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Kenya's National Cohesion And Integration Commission (NCIC) has claimed that ‘the five largest communities’ have a disproportionate share of total workforce in public universities and constituent colleges in Kenya. But how does this make a contribution to national cohesion and integration?

We Kenyans have acquired another instrument for perpetuating ethnic groups, ethnic accounting. In its latest ethnic accounting figures, published in February this year, the National Cohesion And Integration Commission (NCIC), claims that, with over 80 per cent, ‘the five largest communities’ have a disproportionate share of total workforce in public universities and constituent colleges. Predictably, public institutions of higher education have been pilloried by the press for tribalism. Yet the ethnic accounting statistics the NCIC published are at best dubious; and at worst, they help to rigidify and perpetuate ethnic categories.

From whatever point of view, the statistics are replete with damaging weaknesses. In ‘Briefs on ethnic diversity of public universities in Kenya volume three’, the NCIC says that it sent ‘letters and questionnaire’ to public universities and constituent colleges ‘asking them to provide details of their employees covering date of employment, district of origin, ethnic affiliation, among others’.

It is the officials of public universities and constituent colleges who presumably completed the questionnaire. But since they may want to present their institutions in the best possible light, how can we be sure that the data they provided paint an accurate picture of the ethnic distribution of employment in their institutions? The NCIC is tellingly reticent about whether and how it checked the statistics for accuracy.

To be able to give accurate information about their employees ‘ethnic affiliations’, the officials must know the ethnic group memberships of the 14,996 people covered by the NCIC ‘ethnic audit’ brief. Unless that information is recorded, it is most unlikely that they know it. The NCIC is silent about how it measures ethnic affiliation. Is it ethnic affiliation at birth? Or at the date of employment? Or at the time the officials filled in the questionnaire? It is most likely that the ethnic classifications in the brief are dubious and misleading.

If the employees of public universities and constituent colleges were asked to state their ethnic groups, it would perhaps be a different matter. But still, the NCIC would assume that the respondents knew the ethnic groups of which they were members. It is not certain that they would. For ethnic groups, having within them groups whose memberships are constantly contested, lack the internal cohesion which ethnic accountants insist that they have.

Furthermore, contrary to the presuppositions of ethnic accounting, ethnic group memberships are never settled, ethnic group boundaries are penetrable, and ethnic group formation is never complete.

To give job distributions in public universities and constituent colleges and then claim that the ethnic differences in the distributions are due to ethnicity, as the NCIC does in its brief, is arguably untenable. The distributions may provide the NCIC with good rhetorical material, but, as opposed to what they purport to do, they do not tell us much about the issue of ethnic disparities in employment in higher education in Kenya. Before claiming that ethnic group X’s share of the jobs is a result of ethnic discrimination, without taking a host of other factors that affect job market outcomes into account, is patently wrong. X’s proportion of the jobs in public university Y, for example, cannot plausibly be said to be the result of their being X. Admittedly, the fact that they are X may have contributed, but not the whole of it.

Ethnic accounting exercises do not contribute to national cohesion and integration. By depicting some groups - like ‘the five big communities’ - as winners and others as losers, they may incite more ethnic animus among Kenyans. But above all, ethnic accounting practices may affirm, reinforce and perpetuate the ethnic units which, if the NCIC is to contribute to the struggle for national cohesion and integration, it should try to undermine.
The results of ethnic accounting can stigmatise some ethnic communities as practitioners of tribalism, and with highly dubious evidence to support the stigmatisation.

It is needless to say that there is ethnic discrimination in employment in Kenya. But what the NCIC should do, if it has to perform ethnic accounting exercises, is to determine the extent of ethnic discrimination in the distribution of jobs. Its ethnic accounting figures have dismally failed even to try to do that. Yet, contrary to public perception, the contribution of discrimination to ethnic differences in job distribution might actually be so small that there would even be no point in fighting it.

Instead of collecting data of no value, which, moreover, only divide Kenyans further, the NCIC should strive for the banning of ethnic accounting, alongside invoking the names of ethnic communities - in public spaces such as schools, churches, newspapers, the workplace, public meetings - and other tools for constructing, rigidifying and perpetuating ethnic communities. Only then can the NCIC claim that it is making a contribution to the struggle for national cohesion and integration.


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