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February 17, 2019

Deal quashes secession drive


If you look at the foreign news pages of any Kenyan paper, most of what you will see there is bad news.

So I suppose it is only fair that Kenya’s recent election-related violence featured prominently in foreign media, even as the world waited to see if the downward spiral of our long-running political crisis would end up in some kind of civil war.

I don’t know a single Kenyan who seriously believed that civil war was imminent. But the citizens of a country are not always the best judges of the long-term trajectory of their nation. I am sure that no Somali in 1991 could have predicted that they had just started on the path to 20 years of civil war ending in their country becoming a failed state.

But while civil war seemed unlikely here, secession had begun to appear a very real possibility. For in consecutive elections, the pattern firmly established was one of the two tribal communities that have ‘ruled Kenya’ since Independence having an iron grip on state power that no mere general election could break.

And some in the governing Jubilee Party had openly boasted of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin exchanging power between themselves ad infinitum. This was incredibly naïve, as it encouraged the rest of Kenya — a clear majority of about 60 per cent of the population — to seek their political salvation elsewhere. It was really an invitation to secede.

And if a serious attempt at secession had been made and had then been violently crushed by the national government, we may well have had that civil war after all.

But even in the event of peaceful secession, other disasters lurked.

There was this widely circulated map showing how ‘The Democratic Republic of Kenya’ would be carved out to leave behind as ‘Old Kenya’ only the Kikuyu, Kalenjin and ethnic Somali traditional homelands as a land-locked state: economically dependent on the goodwill of the much larger ‘Democratic Republic of Kenya’ and on track to be a Muslim-majority country in about 30 years.

But that is not all. The mere fact that the country was evidently divided into two regionally based political groups that seemed unable to reach any kind of compromise was bad enough.

To understand why this too was a nightmare scenario, consider this example from Nigeria, taken from the online magazine Quartz, illustrating the poisonous fruit that deep, irreconcilable internal divisions can yield:

“…The story of Nigeria’s 1962 census never gets old. Southern politicians seeking to end the north’s dominance of Nigerian politics decided that the only way to do it was through the census. Population figures at the time determined not only parliamentary representation but also revenue allocation and employee distribution in the civil service. In May 1962, the first census under an independent Nigerian governmnt began.

“There had been a frenzy of mobilisation by politicians in the south…the preliminary results were quite clear as to what had happened: the north’s population had gone up from 16.5 million in the last census in 1952 to 22.5 million, an increase of 30 per cent.

“But in some parts of the east, the population had increased by up to 200 per cent and more than 70 per cent in general. The west also reported an increase of 70 per cent. What the preliminary results showed was that the north had lost its majority share of the country’s population.

“The northern leaders were not about to take that lying down. A new census was held in 1963 and this time, an additional 8.5 million people were discovered in the north, bringing the total to 31 million for the north…The power balance had been restored and Nigeria’s census had been duly weaponised.”

Back then, Nigeria was a country in which, apparently, all state institutions were routinely subverted in a life-and-death political struggle between North and South.

Kenya was well on its way to something very similar, with the electoral commission already compromised beyond any hope of redemption. And the Judiciary being openly discussed as the next target.

Let us all be grateful that President Uhuru Kenyatta did the statesmanlike thing and reached out to his political rivals.

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