By Barrack Muluka
Congratulations, fellow Kenyans on our country’s fiftieth birthday. I should have loved to say ‘on our nation’s fiftieth birthday.’ However, I am not so sure that we have become a nation. We have travelled through time just managing, somehow, to live together. The challenge of nationhood remains intact. It remains as it was in the months after independence, when Tom Mboya put together his speeches in a volume so titled – The Challenge of Nationhood.
On Thursday, President Uhuru Kenyatta gave what may very well pass for the best presidential address on Jamhuri Day this far. The Head of State gave a sober and candid speech. His mood was moderate, if cheerful, as the occasion would demand. His deportment was balanced as befits a national leader on such a solemn occasion. It was devoid of displays of anger and name-calling that the leaders have previously made the hallmark of Jamhuri Day.
The President warned the corrupt and the indolent. He told them that their picnic was over. He decried the dragon of negative ethnicity. He correctly pointed out that it had drastically slowed down the country. He graciously acknowledged the constructive role that the political Opposition must play. He recognised Opposition leaders Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as his partners in moving the country ahead.
Such is as it should be. President Kenyatta reminded Kenyans that political competition should not degenerate into enmity. People go to elections to choose their government, not to make enemies. The winner at the elections becomes everybody’s leader, including those who did not vote for him. The healthy way to look at it is that the votes that you did not get only expressed a different preference. They were votes for someone else and not votes against you. In the end, therefore, you must bring together everybody in working for the common good of the people of Kenya.
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It remains a little difficult, however, to feel that you belong. President Kenyatta will want to know this. He will want to lead the way in imbuing everybody with a strong sense of belonging. The leadership of the country since April, when the Jubilee Government was formed, has been exclusivist. The President has told us that he does not follow what is said in the Media. Hopefully someone will tell him the things we say. But if nobody does, then he must continue to run the risk of becoming the naked president. He may very well find himself, someday, walking naked on Kenyatta Avenue, in broad daylight. So much the worse for him.
Let those who have the President’s ear, therefore, tell him the truth. The truth is that the challenge of nationhood reposes squarely on his shoulders. He must lead. We will follow. In this, he must recognise that perceptions are as important as reality. On the negative ethnicity that he decried, perceptions in Emanyulia in Khwisero are that the Head of State is, himself, one of the foremost agents of negative ethnicity today. They could be wrong. But that is the perception. That, together with his deputy, they have created a duopolistic state.
They have placed the institution of Government in the hands of a duopolistic ethnic elite. The rest only have a token presence. The perception – right or wrong – is that they have no time for people outside the two communities. This is not a healthy perception, regardless that it is true or not. Worse still is that even in Jubilee, one group is now being edged out. The big irony about political appointments is that beyond a feel good factor, they never really add any value to the tribe. In the past the Abaluhya people, among who I was born, have had huge numbers in Government. They were easily a majority in the Kibaki-Odinga Government of 2008 – 2013. Yet it is difficult to point at a single benefit for the larger community that this brought.
President Kenyatta may as well leave the ethnic composition of his government in its current duopolistic shape and still deliver more to the Abaluhya than Kibaki and Odinga did. Yet this will not take away the perception that they have been excluded. An old man has told me rather cynically, “Dreamer of Dreams, you see we Abaluhya people eat with our right hand. The thing that falls on our right hand side is what belongs to us. The one on the left belongs to someone else. We don’t touch it. Yet for the first time in 50 years, nothing has fallen to our right hand side in the Government. Shall we eat what is not ours? Is the Son of Jomo for us?”
I don’t know the answer to these questions and I told this Mzee as much. Only the Son of Jomo knows. What I know, however, is that these perceptions replicate themselves in communities across the country. Our President must find a quiet moment to reflect on them. He must address the concerns in a manner that restores the national sense of inclusion and participation. We have cause to worry when a section of the country perceives such an important event as celebrating 50 years of independence as “their thing, belonging to them.”
Negative ethnicity remains the hugest challenge that Kenya must overcome. After 50 years of independence, Kenyans are as divided as never before. The President must address it with pulsating urgency. For negative ethnicity is the mother of all other national maladies. It is the mother of arrogance, corruption, discontent and apathy in public service. These, in turn, give birth to poor economic performance and poverty. Poverty then breeds hunger, disease and insecurity. These open up space for a fresh layer of more negative ethnicity, corruption and a fresh cycle of arrogance, discontent, apathy, poverty, hunger ... Eventually, dictatorship comes in, to keep the rotten system in place. All avenues of free expression are muzzled. This is what keeps Africa in the Third World. And if there were a fourth and fifth world, Africa would be there.
Eventually, President Kenyatta must heed the counsel of his guest from Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan, when he said, “May the freedom you gained 50 years ago help you to build an inclusive society for all.” It can be done. All it takes is willing leadership at the very top.
Kenyans are looking up to President Kenyatta to begin turning this country around. Make no mistake, once the President begins, Kenyans will join in – from Jubilee, CORD and everywhere, to begin making this country the Kenya that we want. That is to say a country that lives up to the dream of our National Anthem. All the best, Mr President.
The writer is a publishing editor, special consultant and advisor on public relations and media relations