Kenya: A state in quest of becoming a nation

Watching things unfold in Kenya reveals a country that is at best a state in search of a nation. It has the characteristics of a state as recognised at the United Nations and the African Union, but it lacks all the ingredients of a nation. This is not for want of trying, for it has tried since 1963 when British colonialists left Kenya in the hands of Jomo Kenyatta. With a divided people whose identity was largely a product of colonial engineering, his challenge was to inculcate a different identity from being British “subjects” to being Kenyans.

This was rough since the British had imposed a divisive constitutional structure that Kenyatta was determined to dismantle in order to build a “national” structure that would, he believed, inculcate a sense of “nationhood”. While keeping the state, he had to contend with assorted secessionists with loyalty elsewhere. Kenyatta’s successors also managed to maintain the state even as they struggled with the concept of an elusive nation building. They ended up being blamed for aiding divisions rather than promoting sense of nation.

That struggle between the state and the nation is still going on despite the dreams in the 2010 Constitutional dispensation. A product of prolonged internal and external pressures, the new constitution tried to balance between the state and the nation by weakening the state without necessarily advancing the nation.

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It has contradictions that make it the subject of constant agitation for changes; often to suit the political whims of identified political players. Instead of going down, discrimination along ethnic and clan lines, particularly at the county levels, has increased. This implies that the constitutional structure is rarely the problem, despite what the agitators claim. The attitude of the leaders is the problem.

Losing elections

They create institutions to advance their political interests, not to serve the nation in which they lack faith. Subsequently, the electoral body receives plenty of pre-election praises only to suffer post-election condemnation. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), therefore, has a permanent image problem, some of it self-inflicted. It continues to suffer reprove because leaders condemn it after losing elections. At election times, as Kenyans tear at each other in the name of individual politicians seeking particular offices, the fact of Kenya not being a nation becomes vivid. Losers refuse to accept defeat and since they command a large following, they choose to make the country ungovernable.

They hold the country to ransom until they receive appropriate accommodation which is then called peace. In the unwritten rules of accommodation, the loser pushes forward to get what he wants, the winner bends backward to avoid additional chaos, and the result is a nusu mkate arrangement. It happened in 2007-2008 and it happened in 2017-2018, all in the search for nation.

For a while, Kenyans thought they had found a formula in the 2010 Constitution because major political protagonists, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga were on the same political side of constitutional drum beating. Although critics noted anomalies, political power men ensured passage by promising rectification of identified shortcomings.

Political leaders

Still, there are grumblings within the state about some people in parts of Kenya not considering themselves Kenyans. There are also disaffections when people holding high offices seemingly have primary loyalty to foreign powers that might be antagonistic to Kenya’s interests. Often, the reference points for such people are such countries as the United States, Canada, Britain, France, the European Union, or some other Euro powers.

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Among the requirements in the 2010 Constitution dispensation is that the president, once a year, would tell Kenyans where they are with regard to national values, the economy, and security. The mandatory “State of the Nation” Address ends up being more a “state of the state” rather than a “state of the nation” because the “state” is but the “nation” is still in the process of becoming. This was clear in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “State of the Nation” Address on April 4, 2019, when he tried to bind the state and the nation by talking of the Big Four and Kenya being economically strong.

There are several threats to that economy. High powered untouchables subvert the rule of law and service deliveries. There is also the cohesion thing, trying to make political leaders think Kenyan and thus act as nation and cool down temperatures to allow fthe Big Four. He and Raila had initially said that their Building Bridges Initiative, BBI, would last one year. This changed as Uhuru stressed that the BBI would remain for a long time. It acquired a semblance of permanency that, he hopes, might help to realize the “nation”. It has a long way to go.

Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU

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African UnionIEBCBritish colonialistsJomo Kenyatta