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Identity crisis an obstacle to national unity

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Perennial tribal skirmishes in North Eastern Kenya and the Coast are as predictable as they are devastating.

Experts are warning that unless the Government takes proactive steps to institute national dialogue and reconciliation, large-scale violence could soon explode.  According to Mr Jeremiah Owiti of the Institute for Independent Research in Nairobi, the authorities and stakeholders need to understand the nature, history and attitudes of the communities involved.

“The conflicts in Northern Kenya and Coast are based on historical injustices hinged on systemic State neglect which originated but did not end with the colonial legacy,” says Owiti.

In just two weeks, more than 60 people were killed in Tana River, Wajir and Mandera in conflicts over land, pasture, and water. But the gruesomeness of the killings and the efficient manner of execution left a bitter taste among Kenyans as it echoed the bloodbath of the post-election violence.

Owiti explains that communities in North Eastern are a bitter lot because they have been left out of the national system and that conflicts pitting such communities against each other are often resource based.

Kenya’s colonial government enacted several laws specifically targeting the north. The Outlying District Ordinance of 1902 effectively declared the Northern Frontier District (NFD) made up of Wajir, Mandera, Ijara, Garissa, Isiolo, Moyale and Marsabit a restricted area, where movement was only possible under a special pass.

The Special Districts (Administration) Ordinance of 1934, together with the Stock Theft and Produce Ordinance of 1933 gave the colonial administrators extensive powers of arrest, restraint, detention and seizure of properties of ‘hostile tribes’. The latter legalised collective punishment of tribes and clans for the offences of their members. These ordinances applied also to present-day Tana River, Lamu, Kajiado, and Samburu districts.

Exclusionist agenda

The net effect of the colonial legislation was to turn NFD into a closed zone that had no contact or relation with other parts of the country. Indeed, other Kenyans knew little about NFD. This situation continued after independence and is best captured by American writer, Negley Farson in Last Chance in Africa: ‘There is one half of Kenya about which the other half knows nothing and seems to care even less about.’

“The colonial authorities designed and perpetrated an exclusionist agenda against the northern communities who were perceived to be insignificant – even rebellious and hostile. This stereotyping of a community lingered on in independent Kenya resulting in people from the North having fewer opportunities in national development including in education and job opportunities,” observes Owiti, who is credited with developing the UNDP referendum project in South Sudan.

“Today people from the north do not feel part of Kenya hence the common phrase ‘we have just come from Kenya’ by north eastern residents after a visit to Nairobi. The tragedy is there has been inculcate defiance among such communities that they are ready to take up arms to defend their territories against their neighbours,” he says. But the problems afflicting parts of Coast Province, he notes, are also informed by historical injustices revolving around land ownership but political undertones have exacerbated the situation leading to inter-ethnic conflicts.

He is, however, optimistic that the underlying issues to the conflicts can be addressed through the Constitution and Agenda 4 of the National Accord, which is was designed to restore peace. “We have a very proactive Constitution that would address historical and emerging issues affecting these communities. There is no need for us to re-invent the wheel now but enact the legislation and establish institutions that would lead to equitable and peaceful Kenya,” he says.

Dr Elias Mokua of Jesuit Hakimani Centre says causes of the recurrent clashes are known we lack national identity.

 “Kenya is a fragmented society. We identify more with clusters whether on tribes or regions. The scenario is quite different in Tanzania where a person is a Tanzanian first before tribe,” he observes. “It is not so much on policy, not so much on law but we need programmes that identify us as Kenyans regardless of where we come from. Studies show that 93 per cent of Kenyans need reconciliation. Somehow, there is something in our hearts that say we need to heal,” he adds.

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