Referendum debate steadily degenerates into intolerance

We move frightfully towards crude reductionism and intolerance. Virtually everywhere in the global community, we see things in black and white today. There are no grey areas, no room for conversation. We imagine that our challenges have only a single cause and one answer. We isolate individuals and communities and see them variously as the cause, or the answer, to our situation.

In the West and in South Africa, the problem can be summed up in one word – migrants. In Britain the problem is the European Union and in Africa it is increasingly China. Where it is not China, it is some tribe in our country – whichever country. Sort out this tribe and all will be fine! In Kenya we were ahead when we said in 2002, “Everything is possible without Moi.”

Our crude reductionism closes up our collective mind. We simply refuse to think. We even proclaim loudly that someone has already thought for us. In the colonial age, the Mzungu did not allow us to think. If you told him, “I think that . . .” he cut you short and said, “Who told you that you can think? We think for you!” Now with the freedom to think, our country refuses to think. Even on such an important matter as the law, we refuse. Big Brother will think for us. Big Brother himself reduces all his challenges to the law. Whenever there is an issue, the answer is, “Change the law. Change the constitution.” It is a confounding crude reductionism that we seem to accept. The law must be changed to suit individuals’ desires. Hence such an individual may stand up in public and say, “We will soon go to a referendum. It will be like a whirlwind. It will sweep all garbage into the ocean.”

So when did Kenyans become rubbish? And who said the ocean is the destination for garbage? Why is it assumed that if there is a referendum, Kenyans will invariably vote YES? There has emerged an unbridled arrogance that sees some characters behave as if they own people. This is a most dangerous trend. It is the sort of “people ownership” that has raised the curtain of disaster in the pages of history. Before World War I and World War II, for example, there rose to the scene “infallible individuals.” They knew everything. They thought for everyone. Nobody could question them. In the end, they plunged the world into chaos. The impact is still felt eight decades later.

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Without exception, after each General Election since 1988, a hostile debate to change the Constitution engages Kenyans. There have been seven elections at the end of each of which there has been a clamour to change the supreme law of the land, to cure elections and government. Sometimes we have made piecemeal reforms to the Constitution and to other statutory laws and regulations. In 2010 we overhauled the Constitution. Yet the challenges remain.

The present cycle has taken two parallel initiatives that did not set out at first as competitors. There is the Third Way Alliance Party initiative, also known as Punguza Mizigo – or the Ekuru Aukot effort. Then there is the joint effort by President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga. Punguza Mizigo sets out to try to reduce burden of government on citizen’s shoulders. It wants government to be smaller and wages in the Executive and the Legislature restricted by law.

Punguza’s approach to wages is unrealistic. It would mean each time we want to review these wages we must have a referendum. On representation in Parliament, it also falls flat on its face. A constituency with 4 million people cannot be represented by the same number of legislators as one with 100,000 people. Punguza has also failed to answer the question of gender parity in the County Assembly. Yet these are not the issues Kenyans are discussing. They are instead asking Third Way Alliance where they got the temerity to imagine that they can also lead in the effort to change the Constitution. They dismissively tell the country to wait for the Kenyatta-Odinga initiative, also known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

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This intolerance is dangerous. You will also see the constitutional debate has been reduced to a supremacy contest between Raila and Deputy President William Ruto. You cannot say anything about the BBI without being branded “a Raila or Ruto man.” Accordingly, Mizingo is now being called “a Ruto project.”

In a confounding development, a chap who claims to be a journalist has put words in my mouth, giving me verbatim quotation to the effect: Muluka said, “Mudavadi will team up with other opponents of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga should BBI lead to a referendum.” This gentleman, lies to his readers further, “ANC will team up with Ruto and any other likeminded politicians to vote against the referendum, which some people say might take place in June next year,” he (Muluka) said.

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Those who have watched a TV interview I gave to KTN on Wednesday last week will attest that I said no such things. But that is where the country has reached. For avoidance of doubt, BBI is still in the kitchen. When the report comes out, Kenyans should discuss it and accept or reject it depending on its merits or demerits. And the choice should not be determined by who else supports or opposes it. I have nothing to do with Ruto. But I cannot be blackmailed about the Constitution by someone floating the name Ruto. We don’t need that intolerance.

-  The writer is a strategic public communication adviser.  www.barrackmuluka.co.ke      

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ReferendumPunguza Mzigo BillBBI