Kenya's PM Raila Odinga, the presidential candidate of CORD, arrives for a campaign rally at the Tononoka Ground in the coastal city of Mombasa on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS

IT SHOULD come as little surprise to observers of Kenyan politics that ethnicity and the attendant control of resources remain its underlying principles and will determine the outcome of the March 4 general election.

However, most Kenyans do not like to acknowledge this.

The latest polls put the eight-candidate race for president at an almost dead heat between Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and Raila Odinga, the son of the elder Kenyatta’s political nemesis, Oginga Odinga.

There is provision for a runoff within 30 days if neither candidate obtains 50% plus one of the vote nor carries at least 24 of the 47 new counties.

A runoff is predicted, and the likely kingmaker will be Musalia Mudavadi, the son of Moses Mudavadi, another veteran politician and deal maker.

Alphonce Shiundu, who follows politics for the Daily Nation, says polling data shows clearly that Kenyans use tribe as the basis for picking their candidates for president. Like the politicians, whose last-minute alliances are based on tribe and the perceived numbers of their home regions, "Kenyans are in denial that their support for the specific alliances is based on their tribe," Mr Shiundu says.

Political consultant Kiriro wa Ngugi attributes this denial to the "colonial brainwashing" Kenyans were subjected to under the British that "modern democratic ideals are incompatible with African ethnic consciousness and ethnic cohesiveness".

The previous presidential election in 2007, showed that ethnicity, or more rudely, tribalism, is a very delicate subject in Kenya.

Politicians and news media are encouraged to avoid "hate speech" and mentioning specific ethnic communities. This leads to the use of cumbersome if thinly veiled euphemisms, except in social media. The whipping up of "negative ethnicity" to settle scores and redress old grievances that saw incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, hastily sworn in as president in 2007 under dubious circumstances resulted in about 1,333 deaths, millions of dollars in damage and the displacement or ethnic cleansing of thousands of people, some of whom are still living rough.

The 2009 census recognises 42 tribes in the country of 40-million; six of them account for 71% of the population.

Mr Kenyatta is a Kikuyu, the tribe with the highest population, accounting for 17% of the population; Mr Odinga is a Luo, a tribe which ranks fourth with 11%, and Mr Mudavadi is Luhya, which is number two with 14%.

Mr Kenyatta’s running mate is a Kalenjin (third-ranked at 13% and the tribe of Daniel arap Moi, who served as Kenya’s second president for 24 years).

Mr Odinga’s running mate is a Kamba, who make up 10% of the population. The only one of the six major ethnic groups not represented in this electoral equation are the Kenyan Somalis who account for 6%.

In his masterful study, Kenya Between Hope and Despair 1963-2011, Daniel Branch writes that the centrality of ethnicity to politics in Kenya needs to be confronted. He says it is not intrinsically a bad thing. Instead, ethnicity has been "a logical response to an experience in the modern world in which resources are scarce — a symptom rather than a cause of Kenya’s ills".

Economist and publisher James Shikwati feels that harping on the evils of tribalism in the name of promoting peaceful elections is not productive because "as a young nation Kenya requires realistic ethnic endurance mechanisms".

The distribution of Kenya’s resources — historically land but now newly discovered oil and gas reserves as well — has been at the heart of the quest for political power since independence in 1963. Either the Kikuyu or the Kalenjin have run the country under a strong presidential system since then.

Part of the anger over the claimed "rigging out" of Raila Odinga in the previous election was that the Luos felt they were thus "robbed" of their turn at the head table, or trough.

Many Luos — and members of other tribes — do not believe that having Mr Odinga as prime minister in the coalition government that was slapped together in 2008 is a real "turn" in power.

Under the 2010 constitution that created the 47 counties, each with its own governor, senator, women’s representative and county assembly representative, the role of the presidency is supposedly diminished to favour the devolution of power. Yet the presidential race is still depicted as the most crucial. In its recent report on the Kenyan elections, the International Crisis Group observed that Kenya’s most powerful politicians "still appear to want the top job … probably because it is likely to exercise considerable informal power. Moreover, the next president could do much to undermine the new constitution’s checks and balances."

The elephants in the room are the pending cases at the International Criminal Court where Mr Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto stand indicted for crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in organising the political violence in 2007-08. Ironically this has pitted the Kikuyu and Kalenjin against each other on land ownership.

Both the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the high court have passed the buck on ruling on their eligibility to run.

The March 4 election is the most costly in Kenya’s history. The commission asked for $353m and was given about $200m to manage 33,000 polling stations and more than 14-million voters. The body says it will need another $23.5m to handle a runoff.

Draft legislation on campaign financing was left to rot when the 10th parliament became history last month so there are no hard figures on what candidates — there will be six separate ballots for voters to grapple with — are spending to get elected.

• Linnée was the AP East Africa bureau chief for eight years. She continues to observe the Kenyan political scene from Nairobi.