What exactly does it mean to be Kenyan?

Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! The Psalmist

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File photo showing Ghana’s past presidents together. Credits citifmonline.com

Kenya’s 2017 election pitting Raila Amolo Odinga as challenger to HE Uhuru Kenyatta’s incumbency has been billed as a 2-horse race between two corrupt parties. While this may be true on some level, I hereby opine for time and eternity that there are far deeper concerns at play than corruption. This is not to say that corruption is not an issue. Rather this is to say that corruption is a secondary issue. What is at stake is the very concept of Kenya as a nation and a going concern.

The Ganges’ Jewels and Jinja

The state of Kenya formed as a secondary outcome of geo-political chess. The British Empire’s crown jewel was India from which she derived spices, textiles and jewels. The fastest route from Brittania to India was through the Suez Canal. Whoever controlled the Suez Canal controlled India. Egypt controlled the Suez. Whoever controlled the Nile controlled Egypt. Hence the control of the Nile was of utmost importance to the preservation of the British Empire’s crown jewel. It so happens that the origin of the Nile is in Jinja, Uganda; which is Kenya’s immediate neighbour to our West. Hence a direct logical line of thought can be drawn from the riches of the Ganges to Jinja in Uganda. The physical manifestation of that line happened to be the railway line from the port of Mombasa in Kenya to Kampala which was to later become the capital of Uganda.

Building the Mombasa-Kampala railway was a long, tedious and arduous process. And as they say, the journey is the destination. Some of the builders stopped and smelled the roses and in so doing, fell in love with these environs. The end result of this process was that large swathes of indigenous Kenyan land ended up occupied by our former colonialists. A by-product of this was the so called Happy Valley set. Eventually the railway arrived in Kisumu and from then onwards to Kampala. But history could not be reversed. Our colonialists’ love affair with Kenyan vistas and wildlife left an indelible mark whose result was the creation was the British Protectorate of East Africa.

In this manner, what began as a geo-political game to gain mastery of India, resulted in the formation of a transport corridor upon whose heels followed the creation of a colony which would later come to be known as Kenya. This is how the state of Kenya was formed; as a geographic area on either side of a railway. This geographical area contains tribes and communities within it. This was the Kenyan state that gained independence, and could have turned into a nation of brothers; but has severally failed to rise to meet the defining challenges that have assailed it.

Flashforward to today. Our 2017 election is pitting the son of Kenya’s first president against the son of Kenya’s first vice-president. The fact that 50 years of intervening history have brought us to this juncture is a failure of both our leaders as well as a our parents’ generation.

Various facts are both incidental and causative to this emergence of ethnicity which include more geopolitical chess, political repression, assassinations and the raw need for political mobilisation given the context. But the point remains that Kenya in 1963 was not a tribal country. Kenya in AD 2017 is. Tribalism and ethnicity need not be a negative thing. Our diversity can and should be appreciated. With that covered, let us cover a little bit of sociology.

States, Nations and Identity

For starters some definitions. A state is defined as a patch of land with sovereign governance. A nation is defined as a group of people who are bound together into a single body, through history, values, language, culture, art and religion. (Notably missing from this definition are railways. The British built theirs and still had to leave. But we digress.)

The development of an identity from state to nation is often not easy. National identity is often forged during national crises or challenges. As a psychological rule of thumb, when an entity is faced with a challenge and especially an existential challenge, their response will be a function of their identity. Therefore failure to form a strong and cohesive identity cripples one’s ability to respond to a challenge or crisis. By extension, a polity either rises to the challenges facing it or succumbs under these challenges, as a function of the polity’s identity. Failure to form a strong and cohesive national identity cripples a nation’s ability to respond to challenges which it faces.

Easily accessible historical examples of challenges forging national identities include the US Civil War (the challenge was slavery and secession, the identity response was democratic and constitutional deliberation) and the Cold War (the challenge was territorial and existential, the identity response was capitalist and expansionist). For Britain the destruction of the Spanish Armada could be said to have been a signpost in their national identity (this challenge was existential and their identity as a sea-faring nation was called upon) in much the same way as the Franco-Prussian war was formative for Germany (the challenge was France, the identity forged was conservative, capitalist and Protestant). The Hundred Year’s war was similarly a crucible for both England and France. Closer home, other examples have been discussed at length in the piece immediately prior to this one. Let us now dig into the crux of this argument.

Brothers or Children of a Lesser god?

In the aftermath of the 2002 election Kenya was officially the most optimistic nation on earth. To paraphrase one victorious naval commander, Kenya had “met the enemy and they were ours.” The subsequent political machinations that quickly soured into 2007’s post-election violence should serve as a signpost for any statesman on the path towards nation-building. President Kibaki’s 2002 win may have been significantly more marginal or even contested had Raila not said “Kibaki Tosha!”

Over and above that, Kenya’s first president, Kamau wa Ngengi aka Jomo Kenyatta, rose to that position after Raila’s father arm-twisted the colonial government into releasing him as a pre-requisite for national independence. The subsequent fallout between these two founding fathers has never quite been resolved since then.

In the wake of this fallout, the Luo community has had the worst of it on the ‘national’ stage. Key names that dot the landscape include Tom Mboya who was assassinated in broad daylight. An intelligent capitalist and political mobiliser if ever Kenya had one, Tom Mboya was responsible for the student airlift which gifted the world with America’s first black president. This was as a result of a fortuitous meeting in Hawaii between Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. It is said that Ann Dunham fell for Luo nyadhi and then weaponised it into the political operative who stormed the White House. Another Luo great who is said to have fallen to ethnic strife was Dr. Robert Ouko. He exited the land of the living courtesy of a bullet to the head. In his final position as Minister for Foreign Affairs he so impressed George Bush Sr. that the sitting power structure felt sufficiently threatened by possible regime change.

It has further been said that should you visit the Turkana, Samburu or other Northern Frontier Districts, upon your departure to return to more beaten paths, these communities tell you to “Salimiana ukirudi Kenya.” Translated literally this means “Greet your people when you return to Kenya.” A more succinct way of communicating systematic alienation and under-development may not be found in our history. This systematic alienation of politically ‘light’ communities by successive governments was the result of development agendas based on cronyism and political tokenism. This skewed development is what necessitated our new constitution. It must be noted as an aside that constitution development is traditionally not a peacetime achievement. This should perhaps further underline the extent to which government budgets have been directed at arbitrary, non-national and tokenist targets.

This record must also note that this new constitution was an arduous labour of love which was fought severally by sitting governments. These included the long-drawn out process of the Yash Pal Ghai’s commission in 2000, followed by the bait-and-switch of the Bomas Draft and the Wako draft in 2005 and finally governmental lethargy in 2010. Even Kenya’s best president economically, Mwai Kibaki was against the 2005 Draft and only relented to political pressure by joining the Yes vote late in the 2010 Yes campaign. The heavy political lifting during this interminable process was carried out by one Raila Amolo Odinga. Wait, where have we seen that name before?

And finally there is the little-known and oft-overlooked fact that it was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who pulled our 3rd president out of Makerere and installed him in the upper echelons of KANU in 1960. It must be noted that at this time Kenyatta was still in prison.  From there Kibaki took a brisk walk into treasury in 1963 and from there to the office of the Minister for Commerce and Industry in 1966.

In other African nations, such good turns are often returned in due course. By this I am referring to the curious case of Ghana. Ghana’s current president’s father paid the immediate former president’s tertiary education fees in Ghana and flight tickets for further education in Russia. As it so happens, HE Nana Akufo-Addo unseated John Mahama right in the middle of Mahama’s incumbency. What am I trying to say? In short that one good turn deserves another.

As we finish up, (lol) it should be clear by now that the nation of Kenya owes much to its Luo leaders if not its Luo people. Given that RAO and the Luo people have not appointed his successor, chances are that this bloc will splinter if Raila were to pass away (God forbid) without identifying his successor. And even if he did appoint his successor, chances are 90-to-10 that this successor will not be as widely accepted by the Luo people. Accordingly, and in the knowledge that we may not have the opportunity to repay these good deeds in good time, it would behoove us to repay the Luo people before the bloc splits. Otherwise there will be a lingering “ethnic debt” which happens to be a wedge in the identities of other African nations.

This brings us to my final questions on Kenyan nationhood.

  1. What shall we as the nation of Kenya do with this man Raila Amolo Odinga, who fought for our new constitution which is devolving funds to previously marginalised counties?
  2. What shall we as the nation Kenya do with this community whose brilliance is globally recognised and whose contribution to our political progress has perhaps not been sufficiently rewarded?
  3. Shall we continue to play exclusionist games of tag with our presidency?
  4. Shall we choose to define our national identity as inclusionist, or exclusionist?
  5. Or shall we continue to label certain communities as “opposition material?”
  6. And if we do so, the logical follow-on question is; if the Luo who we (partially) owe our new constitution (remember I said partially) cannot be rewarded for their contributions to our political progress, under what circumstances will the Samburu, the Turkana and the Masai ever qualify to be termed as Kenyan or worthy of Kenyan leadership?

Exactly what does it mean to be Kenyan?

 

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