Monday, May 27, 2013

What Idea called Kenya?

In 1885, European Powers agreed to carve up Africa among themselves. Until their massive land-grab, Africa did not have nation-states in the mould of the Old World. The Dark Continent, because of its fecundity and natural wealth, was largely a collection of ethnic communities, with one or two formally organised kingdoms, empires and city-states. But the advent of colonialism brought with it the spectre of the "traditional" European nation state, with "formal governments" and "national identities." It mattered not that in the division of spoils among the British, Germans, Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese, French and Italians, the boundaries that were drawn up did not reflect the "national" identities the colonialists and their settlers intended; instead, entire "nations" were fragmented, ethnic communities were subdivided and whole cultures were rendered irrelevant with a stroke of the treaty pen.

Nationhood in Africa never really took root as it has in the West or Asia. Even appeals to nationalism have always foundered on the barriers of ethnicity and tribalism. It is for this reason Prof Makau Mutua's assertion that "Kenya as an idea has never been so deeply imperilled" (Kenyans are more divided today than ever before, Sunday Nation 27/05/13) must be interrogated further. The context for Mr Mutua's assertion is the two-fold: first, the calls to "move on" and the persistent calls to do nothing that would imperil our fragile peace are misguided and wrong. It is imperative that Kenyans continue to question the path they are being led on by the charmers in the Jubilee Coalition led by Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. Second, the hateful vitriol being spewed on the web, especially on social media sites are a true reflection of who we really are as a nation. It is only online, according to Mr Mutua, that our true selves are reveled, where even with the anonymity that comes with aliases for registration monikers.

This author readily admits that he has called for the nation to move on, including urging Mr Mutua to "let it go." This author also admits that he may have been wrong. In papering over the flaws of the 2013 general election, I was guilty of willful blindness to the sins of the candidates on the ballot. Many of them made pie-in-the-sky promises that they, and I, knew to be worth a bucket of warm spit. Many of them persisted in laying the blame for the travails of their constituents at the feet, or on the shoulders, an Other that so happened to be a "tribe" they disagreed with at the moment. Many are now suspected of fanning violence in different parts of the country in retaliation for either losing in the elections or, if victorious, in celebration. We are, in the words of Safaricom's former CEO, a very peculiar people with very peculiar habits.

But the claim that Kenya is an idea, I believe, is founded in the wrong presumption. When Kenya gained independence, it did not really become independent: what we got was the right to internal self-rule. the Prime Minister and his government may have been Africans, but the Governor was British and Kenya was governed in the name of the queen of England. Even then, Kenya as a political territory had only existed for 42 years, since 1921 when Kenya became a colony. In the 42 years of official British rule, the colonialists effectively implemented a divide-and-rule policy that bred suspicion and ill-will that not even internal self-rule or the declaration of a Republic could eliminate. Fifty years later, in an epoch-making general election, Kenyans are still as divided as they were when the British coralled about forty-two ethnic communities into one land and called it the Kenya Colony.

It is the rose-tinted glasses of the likes of Mr Mutua who dream of  Kenya as an idea that persuades this author that Kenya is yet to stabilise, never mind all the rosy projections of the pundits, economists and politicians. Kenya has never been democratically governed; it has never had an incident-free transfer of power; its peoples have never been united; and its politics has always divided more than it has united. Now that we have empowered tribal chieftains to spend what they do not have in the name of devolution, the political schisms running throughout the country are set to deepen and widen: we will never close the gulf between our peoples. One way or the other, we are going to find more and more things to divide us than to unite us, and we are going to play on the fears and insecurities over our neighbours that I will be surprised if saner heads will not call for the disbandment of the Senate and the devolved system of government in favour of an still-emasculated presidency that is decentralised at the grassroots. There has never been an idea called Kenya; once we admit it, we can stop comparing ourselves to Western nation-states. We can then start to redefine our identity and our fate.

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