The Ethnic Factor in The Cog of Nationhood

By Javas Bigambo

Ethnic identity is as old as man’s existence and distinguishes people in their societal groupings. By its nature, ethnicity is a social construct. Its anthropological significance is to strengthen humanity’s social fabric within localities for commerce and other socio-cultural purposes.

When it is explored in this direction, it enables the pursuit of happiness and prosperity for the collective and entrenches the centrality of coexistence. Our East African neighbouring country, Tanzania, exemplifies this; having over 120 ethnic groups, but that multiplicity has never gained prominence to threaten national cohesion through political wear and tear.

Comparatively, such cannot be said of Kenya, which has only 43 ethnic groups. Ethnicity has been weaponized for subjugation and emotional control. This instrumentation of ethnicity in Kenyan politics has consistently paid enormous dividends to the few elite, who use it purely for personal gain. That is precisely where the problem starts, with infinite consequences.

Fragmented Nationhood

Nationhood is formed through the collective parchment of ethnicities and their interests. As such, sustained ethnic polarization for political aggrandizement stretches it to its limits.

Severally, ordinary Kenyans, just like politicians, drink from the cup of complacency on ethnic polarization. Expressions of hatred for other ethnic groups, often by those jostling for control of political affairs have been long sustained since Kenya’s independence.

In a bid to cure the long-standing malaise of political parties as self-serving vehicles of their founders, political parties were institutionalized public entities and having them funded by the exchequer based on their numbers in parliament.

Unfortunately, this has so far not saved political parties from ethnic symbolism. Sadly, most political parties are firmly in the grip of their founders, suffering from ‘founder’s syndrome’, and their dominance being relegated to the founder’s area of origin and ethnic extraction.

Severally, ordinary Kenyans, just like politicians, drink from the cup of complacency on ethnic polarization.

Ethnically driven politics.

The strength of ethnic dominance is always strongly manifested in electioneering periods, more so in times of political succession where the incumbent is not seeking re-election. Politics has always served to embed ethnic hegemony intensely, and politicians incline to tribal chieftaincy for their success. 

Tribal arithmetic seems to always be at play in Kenyan elections. This heightened from 2002 during the Moi succession, where to defeat KANU’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, Mwai Kibaki a fellow Kikuyu was deemed a fitting equalizer. In 2007, the tribal machinations of 42 against one led to the post-election violence that followed the disputed general election. In 2013, the Kikuyu-Kalenjin equation drove Jubilee Coalition to power, and the same formulae facilitated its retention of power in 2017.

This depicts that ethnic political coalitions are easily the determinants of power play, not political ideology, or related persuasions. This is true of ODM, Wiper Democratic Party, Ford Kenya, MDG, DP, New KANU, and a host of many other parties. Agreeably, even the big major parties owe their strength to the founder or party leader’s area of origin.

In the literary world, Kenya’s prolific literary author and icon Ngugi wa Thiong’o has sustained a campaign aimed at imploring writers to do their works in indigenous languages. While this would help to grow ethnic languages and preserve cultural heritage in texts, it may also serve to ring-fence access to vital information by those who do not understand the other language(s).

Invariably, ethnic conflicts are strongly entrenched due to colonial policies, which have continued to evolve, conflicts of land, and grazing fields especially those that are communally owned, scramble for resources, scarcity of land, political competition, and disputes over political boundaries.

These challenges are old, and all have metamorphosed from the retrogressive colonial policies, which self-serving politicians have continued to incubate, leading to assorted policy inconsistencies. It is even disconcerting that while devolution holds the promise of growth and development at local levels, the boundaries of county governments are mostly ethnic-based.

Averting negative ethnicity

An institution such as the National Cohesion Integration Commission whose primary objective is to provide the mortar and ballast for national interconnection and forestall ethnic biases through policy recommendations, research and recommendation of prosecution of perpetrators, has a monumental task as a conveyor belt to transport Kenyans from negative to positive ethnic considerations.

To avert negative ethnicity, which has eternally remained the engine of polarization, national political leaders need to do more than just simplistic condemnation. They ought to facilitate the required political goodwill for the proper execution of policies and legislation to stem out negative ethnic dalliance.

The narrow path out

The gulf between legislative frameworks and practice has to be eliminated. A vital starting point would be to do away with timeworn inclinations such as including ethnic details in the national identification cards.

Secondly, the tribal factor as a variable during the national census does not add actual value to national planning or resource allocation. It should be discarded.

Upon boundaries review for counties whenever such will happen, it would be proper to reorganize counties’ boundaries to eliminate the present tribal mappings.

Combating negative ethnicity comes down to individual values and strengthened deliberate political goodwill to purge that radical evil that is eternally carcinogenic.

Mr. Bigambo, a political scientist and lawyer, is Managing Consultant at Interthoughts Consulting.

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