What Kenya can do to slay the monster of tribalism, end divisive politics

Kisumu Governor Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o and Former Nyeri Deputy Governor Dr Caroline Karugu. [File, Standard]

“I already realised the problem was not just one of disagreement between political leaders over an election result: the countrywide violence meant the problem was more fundamental, arising from the makeup of the Kenyan political system and its relationship with society. We needed a process that would address the root causes of Kenya’s problems, otherwise any agreement would constitute nothing more than a delay before the next violent crisis…Our mediation needed to be the beginning of a true process of political reform.”  - Kofi Anan, former Secretary General, UNO.

Following the violence that took an ethnic form after the controversial outcome of the December 2007 presidential election, Kofi Anan, the mediator among the conflicting parties, in his pursuit for a peaceful settlement, made the above point emphasising the key political problem in Kenya: That of creating a nation out of diverse tribes.

The concept “tribe” is itself a problem; what it connotes presents even a much more complex phenomenon in understanding and dealing with in a post-colonial situation. In the case of colonial Africa, the European colonialists used the word “tribe” to define the conglomeration of the local communities they found in Africa which they defined as primitive, backward, uncivilised and in need of salvation. The colonists therefore tended to herd the “natives” together in homelands and deny them all the modern benefits of “European civilisation” such as education.

Such homelands were called “districts” in the case of Kenya. South Africa was the extreme where racial segregation called apartheid, lasted much longer than elsewhere in Africa. What put an end to this ugly phase of imperialism called colonialism was not the good nature or free will of the imperialists but the struggle for independence and self-determination by the Africans themselves.

Since “tribe” had been used to divide Africans so as to politically oppress and economically exploit them, tribe became also an enemy of nationalism and the struggle for independence. Indeed, according to Amilcar Cabral, the Guinea Bissau’s leader of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, the whole idea of the struggle for independence was to die a tribe and be born a nation in the post-independence situation.

And the expression of tribe in terms of political exclusion based on tribe has made the birth of politically cohesive nations almost a permanent work in progress, quite often degenerating into the kind of conflict that Kofi Anan was mediating in Kenya. The conflict became a tribal conflict since the parties to the conflict were grouped in political parties with generally tribal boundaries. Need this have been the case?

Not really, since Amilcar Cabral pointed out that the independence struggle should itself be a process of nation building, of dying as tribes and being born as nations. But this is really what happened in Africa. Or it happened in various degrees and with diverse outcomes from one post-independence situation to the other. In Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union, subsequently transformed into Chama Cha Mapinduzi after the union with Zanzibar, actually became reasonably successful in creating a conscious process of nation building by substantially reducing tribal political and economic competition.

Kenya, on the other hand, has seen the continuous formation of political parties obeying the boundaries of tribe since independence, hence Kofi Anan’s observation. What, then, needs to be done in the case of Kenya? Or, to put the question in a more active way, what have Kenyans done, or what do they intend to do, to this effect?

By the time Kofi Annan was mediating in the post-election conflict of 2007/08, it was quite clear that whatever had been done had failed to produce the political fabric for dying a tribe and being born a nation. The result was the recommendation by Annan’s team for radical constitutional changes that would widen the frontiers of democratic politics so that political struggles for scarce resources would rise above ethnic conflicts under new rules of the game that would promote nationhood. The 2010 Constitution tried to do exactly this both in its preamble and proposed legislation for creating national cohesion through political, economic and social institutions and processes.

The problem in Kenya, however, continues to be that regarding the make-up of the Kenyan political system and its relationship with society due to two interconnected but different phenomena: Tribe and tribalism. Tribe can be broadly defined as an association of people who share linguistic, kinship or other similar ties while tribalism is the political mobilisation of “tribe” to secure or maintain state resources to the exclusion of other tribes. This distinction is important because it helps us shed the impression that tribe is inferior to race and primordial or atavistic: It simply refers to dynamic, ever-changing identities.

Tribalism, on the other hand, is nowhere near benign or benevolent. Tribalism leads to neglect, marginalisation, exclusion and, in cases like Kenya, violent conflict, and, in the case of Rwanda, even genocide.

The struggle for ethnic inclusion in this country is as old as Kenya. Scholar Prof Karuti Kanyinga has argued that in Kenya… the colonial administration created native reserves by force. The state did not allow interaction between groups. This alone firmed up ethnic identities. The state imposed restrictions on movement of these groups from one area to another. Consequently, the different communities became “ethnicised”…[and] isolated.

In post-independent Kenya, Kanyinga has shown how critical State positions were controlled and/or dominated by the tribe from which the president hailed and there is no need for us to, at this juncture, pursue that line of argument because the figures and data presented is granite-solid. Indeed, it is because of this that the failure of the NARC coalition to hold together after its devastating electoral victory over the then-ruling Kanu regime in 2002 spiralled into the 2007/8 post-election crisis and led to Kenya’s worst existential nightmare.

We would, instead, like to pose the question: “So what are we to do to slay this monster called tribalism?” Arend Lijphart and Will Kymlicka, who have both extensively studied ethnically fragmented/divided/fractious societies and made clear cases on how these societies should manage these fissures, have made useful contribution to this debate.

Lijphart’s proposed solution to the problem of tribalism in Kenya’s body politic revolves around the theory of “consensus democracy” or consociationalism which goes beyond mere majoritarian democracy. Consensus democracies have multiparty systems, parliamentary systems with oversized (and therefore inclusive) cabinet coalitions, proportional electoral systems, corporatist (hierarchical) interest group structures, federal/devolved structures, bicameralism, rigid constitutions protected by judicial review, and independent central banks. These are all elements that currently feature in the Kenyan Constitution but “presidentialism” quite often undercuts them in the public sector and state structures, thereby super-imposing tribalism in constitutional practice.

On the other hand, Kymlicka talks of pluralism. Pluralism is defined by The Global Centre for Pluralism as an “ethic of respect that values human diversity.” Pluralism is a deliberate choice made to ensure and enhance inclusion and participation within societies that are characterised by the diversity that results from differences in, for example, culture, language and religion. In this regard, such diversity does not necessarily need to lead to division and conflict. Instead, it quite often softens the edges of potential conflicts by democratically promoting unity in diversity.

Pluralism is not accidental; instead, it results from considered decision-making and thoughtful public investments. Moreover, it is characterised by good governance, strong civic institutions and sound public policy choices. Thus, the state plays a central role in whether a society enjoys pluralism or not.

Kymlicka has characterised pluralism as incorporating both “hardware” and “software.” “Hardware” features items such as constitutions and institutions, including legislatures, courts, schools and the media. “Software” involves cultural habits and public mindsets that include conceptions of national identity and historical narratives. Kymlicka notes that these habits and mindsets shape our perceptions of who belongs and who contributes, and they influence how we interact on an everyday basis with others.

It is important to note that both the hardware and software dimensions of pluralism are equally important; they are interdependent and constantly interact, affect and condition each other. Kymlicka observes that at its best, these dynamics produce virtuous circles: the emergence of pluralistic narratives and identities make possible inclusive institutional reforms which in turn serve to strengthen habits and mindsets of respect for diversity.

But the dynamics can equally go in the opposite direction, as exclusionary mindsets lead to discriminatory institutional reforms, which in turn serve to further polarise attitudes and exacerbate feelings of distrust or enmity.

The jury is still out as to whether the Building Bridges Initiative would have been a catalyst for deeper consociational democracy in Kenya were it to have been implemented. Notwithstanding the resistance against it, the issues it raised and tried to resolve are still pertinent and can only be postponed while sacrificing greater national cohesion as tribalism continues to feed the interests of the political elites.

The struggle, as it were, continues.

Prof Nyong’o is the governor of Kisumu.

Dr Karugu is former deputy governor of Nyeri