Shifting census numbers to upset political ground

Total population in Central declines due to a drop in fertility, as the numbers in other regions soar.

A dramatic change in Kenya’s demographic patterns will shake the ground upon which much of the debate around the yet-to-be published Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report is premised.

This, and the looming release of this year’s national population census- rumoured to contain some shockers- will jolt the political scene and occasion realignment to suit emergent realities.

Already, an analysis of official demographic data since independence, as well as insights from various experts, indicate that the concept of “tyranny of numbers” might no longer be tenable as population figures shift in different regions.    

While most analysts expect the Central region to remain the most populous in the country, the Mount Kenya region might not remain as densely populated as it has been in future.

Not only is the population of the former Central Province declining as fertility rate dips, the people there are also increasingly being attracted to other parts of the country.  

Other parts of the country such as Northeastern, which have been sparsely populated, might experience some demographic dividend due to their increased fertility, with their numbers further bolstered by improved healthcare. This has consequently led to a drastic drop in infant mortality.

Reject parliamentary system

But the census results could also slam the brakes on the notion that the future of the “tyranny of numbers” lies in the north. The pairing of Huduma Namba and the census is reported to have eaten into previously reported numbers of the region.

Last week, speculations on BBI proposals sent Central MPs into panic, with Cabinet secretaries from the region closing ranks to reject a parliamentary system. The fear was that it would devour the regions numbers.

“If the BBI does not address the challenges of equalisation of the vote under the universal suffrage principle of one-man, one-vote, then we will sit down and advise our electorate accordingly,” said Jeremiah Kioni, the chair of the Constitution Implementation and Oversight Committee (CIOC) of the National Assembly.

Billow Kerrow, the former senator for Mandera, said the panic among Central Kenya MPs is premised on a glorious past that has been overtaken by the reality of a shrinking population.

“It (Kikuyu population) was 21 per cent of the total population in 1969, but dropped to 17 per cent in 2009,” said Mr Kerrow, also a former shadow Finance minister.

“Now that they have the lowest growth rate in the country, their numbers will probably fall below 15 per cent. But the sooner we realise that this nation is for all Kenyans, the better,” added the former legislator.

System that deviates

Gerishon Ikiara, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, agrees that Central’s proportion of the total population has declined, as the numbers in other regions soar.

However, he explained that a system that deviates from the nearly-accepted cardinal rule of one-man, one-vote, whose effect will be to disadvantage some people, means that BBI proposals will have it rough.  

Prof Macharia Munene who teaches international relations at the United States International University, doesn’t think that the country is ready for constitutional changes, and insists that some areas with high population such as Kiambu, Murang’a, Bungoma and Kakamega have been short-changed in terms of political representation and distribution of resources.

He also doesn’t think it is time to change a constitution which is barely 10 years old, insisting that instead, politicians should be the ones to change their attitude.  

But Munene agrees that there will indeed be a demographic game-changer that will leave certain regions less populated, even as the number of people in other parts of the country swell.

“Mount Kenya had a lot of people due to its agricultural productivity. But we have seen a decline in the population of Central Kenya due to low fertility,” said Munene, adding that some areas have however experienced population growth due to increasing fertility.

“At the moment, Northeastern appears less populous, but that will change,” added Munene.

A 2011 report by the Institute of Economic Affairs imagined a situation in 2022 when Northeastern would give Kenya the youngest president due to the region’s surging numbers.

Some areas such as Lamu County, according to the professor, are also increasingly being urbanised, attracting people from other parts of the country.

“The Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) Corridor project, for instance, will push the county’s population to a million people and turn it into a metropolis,” said Munene.

Lapsset Corridor is eastern Africa’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure project, bringing together Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

According to David Owiro, an economist, a number of factors have changed in the last five to seven years, which might explain the demographic changes in the country.

First, he says, there has been great improvement to access to healthcare, though he observes that some regions have started from a high-base than others, meaning they already had better services. The import of this is that infant mortality, which was very common in some areas, is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

Also, income levels in some regions are better than others, added Owiro. 

Income levels might explain the big difference in birth rates between Central and Northeastern Kenya, for example “because higher income tends to lead to better family planning or health education, which in turn leads to lower birth rates,” he said.

Purely cultural

But Owiro nonetheless calls for caution: “All these suppositions can only be verified with data.”

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) is expected to release the results of the recently-concluded census before the end of the year.

A study by the KNBS on the percentage distribution of households by size, residence and county, showed that while households with more than seven members in the Northeastern counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera were 37, 49 and 45 per cent respectively; only four per cent of households in Nyeri, two per cent in Kirinyaga and three per cent in Murang’a were that big.

A University of Nairobi lecturer who sought anonymity said that (without giving evidence) there was a programme among the Muslim for families of more than 10 people.

“There is a feeling that in another 20 or 30 years, the population of Muslims would have increased exponentially,” said the don.  

But that might be purely cultural rather than deliberate according to Owiro. Different cultures, he explains, have different value systems, with some cultures considering children as natural wealth.