I spent a cold one week this past week oscillating between Belgium and the Netherlands. Amid the biting chill, these are a warm and industrious people. They have created great nations that are centuries ahead of us in physical and economic development. One cannot help but be jealous of the order that defines how things are done. The infrastructure is zillions of years ahead of our superhighways. Oh, that the Nairobi-Nakuru highway would one day benefit from such upgrade! Many of us would emulate Kipchoge and easily try the trip in under two hours – possibly a record 1:39 instead of the current 4:59 – of course by car and with many pacemakers.
Being a Kenyan, however, benchmarking on development is usually secondary. What really strokes our tickle is politics. And so, we got talking about local politics – especially of my host country, Belgium. As the headquarters of the European Union, one would imagine that Belgium would be the pacesetter in political stability. But nay. Belgium is struggling politically. Sharp divisions between the Flanders north and the Wallonia south are threatening to split the nation into two. Flanders is the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, making up the largest part of the country’s population at 68 per cent.
At the centre of the disagreement is the age-old ethnic bigotry – more specifically language. Sandwiched between the Netherlands in the north and France in the south, the northerners are mainly Dutch speaking, while the south is mainly French speaking. One Southerner believes the issue of identity could be a factor of bad socialisation. “In Flanders, from an early age, the Flemish are educated to be Flemish first and foremost, whereas here in Wallonia we are rather linked to our city. But above all we are Belgian.” It is a perspective that makes the south feel patronised by the north.
The northerners, however, see the challenge mainly from an economic perspective. According to Euro News, there is a significant economic gap between Flanders and the French-speaking Wallonia region. Flemish productivity per capita is about 13 per cent higher than Wallonia, and Flemish wages are about 7 per cent higher. The north therefore feels they carry the economic burden of the nation. That is why the far-right separatist group Vlaams Belang (VB) is against continued subsidies in poor municipalities and is advocating for independence. “If you are in a marriage and you only have to pay the bills and your spouse does not want to cooperate in any way anymore, then it may be better to get a divorce,” Wouter Vermeersch, a VB member is reported to have said.
Pundits however believe that actual divorce is unlikely – at least not soon. The divisions are however so sharp that, whereas elections were held in May 2019, no government has been formed to date. Efforts at forming coalitions have instead ended up in collisions. But apparently, such stalemate is not unusual. In 2010, it took 589 days (almost two years) after elections to hammer out a deal on the formation of government.
The Belgium story makes Kenya look like a political First World. At least our handshake did not take that long to come by. Our leaders hammered out a surprise peace deal in less than four hours – a trick the Belgians could borrow! But that is as far as our gloating can go. Ours was a do-or-die situation. The handshake came to save us from internal self-destruction that was spreading faster than Australian fires. The loss of lives and destruction of property was driving the economy to a halt. In sharp contrast, a casual visitor to Belgium would not know that the nation is in a political stalemate. Everything is calm and quiet, at least on the surface. The people have somehow learnt how to disagree agreeably, without disrupting daily life.
In Kenya when we disagree, we disagree. The street boy must join in – because we are on the streets; the dead must hear – because we are at every funeral; the worshipers must pause – because we are at every Church service; and businesses must stop – because we shut down every street. Whether you are a casual visitor, or an octogenarian citizen, you cannot sleep because the decibels are dizzying. The consequence is that social life is put on edge and the economy is bowed. Well, now showing at a city near you – BBI Debacle 2020: An intriguing trailer to Showdown 2022 –old cast, different roles. Seriously, as Makau Mutua would put it – methinks we should just ship all our politicians to Belgium to benchmark on how to do quiet politics. Sadly, no benchmarking has ever born any fruit.