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January 22, 2019

Is nationhood unachievable?

Flag laid in respect for the post election violence victims
Flag laid in respect for the post election violence victims

The hallowed dream of the Kenyan nation has been battered by the winds of material greed and narrow ethnic interests. Like a candle in the wind, the flame of nationhood is limp, fading. Without a higher shared purpose, our wholeness is diminished.

I have argued in this column that the space for thoughtful, deliberative conversation about our common bond and shared purpose is contracting. Corrosive, zero-sum ethnic feuding has overshadowed civil negotiation among alternative visions.

In another election year, the ghosts of the shameful murderous orgy of 2007-08 loom large. Ordinary citizens are despondent. They expect mayhem. Our fragile peace is at risk. The pledges of peaceful coexistence by leading politicians and clergy are perfunctory, perceived by the public and the international community as insincere.

Something precious was irreparably broken in 2007. The faith in the nation collapsed from within. It was amazing how slow we all were to rise and defend the dream, protect the flame of nationhood from the gales of vitriol and mindless murder.

I recall the early 1990s —the last full decade of President Daniel Moi’s reign — many people lost faith in the ideal of nationhood. The Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity become hollow. State power became an ethnic zero-sum game.

Beginning in the 1980s, reasoned discourse in the universities about the great and just society dissipated. The flames of ethnic grievance raged. Education, the mechanism for cultural transmission of a sense of common purpose, broke down. Ethnic nationalism surged. Politics got raw and primordial.

The effects of tribalising politics and state institutions have been far-reaching. Today, political mobilisation along ethnic rather than ideological lines is both normal and desirable. Ethnic honchos are ‘authorised’ to negotiate on behalf of their tribes. Hence, when in power, ethnic elites engage in rule violation, including corruption, tax evasion and political fraud for and on behalf of their ethnic groups. It is hardly surprising that expressions such as “our thief” are ingrained in our political lexicon.

In many ways, the ethnic honchos embody the aspirations of the tribe. Politics is about collective ethnic interests and how power is shared among ethnic elites. Politics is about ethnic power. Our politics is not about individual or class concerns such as taxes, unemployment, minimum wage or quality of education or healthcare. Our politics is about ethnic groups jostling for their turn at the trough.

The state of our society today is consistent with theories of cultural co-evolution of institutions and norms. Our chickens have come home to roost. Unchecked, primordial ethnic mobilisation for political competition has adverse economic and social consequences, perpetrating inequality, undermining social cohesion and making herculean the task of laying the foundation for a democratic society.

Once upon a time, nationhood epitomised the highest and most noble ideal. The aspiration for nationhood gave diverse ethnic groups a sense of common purpose, a shared vision within which respectful ideologically based political disputation could occur. Is the dream of our founders alive in our time?

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