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Negative ethnicity

Our ethnicity problems the result of conflicting visions

Publication Date: 4/28/2008

THE POST-ELECTION VIOLENCE has brought to the surface deep-seated ethnic suspicions, antipathy, jealousy and outright hatred which has exploded the image of Kenya as an island of peace.

But having calmed our nerves through the formation of a grand coalition government, we now seriously risk papering over a fundamental reality: We are not “one people” as we want to wish; we are a diverse people living together in a geographic unit.

Unfortunately, the object of our multi-ethnic co-existence within a geographic space as defined by colonial powers without regard to our social cohesiveness has never been justified in clear, concise terms.

We have instead been anaesthetised into a false comfort zone sustained by a constant campaign of mere slogans proclaiming that we are one people while paradoxically admitting our cultural ethnic diversity in yet more slogans – “diversity is our strength” or “unity in diversity”.

We do not seem to have quite made up our minds as to whether we are “one people” or we are a “diverse people”. Certainly, we cannot be both!

BUT THERE’S A PERCEPTION THAT we are expected to become one people, thereby achieving a “civilised” status rather than remaining ethnically aware because that is “primitive”.

I intend to summarise below two schools of thought that need to be resolved if we are to acquire a permanent solution to the challenges of managing our diverse ethnic character.

The first and most popular vision is mounted on a perception originating from colonial brainwashing –  that modern democratic ideals are incompatible with African ethnic cohesiveness.

Our collective intellect appears to have been permanently damaged by colonialism, and we are terrified by the reality that our most potent and cohesive political tool is the tribe.

This common “wisdom” is captured in the following local newspaper editorial made a few years back but still very relevant today: “When the tribe replaces the political party as the instrument of political mobilisation in the quest for power, then it becomes the focus of rivalry, chauvinism and inevitable hostility, and from that point to Rwanda or Biafra is a very short step indeed”.

This view is especially popular among educated Africans who seem to expect, nay, demand, that in time, their ethnic Luo-ness or Kikuyu-ness shall cease to exist and therefrom shall emerge an everlasting de-ethnicitised and civilised one tribe called Kenya.

But there is another, less popular but very potent vision which argues that if there are no ethnic Luo, Maasai, Kikuyu, etc, then there will be no Kenyans either – merely Western cultural stooges claiming to be so. This vision recognises ethnicity as a critical and integral part of human society which cannot ever be wished away.

In and of itself, ethnicity is not a threat to unity; we can be different but accept to live together within a modern state so long as we understand the clear rationale why such unity is necessary.

This vision thus admits, without any misgivings whatsoever, that Kenyans inevitably vote in tribal blocs and will continue to do so. Therefore, as in most of Africa, the tribe has just replaced the political party as the instrument of political mobilisation.

The tribe is the instrument of political and social expression and will remain so for quite a while, maybe even to the end of time.

This, therefore, becomes the starting point of peaceful co-existence and must, in particular, find open recognition in the institutions of State, especially the constitutional power arrangements.

The issue that needs to be resolved is not that we are tribes; rather whether we can become “civilised” tribes with the ability to treat each other in a humane, considerate manner, always aware that our gift of ethnicity is not to be enjoyed at the detriment of the others’ similar gift.

To do this, we require a valid, sensible and clear rationale for that ‘‘civilised’’ behaviour. Unfortunately, the object of ethnic co-existence within a geographic space defined by colonial powers has never been justified in clear terms.

THIS IS THE WEAKEST LINK IN OUR adopted Western-style democracy and politicking. We have not explained to ourselves what our common endeavour as ethnic communities is, or should be. Politics in Africa has become an ethnic dog-fight, sometimes unto death as we have now witnessed in Kenya, in an attempt to place one of our own in control of all national resources.

The immediate and only rationale for a diverse people to want to live together is to maximise the advantages of the economies of scale. The size of market is therefore our first, and probably only common interest.

Ethnicity should not be despised, nor wished away but rather acknowledged openly as a means of better managing our society. The way forward for us has the same challenges and rationale as the formation of the European Union; the size of market and economic outcomes for culturally diverse peoples.

This is the most viable intellectual foundation for Kenya as a state; an “Ethnic Union” formed entirely for better economies of scale and which does not demand Luo, Kamba, or Kikuyu cease to be who they are. Diversity then truly becomes our strength.
Mr Ngugi is a businessman and a former delegate at Bomas.

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About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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