Kivutha Kibwana: Time overdue for the flowering of a tribe known as Kenya

Kenya's recent political imbroglio largely stems from a vigorous contestation between two paradigms of the nation-state. One group of the political elite promotes a model of the ethnic nation.

Jakob Rosel defines the ethnic nation as a closed nation premised on three assumptions i.e. (1) Mankind consists of different and easily definable peoples or ethnic groups which value and perpetuate their district identity. (2) The development of an ethnic identity best matures inside the group’s own controlled state. (3) The transformation of a people into a nation precedes and facilitates the conquest of its own nation-state.

Kenya’s other political elite supports a liberalised democratic open nation under which, to quote Rosel again, mankind is conceived as an aggregate of equal and free individuals who are unencumbered by tribal colour and loyalty.

Often, a leadership which envisions a democratic nation can be besieged by political entrepreneurs of the ethnic nation. These progressive rulers may then respond by veering towards the ideology of an ethnic nation and nation-state.

The Party of National Unity was, at the end of 2007, forced to oscillate between a democratic nation and an ethnic nation due to its competitors’ ability to mobilise key regional voting blocs against it.

Conversely, those who support the ethnic nation may lace their rhetoric with a commitment to championing a more inclusive democratic open nation. Thus vision, rhetoric and praxis are in incessant combat.

During the 1983 and 1988 elections, then President Moi adroitly isolated both the Kikuyu and the Luo ethnic nations and built a non-Kikuyu and non-Luo counterpart community and ethnic vote bank. Kenya was defined as the Kikuyu and Luo group on the one hand and the Rest.

In 2002, Kenya’s political entrepreneurs created the Kalenjin and non-Kalenjin split on which the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) was erected. Essentially the Orange Democratic Movement in 2007 strove to mobilise non-Gema voters as a single ethnic nation to defeat the so-called Mt Kenya region voters.

Clearly, the political party in Kenya is essentially the political competition vehicle of an ethnic nation or coalition of several ethnic groups which have loosely coalesced into one ethnic nation.

Mr Raila Odinga’s National Development Party’s merger with Kanu was meant to aggregate a Luo and Kalenjin (alongside Akamba, Luhyia, Miji Kenda, Arab and Taita) nation. This political union was eventually consummated in 2005, and, minus the Akamba, in 2007.

In 2007 again, DP, ODM-K and Narc Kenya unsuccessfully struggled to shed the ethnic tag. The events of December 2007 and January-February 2008 were a culmination of the transformation of social inequalities, cultural resentments and economic competition between ethnic groups through dangerous ethnic nationalism into politicised ethnic conflicts and, finally, civil strife.

Between 2003-2007, Mr Odinga was able to create an ethnic nation out of several ethnic nations because the peasants, workers and lumpen groups from each of these ethnic groups saw the possibility of their tribal leader ascending into the presidency.

Several ethnic groups which craft a coalition of ethnic nations expect that they will control the attendant ethnic nation-state. In 2008, for Mr Odinga, a sense of fair distribution of the ODM slate of appointments was thus critical to the rise of his political party within the Grand Coalition and into the future.

From 2003, President Kibaki decided to modernise Kenya on the basis of liberal democracy, the market and nascent welfarism. His notion of an open society saw him mobilise the country on a development agenda.

But this was temporarily challenged by the 2007 post-election crisis. Instead of receiving kudos for reviving Kenya, the ethnically inspired nation sought to reverse the gains.

At the heart of the current political contest, therefore, is the question whether a full-blown transition from the closed ethnic nation and its nation-state into a democratic, open nation and nation-state or the democratic transition began in 2002 will be aborted. Put simply: Shall Kenya proceed with ethnic nation-building or democratic nation-building?

In the struggle between the ethnic nation and the democratic nation and their variants of nation-states in Kenya, the modern nation-state will only triumph if Kenya is successful at promoting an inclusiveness based on opportunity.

Resources must be shared efficiently and equitably, not merely by the elite, but by the broad masses. If and when the country is finally turned around, it is then that ethno-nationalism, the ethnic nation and its nation-state will be dealt a serious blow.

It is then that Kenyans can recognise, accommodate and celebrate the diversity of their languages, culture and history without fear. To borrow from Stanley Tambiah, only then will Kenyans confront the truism that ethnicity is a persistent, boisterous many-headed beast.

To slay the dragon of negative ethnicity, Kenya’s youth, civil society, non-partisan intelligentsia, and forward looking members of the business class have a pivotal role.

Public education and the new constitution must also guarantee the positive political recognition of ethnicity within a modern democratic, open society.

The time is long overdue for the flowering of a tribe called Kenya.

Prof Kibwana is adviser, Constitutional Review, Office of the President.

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One Response to Kivutha Kibwana: Time overdue for the flowering of a tribe known as Kenya

Anonymous said...

Kibwana’s prescription of democratization and marketization as solutions to prevailing ethnic tensions in Kenya should be treated with a modicum of caution. The problem is not the existence of ethnic coalitions but rather, the real or perceived ethnic disparities in terms of access to power and resources. Democracy (which upholds majority rule) and free market (which also favours the dominant groups/entities in unfettered competition) may under certain conditions exacerbate ethnic tensions. One of these conditions is where there exists an economically dominant ethnic minority thriving side-by-side an impoverished ethnic majority (or coalition of communities) excluded from power and resources.

At each point in time, Kenya has experienced the hegemony of an economically dominant minority against a background of pervasive poverty among the majority. In colonial times, it used to be the Europeans and Asian, in Kenyatta era- the Kikuyu, under Moi- the Asians and now under Kibaki- the resurgence of the Kikuyu.

Pursuing ethnic neutral policies on democratization and marketization is likely to lead to three outcomes. The first is ethnically motivated economic resentment of the minority. This stems from the relative success with which the minority enjoys in the market as a result of their advantaged economic position. Fruits of privatization, liberalization of trade and the like will tend to accrue more to the minority than the majority. Even if welfare policies are attempted, the benefits appear too negligible to change the circumstances of the majority poor. Such resentment is manifested by grievances against the dominant minority on hogging all the available economic opportunities- jobs, government contracts, political positions, acquisition of privatized state assets etc.

The second outcome is ethnic nationalism. It takes a charismatic leader of the ethnic majority to mobilize the economic resentment into political action against the minority. Campaigning on a democratic platform, the leader will urge the majority to use their demographic superiority to capture power, with the promise of eliminating the dominance of the minority. During campaigns, it will not be uncommon to hear such phrases as “land and resources of our land should be returned to its rightful owners”. Once the majority capture power, the country is likely to veer on to the path of an ethnocracy.

The third outcome relates to the various responses which both minorities and the majority will develop against the rise of ethnic nationalism. If the majority captures power, there will be a possibility of a market reforms reversal by the regime, in a bid to eliminate the dominance of the minority through discriminative policy measures, or attempts at affirmative action for the impoverished majority. It is also possible for the ruling elite to subvert democracy in two ways; the minority may trash the victory of the ethnic majority and turn the country into a dictatorship or if it agrees to cede power democratically, the minority may corruptly “buy out” the nascent power elite of the ethnic majority. It is also possible that the ascendant power elite of the ethnic majority may realize the impossibility of the eliminating the dominance of the minority and therefore resort to reversal of electoral promises earlier made, thus a negation of majority will which can easily turn into a dictatorship. Out of desperation, the ethnic majority in power can resort to systematic ethnic cleansing.

These scenarios have played out in countries faced with ‘economic dominant minority v impoverished majority’ conditions. Examples include Rwanda and Burundi, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Thailand among others. South Africa is perilously on the path towards the second outcome.

The solution therefore is to put in place policy and legal measures that reduce or eliminate all together the power and economic disparities between the ethnic communities. In the Kenyan context, pursuing land reforms, affirmative action, resource/wealth distribution that specifically targets poverty among the ethnic majorities among others will suffice. It is also against this background that Kenyans should meticulously scrutinize the Ethnic Relations Bill currently before parliament, and carefully weigh the constitutional proposals to be considered in the revived review process. This is perhaps what Prof Kibwana should focus on in his new position as a presidential advisor on constitutional issues.

Wambua Kituku