We've sacrificed our rich cultures, talents on altar of ethnic politics

Nakuru residents celebrating New Year during the Pamoja concert at Nakuru ASK Show on January 1, 2020. [File, Standard]

As the political scene unravels around us, French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr's adage “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same)" rings true. It is uninspiring to witness the nations’ political maestros retreat to their tribal cocoons in a bid to capture the top seat in the land.

While this may have been the norm in the years gone by, it lacks currency given the crumbling economic order. With businesses and households crawling from the ravages of failed economic policies and a health crisis, one would have expected a little ingenuity. A befitting course would have been a rallying cry to rebuild our broken economic walls.

Equally, from a country that boasts of one of the highest literacy levels in the region, one would have imagined their subjects would demand more of economics as opposed to tribal re-alignments. So far, all we have seen and heard are hazy economic propositions from the main candidates. But they seem to be in good company from the masses when they propagate their tribal arithmetic.

This raises three troubling questions: Are we capable of learning from anything if the grim economic realities we experience cannot teach us of the futility of tribal politics? Has nature been so unkind to us to consistently gift us visionless leaders or we're their ever-willing accomplices? Are there no capable men and women from generation X and Generation Y/millennials who can offer us an alternative credible leadership?

Rich Heritage

While there is nothing wrong with leaders courting diverse ethnic constituencies in a competitive democratic process, it is awfully primitive when voting decisions are made purely based on ethnic association. The net effect is that it robs the nation of the enormous economic reservoir of cultural heritage.

From economic literature, there exists overwhelming evidence that cultural heritage is an integral ingredient in socio-economic development. That notwithstanding, different countries have had different successes in tapping into this economic potential. Scanning through available literature, Kenya is one such country that lacks a clear policy and strategy to exploit its rich cultural heritage.

Garnette Oluoch Olunya, in a report on Understanding the Creative and Cultural Industries in Kenya, observes that the country evolved as a geographic and political entity without a specific cultural identity from her colonial masters. Alex Roberts, in an article in January 2019, trails the country’s missed opportunities to develop a policy framework to integrate culture and the creative economy into economic development.

The absence of a clear policy, strategy and government investment into the sector has denied the country and the people of their pie in this global cultural bonanza. In 2020, the United Nations estimates the sector’s annual revenues to be more than Sh245 trillion ($2.25 trillion) and accounted for more than 30 million jobs worldwide. Nearly half of these jobs are held by women. The sector employs more people in the ages 15 to 29 than any other.

Unesco emphasises the need to integrate culture in national and international development policies. In their 2005 Convention for Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the agency recognises the place of culture, creativity and innovation in combating the challenges of sustainable development, economic growth and promoting social inclusion.

Ironically, the history of Unesco’s involvement with cultural industries is traceable to their 19th General Conference held in Nairobi in 1976. The sector is broadly defined to constitute the production or reproduction, the promotion, distribution or commercialisation of goods, services or activities of content derived from cultural, artistic or heritage origins. The logical question to ask here is; just how did we miss out on a global fortune conceived on our own soil?

Kennedy Manyala, in a report on Kenya’s Creative Economy Business Environment Reforms, underscores the country’s rich cultural heritage. He estimates the worth of the sector to be about Sh85 billion between 2007 and 2009. While the numbers may sound glamorous, our creative economy is significantly small in comparison to our former peers.

Economic crisis

South Korea established a Ministry of Culture in 1998 and invested millions of dollars into the industry. The outcome was Korean pop songs (K-pop) estimated to be worth more than Sh545 billion ($5 billion). The South Korean cultural sector was instrumental in salvaging the country’s economy from the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s. It was not only the instrument of choice to create employment, but also to establish a new taxable revenue base for the government and spread their global influence.

In African, Nigeria has one of the booming cultural and creative economies estimated to generate annual revenues of about Sh1.2 trillion ($11 billion) in 2013, and over one million jobs. This was due to targeted policy interventions by the Nigerian government in the 1970s. In recent years, the country has invested heavily to accelerate its success. South Africa has also had a robust creative economy.

In the US, the Otis College of Art and Design report on the Creative Economy in 2020 estimates the sector output at about Sh71 trillion ($650.3 billion), labour income at $209.6 billion and 2.68 million direct and indirect jobs in California. In Los Angeles the sector has created about 800 thousand jobs, annual output estimated at $203.2 billion and labour incomes of $67.0 billion. Notice this report tracks the creative economy in the two cities only within the California State.

In China, the creative goods trade grew from $32 billion in 2002 to over $191.4 billion in 2014. In 2020, the report on the Development of China’s International Cultural trade estimates annual exports and imports at $111.45 billion.

This would probably explain why the Chinese government is investing in Confucius institutes across the world. After all, other than the billions of dollars in culture and heritage, it is also a weapon of choice for a country to spread its geo-economic and political influence across the world.

Policy options

In the 1980s, the fashion industry contributed about 30 per cent of the manufacturing sector in the country. Today, this has been wiped out by ‘mitumba’ and cheap imports from the Far East. Article 11 of the Constitution affirms culture as the foundation of the nation and as a cumulative civilisation of the Kenyan people and the nation.

It is without a doubt that our beautiful land is a hotbed of talent and creativity. Our, at least 42, ethnic communities have a heritage of splendour – diverse food and fashion tastes, folklore, music and dance, indigenous knowledge and artefacts. Yet, all this has been weaponised only to propel tribal elites into positions of power to feed their political greed.

To the Tangatanga and Kieleweke political wings, it would serve your country right to institutionalise the policy and legal framework to facilitate an organised intervention and investment into the cultural and creative economy. To the presidential candidates, the economic season in which you seek to lead the nation demands knowledge edge solutions, not wheelbarrows or failed rural economic philosophies from three decades ago.

Finally, to the generations born between the 1970s and 2003, you’ll be a disgrace to your country to reduce your power of the ballot to tribal arithmetic based on stereotypes and prejudices. The country and your parents will have laboured in vain to invest in our education if we cannot apply the knowledge so acquired to make an informed choice of who is best placed to solve our socio-economic problems.

It requires no rocket science to understand that in the only two occasions we overcame tribal prejudices in the 1963 and 2002 General Elections, the economy had a robust growth after and up to the medium term.       


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