Last week, leading economist David Ndii unleashed the most primeval instincts in Kenyans. In his article “Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time to talk divorce,” Dr Ndii opined that the project of the Kenya Nation had irrevocably gone to the dogs. He then concluded, rather jarringly, that it was time Kenya’s 42 tribes divorced the state, and went it alone. The divorce would be concluded without alimony — zilch. Dr Ndii didn’t say anything new. Everything in that article has been said times without number. What’s new was the clarity and finality of his conclusion — that it’s time to end — terminate — Kenya as we know it. Let me tell you why Dr Ndii is right — and wrong.
In 1995, I wrote a widely quoted law review article in the Michigan Journal of International Law, a flagship publication for international lawyers. The 64-page scholarly piece — Why Redraw the Map of Africa: a Moral and Legal Inquiry — argued that the West had balkanised Africa into artificially unsustainable states most of which had failed to cohere into nations. I postulated that ravenous African political elites could have rescued the post-colonial state, but didn’t do so. But my view wasn’t that Africa was now destined for damnation. No — I articulated a new cartography both of geography and politics to re-engineer the African state. My new African map compressed the 50 African states to 14. I killed many a state, including Kenya.
The article became a cause celebre. The central thesis of the article was that most post-colonial states had failed to attain irreversibility. In fact, I contented that most of them had become no more than predatory jails and warehouses for cannibalising Africans. It was clear to me that states like Kenya had failed in forging a national consciousness out of its 42 pre-colonial nations. Where Mwalimu Julius Nyerere succeeded in creating a Tanzanian identity, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta had failed in producing a being called a Kenyan. Kenyan pre-colonial nations were hardened making it impossible for them to transfer their loyalty to the idea of Kenya. The state became an ogre bent on the destruction of those under it.
There have been dramatic instances in which the failure of nationhood has resulted in mass atrocity, including genocide. Early on, Biafra sought to secede from Nigeria arguing that since Nigeria gave nothing to Biafra, then in turn Biafra owed Nigeria nothing. A genocidal war ensued. Closer to Kenya, Rwandans tore each other apart in 1994. The Ethiopian Empire collapsed in 1974 leading to a long period of carnage and instability. Eritrea headed for the exits. The DRC, once known as Zaire, is an unwieldly mess. Some states — like Chad or The Gambia — have no reason to exist. Somalia, a hodge- podge of quarrelsome clans, is virtually dead. Nigeria is a volcano waiting to explode. It’s three states in one.
The picture looks bad for Africa. But all isn’t lost. Some states — very few — are cohering into nations. But the majority are what Dr Ndii calls “bad marriages.” The panacea, however, isn’t what Dr Ndii prescribes. The erudite economist wants to break Kenya up into 42 constituent republics. That won’t work. First, they will all be unviable. Secondly, most have other sub-groups within them. Further balkanising Africa — by returning it to the over pre-colonial 5,000 statelets — isn’t possible. Further disaggregation of humpty-dumpty isn’t a solution for Africa. Nor will putting humpty-dumpty back together again — like in Somalia or the DRC — work. We’ve seen how South Sudan and Eritrea have failed after disambiguation. Racial or ethnic purity is a hoax.
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I return to my antidotes prescribed in the 1995 law review article. No state can survive without leveraging economies of scale. That’s why economic blocs tend to do better than segregated small lone states. The bigger the trade bloc the larger its leverage. Even the troubled European Union makes more sense than the previous war-prone single European states. It’s the terms of trade and integration that must be worked out, not the logic of the theory of integration. That’s why the East African Community is a great idea. The problem is the dimwitted leaders who can’t see its benefits. In fact, the economic community would be better as a political union. Therein lies the salvation of the African state.
So, I agree with Dr Ndii that Kenya, like most African states, is totally dysfunctional. But no — the answer isn’t breaking Kenya up into small tribal cocoons. The answer — as elsewhere in Africa — is to scale up the state’s cartography. Form larger states. It will be impossible for one ethnic group — like the Kikuyu — to dominate a larger political unit like East Africa. Then democratise the larger state. These two — enlarging the unit and democratising it — are the answer.