refused to be boxed into tribal cocoons,” Mr. Ruto told his followers after the country’s electoral commission chair confirmed his narrow win over former prime minister Raila Odinga. But in reality, the results point in a very different direction.

Mr. Odinga, like his father, Oginga, before him, has been trying to elevate his fellow Luo people of Western Kenya into a position of national decision-making authority – despite the reality that in the country’s population, they are only the fourth largest among numerous ethnic entities.

The Kikuyu, meanwhile, are the most populous group by far, and Jomo Kenyatta, who was of Kikuyu descent, served as Kenya’s first president. His son, Uhuru, is now completing his second term as president, with Mr. Ruto, who comes from the Kalenjin peoples, serving as his deputy president.

Mr. Ruto, 55, has a tarnished background, having been accused by the International Criminal Court along with Uhuru Kenyatta of fomenting vicious violence in the aftermath of the 2007 election. The ICC also alleges that potential witnesses were intimidated, resulting in the court being forced to drop its attempt to prosecute.

Growing up poor, Mr. Ruto has become immensely rich during his deputy presidency, leading to accusations of kleptocracy. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Ruto proclaimed Kenya a “hustler” country, saying he would champion young and poor Kenyans who “hustled.”

Late in the election race, Mr. Kenyatta decided to endorse Mr. Odinga rather than Mr. Ruto. Yet Mr. Ruto won 50.5 per cent of the total vote, while Mr. Odinga took 48.9 per cent.

We do not yet know precise ethnic (or urban versus rural) voting totals, but it is evident from his loss and anecdotal reports from Kikuyu country that Mr. Kenyatta’s backing failed to translate into balloting support for Mr. Odinga. Ethnic enmities were and remain too strong: The Kikuyu people evidently refused to support a Luo, their longtime political and economic rivals.

Kenya is a country of 49 million disparate peoples: nomads, grazers, farmers, and so on. Numerically in between Kikuyu and Luo are the Luhya, also from Western Kenya but of different linguistic and ancestral origins. The Kalenjin, Mr. Ruto’s ethnic kin, and a designation combining a number of sub-ethnicities, are mainly in Kenya’s Rift Valley and rank third numerically.

Traditionally, the Kalenjin were pastoralists, and the Kikuyu were cultivators of the highlands surrounding Mt. Kenya. The Luo traditionally fished in the waters of Lake Victoria. The Kikuyu and Luhya languages are of Bantu origin, while the Luo and Kalenjin languages belong to another cluster called Nilo-Saharan, commonly called Southern Nilotic.

Mr. Ruto may claim that his triumph at the polls has ushered in a period of national harmony, where ethnicity matters less than it once did. But even in one of Africa’s more modern and prosperous countries, that is hardly so. Only 65 per cent of Kenyans voted, compared to 80 per cent in 2017 – suggesting that many, especially the numerous Kikuyu, refused to choose either candidate. Second, anecdotal reports from polling stations in the Central Highlands, where Kikuyu predominate, indicate unusually low turnouts there.

Mr. Odinga, who is 77, has not accepted the vote result, and promises to contest the outcome in the courts; he claims the counting was falsified to benefit Mr. Ruto. Four of the seven electoral commissioners, all appointed by Mr. Kenyatta, also refused to endorse the result. In 2017, the Kenyan courts threw out the official results and demanded an electoral re-run, which Mr. Kenyatta won. (This constitutes Mr. Odinga’s fifth loss in a presidential campaign, a clear rejection of Luo ambitions.)

Of Africa’s larger and more prosperous nations in recent years, only Zambia has rejected hitherto sacrosanct ethnic voting preferences. South Africa is struggling with similar issues now, and Nigeria’s presidential election next year will indicate whether national concerns can overcome traditional religious and ethnic patterns.

The situation isn’t so different in Europe and the United States, where voters gravitate to identity groups – either to race or to perceived interests – which are as strong as voting blocks among African “tribes.” Africa, like North America, remains imprisoned by primordial priorities.

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