A war we cannot afford to loose: tribalism in Kenya !

In his monumental work ‘The Prince’, Niccolò Machiavelli (the Italian renaissance political philosopher) offered wisdom that applies equally to modern-day Kenya: “And what physicians say about disease is applicable here: that at the beginning a disease is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; but as time passes, not having been treated or recognized at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. The same thing occurs in affairs of state; for by recognizing from afar the diseases that are spreading in the state (which is a gift given only to a prudent ruler), they can be cured quickly; but when they are not recognized and are left to grow to the extent that everyone recognizes them, there is no longer any cure.”

The malady of tribalism in this country needs to be dealt with seriously and fast. The undercurrent of tribal division in Kenya is gaining momentum fast. We seem to be on a slippery slope towards disintegration. It could be so serious the country we may not be ‘put together again’.

Our dilemma as a nation is plain; there are those who have made national unity their main focus and have made efforts to reach this goal, while others want this unity but are unwilling the embrace what is offered to them. They are so obtuse that the dream of ending tribalism will remain very distant.

We squandered the golden chance we had in 1964. Kenya could have strangled the Jin of negative tribalism. Then, like today, the post-independent Kenya was faced with the challenge of forging national unity and integrating all people of the country into one prosperous nation. Ominde,the chairman of the first educational commission in 1964, observed: “During the colonial era, there was no such thing as a nation”. There were in fact only several nations living side by side in the same territory. Education, like the society itself, was stratified along racial lines. There existed three separate systems divided by rigid boundaries.”

The dangers of moving the country forward along tribal lines was obvious to the founders of the nation. Session Paper No.10 (1964) brilliantly gave the country an ideological framework for solving the tribal problem. It drew from African traditions what was dubbed African socialism, with two essential bases: political democracy and mutual social responsibility.

Political democracy implied that each member of society is equal in his or her political rights. Within it no individual or group will be permitted to exert undue influence on the policies of the State. The State, therefore, could never become the tool of special interests, catering for the desires of a minority at the expense of the needs of the majority. The State was to represent all of the people and do so impartially and without prejudice.

The aim was to provide a genuine hedge against the exercise of disproportionate political power by economic power groups.

On the other front, mutual social responsibility was viewed as the extension of the African family spirit to the nation as a whole, with the hope that, ultimately, the same spirit could be extended to ever-larger areas. It implied a mutual responsibility by society and its members to do with very best for each other. It believed that if society prospered its members would share in that prosperity. It said that without the full co-operation of its members society cannot prosper.

The State had the obligation to ensure equal opportunities to all its citizens, elimination of exploitation and discrimination, and to provide needed social services such as education, medical care and social security. It was expected therefore that members of the State would contribute willingly and without stint, to the development of the nation.

If you have lived in kenya you do not need to be told that this had a still birth! You and I know pretty well that this never saw the light of day. These were good ideals on paper, but what followed gave birth of an elite that mocked the division during the colonial era.

Our division today is more complex and multiple in nature. The public is more aware of the consequences of policies that ignored the path away from tribal politics. Relative deprivation, how we compare with others around us, has made every community seek power. They were more sensitive to marginalization than they were at independence. The re-engineering taking place in our society is frightening. Protests are getting bolder and more widespread. Very few would have expected to see secondary schools challenging the state of affairs as we have seen in the play ‘Shackles of Doom’ by Butere Girls High School at the national school festivals.

A glimpse into the social media showing that there is unprecedented anger and great polarisation that should never spill into our streets. Failure to change this may slide us into a conflict worse than what we saw in 2007-8.

The circumstances leading to the dissolution of the Yugoslavian State during the early and mid 1990s may be at play in Kenya today. The failure of the Yugoslavian economy, the failure of the unified national government, and rising ethnic tensions, fueled the ethnic cleansing the civil war. If we do nothing it will bring down this country fast. We need to heed the warnings:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Humpty Dumpty has become a highly popular nursery rhyme character. American actor George L. Fox (1825–77) helped to popularise the character in nineteenth-century stage pantomimes of music and rhyme. The character is also a common literary allusion, referring particularly to something that, once broken, is difficult to repair. This can be applied to our national unity.

Will H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta be able to put a country, so fragmented, together? To his credit, he has identified this as the major hurdle to our national prosperity. During his swearing in he, made it clear that, “Achieving peace and strengthening unity will be the goal of my Government…” And expressing the urgency of this task he said: “This work begins now. We welcome all Kenyans to hold us to account.”

He outlined how to build this unity thus: “Indeed, national unity will only be possible if we deal decisively with some of the issues that continue to hinder our progress. … It will be confirmed when the rights of all citizens are protected through legislation that upholds the spirit of our constitution. When women and young people are both seen and heard at the decision-making table, at national as well as devolved levels of government.”

One highly important area needing attention that is not being addressed is our education system. I am afraid that these lofty goals will be pipe dreams if we do not reset our education system. This was one of the greatest unifier of this country in the past. The Ominde Commission was formed to introduce changes that would reflect the nation’s sovereignty. The commission focused on identity and unity, which were critical issues at the time. The principle preoccupation of Ominde’s report was the introduction of an education system that promoted national unity and inculcated in the learners the desire to serve their nation.

We ditched this system. Its critics claimed it was a failure because: i) The policy made the focus too academic and therefore was not suitable for direct employment. Thus the education lacked orientation to employment.
ii) The policy encouraged elitist and individualistic attitudes among school leavers, something that was considered incompatible to the African socialist milieu.

The irony is that the gains made by the post independent education system in national integration was undermined in the shift to the new education system, the 8-4-4 in pursuit of illusive economic prosperity. The change of the school system Balkanised the country due to its rule of 85% intake of students from the local district. It became possible to enrol in local nursery, primary, secondary and universities…and may be to be employed locally. It meant that the previous free movement of people and sharing of resources was now going to be restricted. Areas with poorer infrastructure were going to feel the brunt of exclusion.

In my view this more than any other policy, has made this tribal conscience worse. Daniel Owira of the “Otonglo Time” narrative, at this year’s schools drama festivals, eloquently depicted it!

Even though it is the Presidents duty to set the tone of national unity, we ALL have a responsibility to be willing to be a nation and refuse to be divided along tribal lines. No amount of coercion or manipulation may unite us. We must walk towards persuasion that will build confidence among all communities in Kenya. Do we ourselves want a country where our citizenship matters more than our tribes? This hould transcend the ‘Nyayo era’ of manipulating tribal balancing policy.

Professor Miroslav Volf, speaking from the Bosnian experience, has said: “The other (those feeling left out) cannot be coerced or manipulated into an embrace (unity and acceptance of a people)” It’s clear that violence in enforcing unity is so much the opposite of embrace that it undoes the embrace.

If embrace takes place, it will always be because the other has desired the self just as the self has desired the other. This is what distinguishes embrace from grasping after the other or holding the other in one’s power, either financial or force. Waiting is a sign that, although embrace may have a one-sidedness in its origin (the self makes the initial movement toward the other like the president has now done), it can never reach its goal without reciprocity (the other makes a movement toward the self). Cohesion must be a mutual venture. As protagonists we must all desire to embrace one another. There is a temptation to walk the broad way of beating others into being like us. Again as Volf commented further: “But the other is often not the way I want her to be (say, she is aggressive or simply more gifted) and is pushing me to become the self that I do not want to be (suffering her incursions or my own inferiority). And yet I must integrate the other into my own will to be myself. Hence I slip into violence: instead of reconfiguring myself to make space for the other, I seek to reshape the other into who I want her to be in order that in relation to her I may be who I want to be. This underscores the place of dialogue to reach unity.”

The National Cohesion Commission, born out of the realisation that long-lasting peace, sustainable development and harmonious coexistence among Kenyans, requires deliberate normative, institutional and attitudinal processes of constructing nationhood, national cohesion and integration. But it has been to many Kenyans the ‘Hate-speech Commission’.

Agenda No. 4, under which the Commission was formed, recognized that long term issues with regard to poverty, inequitable distribution of resources, perceptions of historical injustices and exclusion of segments of the Kenyan society, were among the underlying causes of the prevailing social tensions, instability and the cycle of violence recurrent in electoral processes in Kenya.

It is not enough that the National Cohesion and Integration Act (2008) makes discrimination on the basis of ethnic or racial grounds a criminal offence. It ought not only bar comparison of persons of different ethnic groups and makes it illegal to harass another person based on his race or ethnicity, it should implement its very objectives and functions. Promotion of national unity must be taken seriously. The commission must urgently identify factors inhibiting national unity and advise the Legislature as well as the Executive on this.

We do well to heed the words of Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, whose success in uniting Tanzania remains second to none: “There must be equality because only on this basis will men work cooperatively. There must be freedom because every individual is not served by the society unless it is his. And there must be unity, because only when the society is united can its members live and work in peace, security and well-being. Society must have institutions which safeguard and promote both unity and freedom and it must be permeated by an attitude—a society ethic—which ensures that these institutions remain true to their purpose, and are adapted as need arises.”
Rev. Canon Francis Omondi
Anglican Church of Kenya
All Saints Cathedral Diocese


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  1. Evans

    Greet piece. Thanks

  2. We have a long way to go. We need to up campaigns against tribalism and the mess it has caused us, particulary within the youth. When I was in high school, I believed that the new generation was devoid of tribalism, little did I know that the parents of my fellow students were teaching them something else. My parents did too speak much about this and that tribe, but I was somewhat numb to that since I could see no difference. At home, kikuyu was our first language to learn. We went to cosmopolitan schools within Eldoret and that was wiped out slowly but surely until when all hell would break loose in 1992. I think that first violence when I was only four years old stuck in my mind that tribe does not play a huge factor in my life and should be eliminated.

  3. From Lucas :
    I like your multi-faceted approach to the problem, even though I feel you place a heavier burden on the shoulders of the individual citizen than he can shoulder. I feel that State policies of nepotism and exclusion taught us tribalism; that it matters what tribe I am, and that my tribe will be used against me. How does an individual like me overturn this? Doesn’t the primary responsibility lie with the State to demonstrate that this will happen no more? I identify more with the “other” than with the “self” in as far as the Kenyan Nation is concerned. You seem to be saying there is a sense in which I am also the “self” who should embrace the “other”, but I don’t quite get it. By the way, the intellectual level of this paper is much higher than the previous one.

  4. Well, I agree that it cannot happen if we refuse to be brought together. But honestly, bro, sometimes I feel like even the call to unity itself is being used against me. It has often been used by people who propagate tribalism to stifle the response of others. You are right in calling on the State to do its bit. But so long as UK and WSR appoint most of the Cabinet from their tribes, their calls for us to see qualified Kenyans and not tribes is a misuse of the fight against tribalism. It is I, who is complaining about tribalism, who is now seen as tribal and being called by the perpetrator of the vice to embrace nationalism. So, while I appreciate the role of both parties, I kind of hold that the response of one party (the citizen), is dependent on the initiative of the other party (the State). I hope I am not saying that I will hold back myself from embracing other tribes until the State embraces me. But, the State’s actions make it difficult for me to believe we can live in a country where tribe is not an issue. And when I meet my “other” friends, I honestly do not blame them for the actions of a few in power. But I totally detest their support of the policies and practices that have advanced this evil. Bro, when the Government chooses to resettle IDPs from only one Region and ignore the others, we can’t speak about it because that would be enhancing tribalism. I cannot get out and ask why they are only getting land for Kikuyus who used to rent houses in other towns, plus many impostors, while ignoring Luos and Luhyas who equally suffered at the same time. This, would not be looked at kindly. How do I, then, disappoint those who play the tribal card?

  5. I read it – pretty good, though I thought it may be better to talk about the policies that have shaped this thinking(such as the 844 system- with a few more examples, which to me is new content ) rather than a general view. Francis very few are totally unaware of what you are saying. How do you tell people that tribe is bad when they have benefitted from it? It helps them feel good. I feel a bit disillusioned though. Last week I sat with some educated folk of kik tribe- well they are really in the dark ages so I am wondering who is being educated by this “awareness” or if indeed when they read it they are transformed at all. In fact the people talking spoke of Mutava, and how he feels like them. Worse still, they legitimize their notions by talking about how foolish people are to have sided with the lake- e,g the Coastals who in their view are “regretting”- that you all don’t know how to deal with loss, are stuck in the past, and still look to London when the man has gone there for the way forward.
    That even Tuju agrees with them that you are (the lake people ) all yoked by this individual whose Father was as retrogressive.

    So as you write francis, I am wondering If I was talking to educated folk, what about the uneducated? They are not interested in sharing the view of eradicating the vice you speak of- to them it is not a vice at all. And I am thinking maybe this should be done another way, talk about the consequences in terms of one time the shoe will be on the other foot, what then? Have you read Githongo’s book?

  6. George Ogalo

    This is certainly a Grade A paper, but we are still at a loss on how to slay negative ethnicity. Even those who got their education in Havard, Cambridge, and Pluto just need a sniff of the ethnic bug, and they are totally different. So education, yes, but what more? Even those who speak poor mother tongue seem to be quite inclined to tribal feelings? What is it in us? Is it a Kenyan problem. I like what you say about NCC, it simply has not helped us move forward much – perhaps those who create such commissions are either reacting, or just hoping in sincerity. I hope we are not already at the “humpty dumpty” stage as a nation! I am not yet convinced that we have a way out of the dragon yet. Is this a spiritual problem? political? or biological (we look for vaccines)? May be the nation is infected, and healing must begin not from the nation, but from individuals – not even generational change seems to offer much hope.

  7. Rev'd Basil

    As a sojourner in this blog, I wish to comment, albeit in the passing that, whilst your piece appears to have been brilliantly thought through, it has touched on some of the most destructive factors of our fluidly put together nation-state. I want to venture into a perspective other than the already stated failure of bundling Kenya’s “house of nationalities” into a state. I am talking about the commodity known as communality.
    1) When we elect a president in Kenya and in any other sub-Saharan African country, is it not true that we sacrificially desecrate our individual rights and freedoms in favor of safeguarding and consecrating our individual communality interests?
    2) How did feudal Europe, including Norway with its minority Sammi ethnic people groups and some the ethnic groups in Switzerland, “conquer” its demons of tribalism and/or ethnicity in order to build their somewhat ‘truly’ unitary countries whose peoples’ participation in national affairs is based purely on individual biases for political party ideologies and groups, whose memberships are drawn largely from across the boundaries of the country and whose considerations for allegiance transcend tribal/ethnic considerations and identities – unlike in our case?
    3) Why are we more often than not blind and deaf to the deceptions of politics so that we easily believe and readily welcome the propaganda that politicians tell us about ‘unity’ of the country when in most cases they use the word ‘unity’ to refer to the consolidation of their political bases and maintain a strong constituent base to help them stay in political power?
    4) Aren’t the concepts of political unity, nationhood and statehood really more about creating a commonality of political units than social identities that pride in a people’s anthropological sameness? Is it possible for us to forge unity in Kenya without appealing to our individual ethnic/tribal identities and popularity? Will Sub-Saharan Africa create a political culture that makes many and sundry to feel “at home” with a leadership that comes not from their traditional ethnic/tribal background?

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