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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Long Walk to Nationhood

Kenya is on the brink of something monumental. The country is pulsating. A world is watching and waiting with bated breath.

On March 4, 2013 millions of Kenyans will stand in line to cast their vote in the first general election under a new constitutional dispensation.

For many Kenyans, this election, especially the promise of a new constitutional dispensation, seems to be the universal panacea for all that is irksome and inconvenient about the colonial creature that is Kenya.

My sense is that there is a veritable burden of misconceptions and false expectations about what a constitution can and should do. We forget that there are critical boundary conditions of social trust and cohesion that must exist to enable a new constitutional order to flower.

The fact that a majority of electoral constituencies are defined ethnically is problematic. Kenyan politicians learn from very early in the careers to pander to the toxic ethnic sensitivities. Moreover, political parties map neatly along ethnic fault lines. The voting public cannot participate thoughtfully and freely in a democratic process because their ethnic chiefs have framed the political agenda and have the final say on how they vote.

At the level of ordinary citizens, what we see is ethnic suspicion often deeply founded in purely ethnic duels for the presidency. We are an ethnically polarized country engulfed in a mindless zero sum game. It becomes easy and even necessary for politicians to mobilize around their ethnic base or a rally together around superficial and fleeting ethnic coalitions.

Different ethnic groups can only come together, often fleetingly, if they rationalize a negative stereotype or straw man or propagate a mutually compelling and circumstantial narrative of victimology or fear mongering that casts one or more ethnic groups as the villain.
The frustration that many of many Kenyans have is to do with the gravity of the presidency and its power to underwrite ethnic fiat and breed ethnic political and business elites. This government and the previous two are a treatise on models for building and sustaining ethnic elites.

The problems we have seen in the nearly half a century since independence are merely symptoms of a deep and fundamental identity problem. Who are these people who occupy this colonial geographic space called Kenya? How did we come to occupy our current ethnic spaces? How do we know what we know about each other and ourselves? Do our disparate colonial experiences matter? How did we relate before the colonial state? How did we relate in the colonial state? How have we been socialized in the post-colonial state? How are we socializing our kids today? What does it mean to belong here, beyond holding a Kenyan passport?

Our history, especially the uneven burden or privilege of our colonial experience confers differential levels of entitlement and belonging. Some societies suffered an inordinate burden and have the scars to show for the bestiality of colonialism. So the veneration of fighters, heroes and founders is absolutely legitimate. But the contestations and debate around the “independence struggle”, however that is defined, must be robust and continual.

In Kenya, identities are multiple. But the vast majority of people feel any polity is subservient to their ethnic stripes. To the extent that a constitution embodies a people’s nationhood and enshrines fundamental rights and obligations of citizenship, identity presents a serious challenge to the intention, purpose and promise of a new constitutional dispensation.

For all intents, political and practical, we are collection of ethnicities under one administrative conglomerate, Kenya. Loyalty is first and foremost to one’s ethnic group. The three successive governments have governed by the logic of ethnic expediency not broad national interests.

It is difficult to get Kenyans – a term that could easily just mean the people who live in the country Kenya – to question and debate the purpose and relevance our education system or public transportation system or quality of health care. But it is very easy to spark a protracted, emotive and robust debate on the ethnicity of senior public servants. Prosecution of corrupt public officials is often stymied by claims of ethnic lynching.

We need a robust debate that can bring to the fore the big and urgent questions of our multiple identities, histories and fears. The events of 2007/2008 presented an opportunity for deep and honest conversation about nationhood but we as a nation lacked the courage.

A new constitution or even the next March 4 2013 elections will not give us the thing we sorely need – a Kenyan Nation. But certainly a new government under a new constitution could give us the courage to start on the long and hard road of building a nation. We are 50 years late.

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