Ethnicity plus nationality do not equal citizenship

By Muthoni Wanyeki

There have been many concerns about including the question of ethnicity in the upcoming national census.

Civil society has, in the past, urged the Government to exclude questions about ethnicity from the census and instead focus on counting the numbers of Kenyan citizens.

Some argue that, whereas ethnic identity has been used as a mobilisation tool by politicians, skipping the question in the census would not solve our ethnic woes. This argument is plausible. We should find ways of appreciating our diversity without turning it into a tool for division and unfair distribution of resources.

But, while the potential for fresh ethnic violence has been one of the reasons civil society advocated against inclusion of questions about ethnicity in the census, the main concern has been that, past censuses have failed to accurately establish the total number of Kenyan citizens and excluded vulnerable groups.

Recently, the Government announced Migingo islanders will be counted in the census. This was supposed to be a symbolic act, to the effect that the islanders are Kenyan citizens. But how will Government going to know they are Kenyans?

Silly question perhaps, but the census doesn’t actually count who is Kenyan and who is not? It counts the number of people in each tribe — but only within tribes that have a so-called tribal code in the questionnaire, which leaves many Kenyans out.

Specific Code

The Government relies on an incomplete colonial listing of ‘42 tribes’. What is the point of counting a population if we are not seeking to find out who are citizens? Or if we are excluding tribes apparently deemed too small in numbers to matter?

In the census, Government will ask: ‘What is your tribe or nationality?’ If you belong to one of the recognised ones, you will be given a specific code. This is on the assumption that everyone here is automatically Kenyan — which is not true either in law or in practice. Citizenship is based primarily on the citizenship of your father and not on your ethnicity.

Generally, if your father is Kenyan, you are Kenyan — a discriminatory law and practice which the women’s movement is still trying to change.

Even more problematic is the assumption that if you do not belong to one of the recognised tribes, you are not Kenyan. Granted, there is a category for ‘other Kenyans’, but we know from experience that many people who have been here for generations — see themselves as Kenyans and have never even visited another country — are categorised as foreigners.

Why is this important?

First of all, the Government has certain responsibilities vis-‡-vis its citizens, such as providing education for children, healthcare and other social services. In order to plan for delivery on these, it needs to know how many citizens there are. All governments need to know this.

From a policy perspective, it is irrelevant who is Gikuyu and who is Luo — since all citizens are equal — yet it is essential Government knows how many citizens it must cater for.

It also needs to know where they live and challenges they face. The census could tell us all of these, provided it asks the right questions.

The question of ethnicity is the reflection of a systemic problem, not a xenophobic reaction to the 2007/8 post-election violence. Had the violence not happened, we would still be faced with the systemic problem.

Xenophobic Reaction

Kenyans are rightfully proud of their ethnic identities. The fear is what the data will be used for by the few who will have access to it — especially if it is collected and not released. Let us learn from Rwanda that discarded this practice.

Particularly given that the results of the 1999 ethnic profiling were not released. But that data still guided the recent period of economic growth. Is this not a sign we can eliminate ethnic profiling altogether?

A census that conflates tribal affiliation/nationality with citizenship is fundamentally flawed. For that reason we urge the Government to ask people their citizenship. This would reduce ethnic tensions and allow it appropriately plan for all citizens regardless of their ethnicity/nationality.