The sizzling political debate right now is whether or not we will have a constitutional referendum anytime soon.
And if you were to judge by the urgency with which various politicians are making their views known, you would think that this referendum is due to take place — if at all — by the end of the year.
This substantially puts the cart before the horse. If indeed there should ever be a referendum at all, it surely must be a few years away.
A referendum of any kind is supposed to be a mechanism for resolving disputed issues; for trying to manufacture a broad consensus on what is to be done to bring about some desired improvement.
In this context, there is only one strong reason to even contemplate this referendum at all. And this is that the existing Constitution has revealed a major flaw, which has potentially fatal consequences to the nation.
Fatal in that innocent people are likely to continue dying every five years in the course of election-related inter-tribal violence. And fatal too in that Kenya as we know it could cease to exist if enough people were to conclude that their regional interests cannot be addressed within the existing Kenyan borders, and to thereafter seek to create their own nation through secession.
The most recent example of such secession is South Sudan, which broke away from the unitary nation of Sudan following a referendum in 2011. But those with longer memories will also recall that Eritrea did not exist as a modern independent nation until it broke away from Ethiopia in 1993.
In either case, nobody who knows what it took to create these two new nations would want to see Kenya go that way. It took the Eritrean Liberation Movement 30 years to gain their independence from Ethiopia.
As for Sudan, the fighting there lasted no less than 50 years. Between independence in 1955 and 2005, there were two civil wars in Sudan each lasting for roughly 20 years. Thereafter the Comprehensive Peace Agreement paved the way for the eventual peaceful breakaway of South Sudan to form an independent nation. The tally of deaths over the decades of civil war was no less than 2.5 million.
Considering the price paid in blood during these efforts to carve out new national borders, I think most Kenyans would agree that we simply cannot permit a descent into political chaos of that kind.
In this context — and has been noted by others — the primary political challenge of our time is learning to collaborate while competing and disagreeing. A failure to do so can only lead to a prolonged descent into primeval barbarism.
Well, for this to happen, we need to have clear rules of engagement.
At the present time, one such rule in our political system is that the winner in the presidential race — gathering unto himself the imperial powers of the Kenyan presidency — gets to set the national agenda for the next five years. And if it is that President’s first term in office, then that agenda will be set for a full decade as we have yet to see a Kenyan President lose in his bid for reelection.
That in itself would not be so tragic, were it not for the fact that elections for national office in Kenya are fought between tribal coalitions. And so, for any coalition which loses, it basically means that well-defined “tribal homelands” will be effectively marginalised for the next decade.
It is this dread of marginalisation that generates the unique toxicity of a Kenyan presidential election and makes it a matter of life and death for so many.
Well, we now have the ‘Building Bridges Initiative’ team created by the newfound political collaboration between President
Kenyatta and his previously most adamant rival, the former PM Raila Odinga. We must give this initiative time to work out the framework for this building of bridges.
For what is at stake here is not the 2022 election; but whether we will continue as one nation or face the fate of Sudan and South Sudan; or of Ethiopia and Eritrea.