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In light of the Kenyan ruling class's clear vested interest in autocracy, Samuel Abonyo makes the case for a federalist system of government to achieve better representation and prosperity for all across the country.

The ruling class in Kenya is hell-bent on instilling into Kenyans the fear that there will be chaos, bloodshed and disintegration if Kenya adopts a federal system of government. The ruling class says, as if it were an extremist supporter of Doctor Pangloss of Voltaire’s 'Candid', that a centralised government is for us the best of all possible governments. But given her nature and history, the truth is that Kenya is fated to federalism. To build a foundation for peace and stability, Kenya should, in addition to reducing the socio-economic inequalities among her people, opt for federalism.

Federalism, according to William H. Riker, an authority on the system, is 'a political organisation in which the activities of government are divided between regional governments and a central government in such a way that each kind of government has some activities on which it makes final decisions'. Conventionally, says Arend Lijphart in 'Democracies', federalism is a spatial or territorial division of power in which regional governments are geographically defined. The other characteristics of federalism, says Lijphart, are bicameralism, a written constitution, a decentralised government, the right of regional governments to be involved in the amendment of the federal constitution but to change their own constitutions unilaterally, and equal or strong disproportionate representation of the smaller regions in the federal chamber. Usually, federalism is accompanied by substantial autonomy for the members of the federation, says Lijphart.

Like any other systems of government, federalism has its vices and virtues. In federalism, smaller units are typically disproportionately represented in the legislature. But in a plural society, federalism gives autonomy to distinct sub-societies. It is clear that if a federal system was introduced in Kenya, distinct ethnic groups would get autonomy. A disadvantage of Kenya becoming federal would of course be the overrepresentation of small ethnic units. Also, those who do not belong to distinct ethnic groups would be denied representation.

That brings us to the question why ethnicity should be the basis of federalism in Kenya. Tribalism, we know, is a tormentor of Kenya. But that in itself is not a sufficient argument for making ethnicity the basis of federalism in Kenya. And if the federalising process became ethnic, we would have to find out how multi-ethnic territories would be treated. Non-territorial federalism, or corporate federalism, would be an option, which practically means that cultural minorities would be given the right to establish their own schools, legislative councils and so on. The jurisdictions of their institutions would be defined not in terms of territorial but cultural community membership. A mixture of territorial and non-territorial federalism would also possible, but it would result into an overly cumbersome system of government.

There are advocates of devolution without federalism, who argue that we should devolve power but not federalise the country. It is possible to devolve power without federalising the country. Devolution refers to the process of transferring power from central government to a lower or regional level. Giving more power to local authorities would be devolution. But that is not what Kenyans normally mean by devolution. In Kenya, the political class has redefined devolution as giving 'natives' the 'licence' to evict those they have defined as 'visitors', 'strangers', 'outsiders', 'immigrants', 'foreigners' and 'sojourners'. In the Kenyan corruption of the word, devolution is federalism, which, in Kenyan corruption, is the practice of ethnic cleansing. What our politicians and their constituencies mean when making proposals to devolve power is that those with the wrong ethnic groups will be evicted from the territories to which power will be devolved.


Federalism should be reclaimed from the polluting mouth of the political class, the polluter of Kenyan norms and values, and restored to its true meaning and purpose. It should then be adopted. And, if territorial federalism is the one chosen, people in each province will have constitutionally defined activities on which they make final decisions. But ethnic cleansing would not be one of those activities. And no walls would be erected against mobility across the territories. And no barriers would be erected against full participation in the activities of the territory in which one chooses to live. With federalism, autocracy would substantially be reduced, and people would get cultural autonomy and control over resources in the territories which they are. People living in different territories would even experiment with their preferred forms of social, economic and political organisation. That would unlock organisational creativity throughout the country, bringing benefits to Kenya as a whole.

Admittedly, federalism is in itself not a firm promise that autocratic power would be widely spread in all directions, should federalism be adopted. Nor would federalism be a guarantee that the people would truly get control over their resources. But those would not be arguments against it. Nobody can guarantee that an institution, however carefully it is designed, will do exactly what it is intended to do. Crafters of institutions, for example, writers of constitutions, have only limited information. That is one reason why institutions are chronically monitored, revised and corrected.

The fear that Kenya would disintegrate if it adopts federalism is founded on our politicians’ corruption of federalism and the vested interests the ruling class has in autocracy. It is perfectly possible to federalise Kenya without a drop of blood. It all depends on how the federalisation is organised and managed. Our authoritarians may postpone federalism, but the monolithic structure of the government, the unnecessary evil under which most of us are very unhappy, will surely be swept into the dustbin of the history of autocracies.


* Samuel Abonyo is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Oslo.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.