cc. While all of Kenyan officialdom in political and civil society alike decries the endurance of tribalism, there remains a pervasive unwillingness to address the consequences of a phenomenon still prevalent across the country and with powerful implications for democracy, representation and stability, writes Mugambi Kiai. Though understood at a rudimentary level, the theme of ethnicity, argues Kiai, persists at the heart of the architecture of power in Kenya, the negative effects of which will only begin to be tackled through decisive action to consolidate widespread faith in Kenyan identity and citizenship.
‘But race is an issue I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now…’
Barack Obama, speech titled ‘A More Perfect Union’, 18 March 2008
When Barack Obama addressed America on the issue of race in March 2008, he could very well have been talking to Kenyans on the issue of ethnicity. For as he issued his penetrative analysis of the race question in the USA, the land of his father was awash with blood as a contested election result led to national conflict, ultimately costing close to 1,200 lives, displacing close to 350,000 others, and wrecking the lives and livelihoods of millions. The ethnic hue of the conflict was so strong that it led some to mistakenly suggest that what was happening in the country was either genocide or ethnic cleansing.
In sync with Obama’s ‘racial stalemate’ in the USA, Kenya has long been prisoner to an ethnic stalemate. A vast majority of analysts agree that had he run for the presidency in Kenya, Obama would have lost on account of being Luo, the ethnicity of his father. Some, however, have even observed that he is not Luo enough, indicating he may not even have garnered a local ethnic constituency; a current, sorry, prerequisite to engaging in presidential politics in Kenya.
One year later, Obama is the President of the USA in a development that is perhaps beginning to turn the race issue in America on its head. But in Kenya one has to really question whether we have moved in any direction other than backwards with regards to the negative ethnic paradigm, or more precisely, tribalism.
A case in point is the contributions of young Kenyans in October 2008 at a meeting to discuss tribalism. One participant from the Kikuyu community in his very first remarks described the Kalenjin community as a ‘very dishonest people when it comes to land issues’. He stated that influential Kalenjin politicians were using the Kalenjin tribe to drive away Kikuyus from Rift Valley so that they could take over land. He went on to describe Luos as spendthrifts who always have their priorities wrong, have a sense of style and a firm political stand, a characteristic they share with Kikuyus. He characterised the Kikuyu as hardworking and serious entrepreneurs, and claimed that the 2007 presidential elections was used as an excuse to murder them.
At the same gathering, a participant from the Luo community described Kikuyus as people who think that the country belongs to them. ‘They own everything then decide who gets what. While Kikuyus want to be industry owners, they want the other communities to be mere labourers, and markets for their products/services. Kikuyus treat other tribes as second-rate Kenyan citizens,’ he said. He went on to mention that there was thinking within his community to secede with other willing communities.
This conversation is similar to one reported by Amy Chua in her 2003 book, World on fire: How exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability. She posed the question: ‘Why have the Kikuyus been more economically successful than other Kenyans?’
One response from a Kikuyu responds: ‘…civilization came early to our community when the colonial settlers settled in our land and introduced the start of the Kenyan economy. Second, the Kikuyus have a different attitude. They like to invest and try ventures, however small they are… We believe the worst offense… is to remain an employee.’
A second states: ‘It is out of hard work. Hard work and confidence. The same reasons all other people become strong economically.’
Another respondent argues to the contrary, citing the presidency of founding President Kenyatta (a Kikuyu): ‘your fathers and mothers had an unfair advantage vis-à-vis other Kenyans. During Kenyatta’s reign, he transferred all the ‘white settlers’’ land to Kikuyus. Please don’t give me that BS of I work hard and own my own business… Non-Kikuyus sat on the sidelines while… [Kikuyus] raped the country, denying other Kenyans jobs and land. We are all hard working folks and don’t think for a moment that your likes have cornered the market on success, by virtue of being Kikuyu.’
Ethnicity and tribalism being untidy and dirty words, these kinds of conversations are never found in the national debate; they only erupt in the public domain at election time. That is when latent animosities emerge, as hate speech and hate SMS messages. Yet, conversations such as these routinely occur all over the country. They are the dominant social discourse, but are neither reported nor debated, nullifying any space for robust contestation.
Publicly, all – from officialdom to those in civil and political society – agree that tribalism is nefarious. It is universally condemned in rhetoric. But this public rhetoric conceals a widespread reluctance to openly and candidly discuss and grapple with tribalism.
There are at least three reasons for this. First, discussions around ethnicity are heavily tinged with embarrassment. Colonial and post-colonial socialisation has made out the ‘tribe’ to be a primitive anachronism, a vestige of backwardness that Christianity, Western education and the modern state are supposed to have ‘saved’ the indigenous Kenyan from. Any mention of tribe or tribalism, then, harks back to backwardness.
Second, there is a ‘fear’ factor. Those who speak of, or about, tribe, are immediately labelled tribalists. Hence, there is guilt by associating with ‘tribe’.
Third, the intellectual tools primarily used to analyse society – whether liberal (individualist) or socialist (class-based) – are ruthlessly dismissive of ‘tribe’ as a subject or site of analysis.
This reluctance to open up, speak out, debate and wrestle with tribe, allows concealed hostilities to ferment and fester. Worse, it masks the fact that right before our eyes, tribalism continues to prosper, govern and rule Kenyans from behind the scenes. Despite the Kenyan state, the tribe remains a readily available platform for demanding, acquiring and enjoying rights, pointing to a post-independence dilemma around citizenship. The chronic and endemic inability of the state to meet its social obligations has meant that the tribe is what Kenyan political scientist Adams Oloo calls a ‘shadow-state’, delivering where the state has failed and providing for communal self-help.
And here lies the conundrum that is Kenya’s Mungiki movement. On the one hand, it is infamous as an ethnic militia force, dreaded for beheading its victims. On the other hand, in areas where the state is absent, Mungiki provides services such as security, water, electricity and conflict resolution. In a country where less than one-third of the population engages with the formal institutions of governance, resort is sought within existing filial or tribal structures. There is even legal support for this. Multiple legal systems were established by the colonial state to manage the ‘native question’, and, in the vast majority of African countries, were not dismantled following independence. These legal systems have been consistently flagged by Professor Mahmood Mamdani as a primary cause of the continuing crisis of citizenship on the continent.
At another level, ‘tribe’ has also been a handy agency with which to mobilise politically to make demands on the state, and has been key to vying for, and maintaining, political ascendancy in Kenya. In the context of Kenya’s zero-sum, winner-takes-all political equation, the coalescence of ethnic blocs provides significant political constituencies that no ambitious politician can ignore. This is heightened by the divide-and-rule political tradition designed by the colonial government to pre-empt any united, national resistance to their rule. That tradition was inherited and robustly engaged by all post-independence governments to cling onto power despite their political and socio-economic weaknesses. It is no secret that Kenyan politics is ethnically-based. In an analysis of the 1992 and 1997 elections in Kenya, political scientist Karolina Hulterstrom states ‘ethnicity was a dominant cleavage line in Kenyan party politics’.
Hulterstrom also shows that national appointment and distribution policies in Kenya were based on ethnicity. She observes that ‘it would be an oversimplification, albeit a true oversimplification, to simply state that the Kikuyus were over-represented during the Kenyatta regime as were the Kalenjins during Moi’s presidency.’ She adds, ‘it can be decidedly concluded that there was a continuous ethnic inclination in… [the public appointment policy] in Kenya’ and also reaches ‘the cautious conclusion… that, while there were no signs of outright discrimination, there was an inclination in distribution policy towards certain regions during President Moi’s term in office – one of them being his own home region.’ The inequity continues in the post-Moi period.
More emphatically, Alwiya Alwy and Susanne Schech, in their study ‘Ethnic inequalities in education in Kenya’ conclude that there is a ‘close correspondence of differentials between inequalities in education and ethnic affiliation to the ruling elite. Relatively small, clearly defined ethnic groups have accumulated an advantage over the majority in the national population, in terms of the education infrastructure and resources… ethnicity should be placed at the forefront of analyses of educational development in Kenya, as well as in policy efforts to reduce inequalities in education.’
What happens then, to those who do not fall within the ‘tribe’? Those of mixed ethnic parentage are usually caught in the crossfire generated by the ethnic contestation. During Kenya’s post-election crisis, it was distressing to see the threat posed from all sides to the children with mixed ethnicity, especially those whose parents were Kikuyu and Kalenjin, Kikuyu and Luo, and Kikuyu and Luhya. Moreover, those Kenyans who do not subscribe to ethnic ideology and, during the crisis, took positions that were deemed to conflict with those of their ‘communities’ received death threats. And Kenyan Somalis and Kenyan Asians are continuously threatened with displacement and challenged to justify their loyalty and citizenship.
This, then, is the lay of the land; pervasive and polarising ethnicity that hampers any meaningful collective engagement to deal with the critical national challenges of hunger, disease, poverty and bad governance. Following the agreements that resolved the post-election crisis in the country, a legislative bill to form a National Ethnic and Race Relations Commission was published, withdrawn to facilitate wider consultations, and then re-introduced in parliament. In it we find the vision of the government on how to resolve the question of tribalism in the country.
Without vesting the proposed commission with any enforcement powers, the bill seeks to infuse it with only hortatory character. Its functions are reproduced extensively below to expose how the bill has been carefully and tidily crafted to avoid any meaningful intervention. These functions are to:
- Promote the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity
- Discourage and prohibit persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices on the grounds of ethnicity
- Promote tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life
- Encourage full participation by all ethnic communities in the social, economic, cultural and political life of other communities
- Plan, supervise, coordinate and promote educational and training programmes to create public awareness, support and advancement of peace and harmony among ethnic communities
- Promote respect for religious, cultural, linguistic and other forms of diversity in a plural society
- Promote equal access and enjoyment by persons of all ethnic communities to public or other services and facilities provided by the government
- Promote arbitration, conciliation, mediation and similar forms of dispute resolution mechanisms in order to secure and enhance ethnic harmony and peace
- Investigate complaints of ethnic or racial discrimination and make recommendations to the attorney general, the Human Rights Commission or any other relevant authority on the remedial measures to be taken where such complaints are valid
- Investigate on its own accord or on request from any institution, office, or person any issue affecting ethnic relations
- Identify and analyse factors inhibiting the attainment of harmonious relations between ethnic communities, particularly barriers to the participation of any ethnic community in social, economic, commercial, financial, cultural and political endeavours and recommend to the government and any other relevant public or private body how these factors should be overcome
- Determine strategic priorities in all the socio-economic, political and development policies of the government impacting on ethnic relations and advise on their implementation
- Recommend to the government criteria for deciding whether any public office or officer has committed acts of discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity
- Monitor and review all legislation and all administrative acts relating to or having implications for ethnic relations and equal opportunities and, from time to time, prepare and submit proposals for revision of such legislation and administrative acts
- Initiate, lobby for and advocate for policy, legal or administrative reforms on issues affecting ethnic relations
- Monitor and make recommendations to the government and other relevant public and private sector bodies on factors inhibiting the development of harmonious relations between ethnic groups and on barriers to the participation of all ethnic groups in the social, economic, commercial, financial, cultural and political life of the people
- Undertake research and studies and make recommendations to the government on any issue relating to ethnic affairs, including whether ethnic relations are improving
- Make recommendations on penalties to be imposed on any person for any breach of the provisions of the constitution or of any law dealing with ethnicity
- Monitor and report to the National Assembly the status and success of implementation of its recommendations, and do all other acts and things as may be necessary to facilitate the efficient discharge of its functions.
Thus, an agency has been created to do any and all manner of things related to ethnicity, save decisive action. The key to the problem is ignored; that ethnicised conflict is not due a lack of knowledge or understanding, to be resolved by ‘promotion’, ‘advice’, ‘education’ or ‘recommendations’. Rather, ethnicity lies at the heart of the architecture of power in Kenya. It is the centre of an inverted patronage triangle: at one top corner, an imperial presidency without any checks and balances; on the other top corner, a venal, predatory political class out to maintain or capture that presidency in its most unadulterated form. At the teetering bottom corner, a poor, disenfranchised population. How can a toothless commission sort this out?
Under the umbrella of this illusion, we see plenty of motion, but no movement. Kenya has already tasted this with the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission which, by all accounts, has busied itself dealing with petty corruption, but has had absolutely zero impact on grand corruption. Indeed, latest reports of mega corruption scandals would indicate that grand corruption is not only in rude, good health, but positively thriving.
Additionally, referring the question of ethnicity to a commission removes it from the offices where real power is wielded, making it easy to neglect or even ignore, while always using its existence as a shield when questions are asked about the government’s commitment to address the issue. Here, lessons must be learnt from Kenya’s past and vast experience with statutory and ad-hoc commissions, whose recommendations are routinely dodged, their reports shelved and left to gather dust. It is hard to believe, in this context, that whatever outputs the proposed commission produces will be taken seriously. For even those commissions that are vested with, and have used, their enforcement powers have had their rulings or determinations that are deemed awkward conveniently and contemptuously ignored. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights is a good case in point. What chance then that the proposed toothless National Ethnic and Race Relations Commission will be taken seriously?
A simple alternative does exist. The president and prime minister could sign off on and drive a strategy which addresses the core of the problem. Within this strategy, there would be:
- A public inventory – and thereafter an annual census – of all public appointments to evaluate the ethnic composition of public services
- An undertaking to conduct all public appointments through a transparent, open and competitive process; and
- An audit of public expenditure to ensure and effect ethno-regional equity.
Furthermore, the two principals would need to commit to addressing the simmering land crisis that plagues Kenya – through for example the proposed National Land Policy – so as to deal with the issue of land hunger and historical land-related injustices. They would have to agree on steps – constitutional, legal and institutional - to de-link politics from ethnicity. For example through:
- Having the President appointed on a ‘50 per cent +1’ voter basis
- Reforming the imperial presidency
- A design for decentralization.
Additionally, the president and prime minister would inject a focus on citizenship and identity into the education and criminal justice systems, to address stereotyping, hate speech, and ethnic profiling.
This strategy would provide for an advisory body reporting directly and jointly to the two principals on all the issues presented as the functions of the Ethnic and Race Relations Commission. It would nullify the need to create another commission while keeping the issue in the crosshairs of those who wield real power in Kenya. Finally, an annual nationwide survey would continue to evaluate the state of ethnic relations in the country.
Only this kind of purposeful, results-driven intervention can instil trust that that there is political will to address tribalism in Kenya. Currently, however, one can only despair. In November 2008, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, Constitutional Affairs and National Cohesion resigned only a few months after his appointment. He gave, as his reason, a complete lack of political will ‘to do anything about national cohesion or even constitutional review’.
And so, the dream of a united nation called Kenya is still held hostage by the reality of disparate tribal nations. Somehow, Kenyans must muster the political will to address ethnicity. The alternative is too dire to contemplate. As Barack Obama warned about race in the US, ‘if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs.’
* Mugambi Kiai is a program officer at the Open Society Initiative for East Africa (OSIEA) and the African Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP). The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of either OSIEA or AfriMAP.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.