HISTORICAL INJUSTICES

Maasai's demand for reserved seats valid

What we have here is a long-oppressed minority community crying out for justice.

In Summary
  • Consider the genocidal dispossession and eviction of the Maasai from their community lands by the British colonial government.
  • Successive governments of independent Kenya failed to make even the most superficial attempts at reparations for these losses of land.

One of the traits which is noticeable in leaders from historically marginalised regions of Kenya is that they will often have issues on which their demands will appear to be totally irrational to the rest of the country.

Recently we have seen two examples of this. First was in the big gathering of Maasai community leaders that took place at Kajiado over the last weekend. And second was at the Northeastern Kenya leaders’ meeting in Garissa.

Both meetings were tied to the Building Bridges Initiative and were supposedly intended to provide a forum at which regional leaders could put forward core issues they wished to have considered, in any possible future constitutional reform.

Here I will deal only with the Kajiado meeting. For as concerns the issue that dominated the Garissa meeting, I really do not see how the government can possibly persuade any non-local teachers to take up jobs in Northeastern Kenya, for as long as al Shabaab seems to be able to murder such teachers at will.

The most controversial proposal to arise from the Kajiado rally was that elected leadership from within any of the recognised Maasai community counties should be reserved for indigenous Maasai. On the face of it, this suggestion seems outrageous and may well be unconstitutional as far as the current Constitution goes. However, reserved seats – elective seats set aside for a historically marginalised community – are not unheard of in other countries that have grappled with similar issues.

The lessons of history have made it amply clear that there is perhaps nothing more destabilising in a country than an aggrieved minority which has come to believe that it cannot hope to successfully pursue its goals by political means. Such minorities, if driven to an irrepressible fury, will inevitably turn to violent extremism which will possibly lead to destruction of far greater cost than what it would have taken to appease them through compromise.

The lessons of history have made it amply clear that there is perhaps nothing more destabilising in a country than an aggrieved minority which has come to believe that it cannot hope to successfully pursue its goals by political means. Such minorities, if driven to an irrepressible fury, will inevitably turn to violent extremism which will possibly lead to destruction of far greater cost than what it would have taken to appease them through compromise.

The Indian sub-continent provides us with examples of both how to appease such minorities – and also of the consequences of disregarding them.  The 25-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka provides a vivid recent example of what happens when a minority community is radicalised into a conviction that only through concerted violence can their goals be attained. The fighting involved an ultra-violent militia claiming to represent the interests of the minority Tamils in opposition to the majority Sinhalese who controlled government and the army.

In more enlightened democracies, arrangements will always be put in place to provide some kind of safety valve to such explosive political resentments, even if this may not completely solve the problem. In India, for example, there is a constitutional commission set up to address precisely such grievances, from among what are delicately termed as “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”. As one online source explains:

“The National Commission for Scheduled Castes is an Indian constitutional body established with a view to provide safeguards against the exploitation of Scheduled Castes…to promote and protect their social, educational, economic and cultural interests…[by means of] special provisions…in the Constitution…[and also] affirmative-action quotas in government jobs and university admissions. About 8 per cent of the seats in the National and State Parliaments are reserved for Scheduled Caste and Tribe candidates.”

I am not so sure that any Maasai leader would wish to have his or her people compared to the historically despised and oppressed ‘Dalits’ of India (now formally known as “Scheduled Castes”).

But all the same when you consider the genocidal dispossession and eviction of the Maasai from their community lands by the British colonial government; the failure of successive governments of independent Kenya to make even the most superficial attempts at reparations for these losses of land: it is undeniable that what we have here is a long-oppressed minority community crying out for justice.

Whether the rest of Kenya will be willing to acknowledge the weight of historical injustice that the Maasai communities have borne for many decades now, I cannot say. But their demands for reserved elective seats is not as absurd as would at first appear.