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How Kenya can overcome entrenched negative ethnicity

We must challenge ethnic mobilisation

In spite of where one comes from, whatever their last name is, we are all human, Kenyan and equal.

In Summary

• The nation-building project was hijacked by a group of people whose avarice outweighed their patriotism.
• Multiparty democracy brought about tribal-based parties

Kenya is in agony over the politics of identity and resentment.

Political elites have for many years resorted to using identities for political mileage. Our politics has been narrowed to deeper fragmentations that threaten the advancement of liberal democracy, institutions and stability. Many have attributed Kenya’s ethnic animosity and antagonism to her colonial masters.

I am compelled, however, to consider this as a tactic to avoid the real discussion about where the problem started. Indeed, the British tactic of divide and rule to subdue Kenyans’ growing might bred some ethnic antagonism. In fact, through their fight for freedom and liberation, many Kenyan communities were united.

Fragmentations cropped up just before Independence. The people would be divided into two major political parties: Kanu – dominated by the hegemonic Kikuyu and Luo communities — and Kadu — dominated by the other minority tribes, the Luhyas, the Kalenjin and Coastal communities, among others. In an effort to form an all-inclusive government, Kanu accommodated Kadu in the 1960s. This was a step in the right direction.

As Koigi Wamwere writes, the nation-building project was hijacked by a group of people whose avarice outweighed their patriotism. The majority of Kenyans felt short-changed, as they did not enjoy the freedom they had struggled to achieve.

The environment bred a strident and a vicious ethnic elite that opted to pursue their endless personal and selfish interests through a very destructive ethnic path. The ethnic elites would often mobilise their tribes by tapping into their nationalistic emotions, which ensured their ill-acquired wealth and political status was protected.

The system was characterised by the violation of human rights, corruption, abuse of the Constitution, anti-institutional culture and what Koigi would call, “sale of justice in the courts to the highest bidder.” All perpetuated by the Kikuyus, who were in power and had become politically aggressive, wealthy and influential.

The liberal democratic order that the nation-state Kenya was supposed to be founded on became a mirage. The situation became worse in 1978 when Daniel Moi (also from a numerically dominant community) came into power. Public resources were plundered for another 24 years. Even when with the re-establishment of the liberal democratic order in 1990s, the persistent and continuous allegiance to narrower ethnic identities made democracy unattainable.


When Section 2A of the Constitution, was repealed, there was renewed hope that marginalisation and oppression would end and that human rights, freedoms, liberty, equality and justice would be guaranteed under liberal democratic institutions.

This was expected to eradicate negative ethnicity.
However, ethnic fragmentations became deeper and ethnic-based conflicts became the order of the day. This was not unique to Kenya.

There was the genocide in Rwanda and many other conflicts in Eastern Europe, notably, the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, which was instigated by ethnic conflicts between the Serbs and the Croats.

Multi-party democracy brought about tribal-based parties. Moi is quoted at a rally as saying the political order that Kenyans were yearning for would be catastrophic and that he would be remembered for opposing it for he believed it was unhealthy for the country.

This would come to pass with the 1992, 1997, 2007-08 and 2017 ethnic tensions and electoral violence.

The drafters of the 2010 Constitution hoped the new law would address the simmering issues that resulted in violence in every electoral cycle. Pockets of violence experienced after the 2013 and 2017 elections and the growing calls for constitutional review exposed the soft underbelly of the 2010 Constitution.

Political commentator Mutahi Ngunyi has constantly reminded Kenyans that they ate a half-baked constitution.

The current referendum push has gained irreversible momentum, however, the fundamental question remains: is Kenya getting ready for another constitutional blunder failing to address the pernicious communalism that has plagued this country for almost six decades?


The handshake between President Kenyatta and ODM Raila Odinga has been hyped as one of the nation-building projects. It has received widespread support domestically and internationally. Through the handshake, Uhuru and Raila have the opportunity to right all the wrongs their fathers were not able to do.

As debate ensues on what to consider in the constitutional review and as many chant for the formation of a grand coalition government to establish an all-inclusive political order, I am convinced that this alone will not end negative ethnicity. The Constitution, as a document that outlines the relationship between the rulers and the governed, should be able to ADDRESS conflicts that might arise.

One of the notable omissions either by accident or by design in the independence and the 2010 Constitution is the absence of a definition of the IDENTITY of the Kenyan people. Who are they without referring to their tribes?

I submit that as a people who have a shared history, experiences and struggles, we should engage in a debate to define the Kenyan identity beyond ethnic identities. By developing a framework that subsumes all existing identities by integrating all pre-existing and partial tribes and ethnic groups, Kenyans will deny the allegiances and loyalties that threaten our stability and shared prosperity.

But how do we get here?

As Political scientist Karl W Deutsch wrote, effective communication is key in creating a national identity and consciousness. Through it, people consciously or subconsciously let go of their allegiance to their narrow ethnic and tribal identities and identify more with the broader political unit that promotes nationalism.

This would evil elites from consciously mobilising people around tribal and ethnic lines. This is why Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s proposition to have native languages taught in school is not backward, untimely, retrogressive and an impediment to the resolve to fight negative ethnicity in all its forms.

There’s is a dire need for us as a people to invest more in forming an IMPERSONAL STATE, which can advance its rule rather than the common belief that it is temporarily transferred and entrusted to the winner of a struggle or election.

The Kenyan leadership needs to invest more in creating a country that believes in the Constitution, the rule of law, respect for human rights, freedoms, liberties, and strong liberal democratic institutions.

If this happens there is no ethnic, religious or tribal group that will ever care where the next president or the deputy comes from, as long they know the candidate can be trusted.

Alternatively, through devolution, we can create a space where all voices are heard and images of nationhood can be displayed through the exchange of ideas and mutual learning and understanding. And, at the same time, celebrate our differences and uniqueness to bring out an allegory that will shape our interactions as a people. The image created will link the past, the future and communities.

In spite of where one comes from, whatever their last name is, we are all human, Kenyan and equal.


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