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September 23, 2018

Unfair borders are a fact of life

Even after a period as long as 700 years, there will still be need for adjustments and modifications to accommodate the fluid realities of an ever-changing world." /THE STAR
Even after a period as long as 700 years, there will still be need for adjustments and modifications to accommodate the fluid realities of an ever-changing world." /THE STAR

During his recent visit to Kenya, the President of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Berset, spoke of his country’s 700-year experiment with devolved government. It may seem odd to speak of the widely admired — and uniquely elaborate — Swiss structure of government as an ongoing experiment.

But no system of government can ever be regarded as fully perfect. Even after a period as long as 700 years, there will still be need for adjustments and modifications to accommodate the fluid realities of an ever-changing world. So, when the chairman of the Council of Governors, Turkana’s Josphat Nanok, proposes that county chiefs should be immune from prosecution for the duration of their term in office, this does not warrant an explosion of outrage.

Rather, we should assume that he is merely proposing a modification to our existing system of devolution. The important question here is whether this idea has broad support nationally; and further, by what means we may come to a decision on this matter and determine what the national consensus is.

For there is something much more important than the question of whether or not governors are to be shielded from prosecution while in office. This is that devolution can only work if there is a certain minimum level of tolerance among the people of this country and their leaders: A willingness to listen to the claims made by others, and to consider their point of view.

Without that, we will soon find that what the creation of the 47 counties really achieved was to define the battle lines for inter-communal strife. Consider, for example, the claims made some time back by the leaders of Nandi county that certain specific townships within Kisumu county — and their associated sugar factories — should properly belong to Nandi.

This is by no means the only such claim by one county on land that is currently demarcated as part of a neighbouring county. There is also deep division over where the expansive Mwea Irrigation Scheme rice fields ‘originally belonged’, with more than two county leaderships arguing that the land was theirs.

Right now, we may not see much fire and brimstone over these claims and counterclaims. But come 2022, we will have a general election. And when that time comes, these claims of certain ‘ancestral lands’ having been unfairly annexed (whether in the early years of Independence, or in colonial times) could easily prove to be a flashpoint for inter-communal violence.

After all, the struggle for independence was in itself — first and foremost — a struggle for land rights. Self-rule was merely what was perceived to be the most effective mechanism by which such land rights could be attained. The evolving political tensions in South Africa shine a very clear light on this very same issue: That for most indigenous Africans, political independence is seen primarily as facilitating a process of ‘reclaiming ancestral land’.

And speaking of the experiences of other nations, a few years ago I met a veteran Brazilian journalist at a conference in Berlin, and he and I discussed the virtues as well as the limitations of devolved government. Brazil has been a federal state for a very long time, and indeed its full name is The Federative Republic of Brazil.

It was he who first made me appreciate that any federal or devolved government could only work if there was enough tolerance among the people, to permit certain ‘unfair historical boundaries’ to be allowed to stand.

And he gave an example from his country: The states of São Paulo and Roraima. Apparently, São Paulo has a population of 44 million people and 70 seats at the Brazilian House of Representatives. While Roraima has just about 1.7 million inhabitants, and eight representatives.

So, in Roraima, about 200,000 voters get to send what in Kenya we could call an MP, to the House of Representatives. While in Sao Paulo, an aspiring MP would need to campaign among no less than 600,000 voters for his seat. The Brazilians have learned to live with these seemingly arbitrary and unfair boundaries. And so too must Kenyans.

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