SEEKING LASTING PEACE

BBI lessons from Lebanon

In Summary
  • Our deepest divisions are not religious but tribal.
  • What Kenya needs is not just aspiration to Swiss-like perfectionist inclusivity, but also some down-to-earth Lebanese realism.

One of the most effective devices in media commentary is to give an example of a country which has successfully resolved a challenge that is being faced in your own country. For you can then say, “This is how some other country handled something remarkably similar to – and possibly even more dangerous than – what we are facing now. So maybe we can learn something from this.”

Kenyan media pundits tend to favour Switzerland more than any other country when tackling any issues of devolution or the politics of inclusion.

But while Switzerland presents the ideal aspiration for any nation seeking to create an advanced form of devolution in a multi-ethnic state, you really cannot effectively benchmark against a nation that has enjoyed the fruits of devolved government for about 200 years.

I feel that a better example would be found in Lebanon, a country which currently only makes negative headlines in global media but was once known as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’.

This was mostly at a time when, before Kenya’s great reputation was soiled by rampant corruption, and election-related violence, we Kenyans too were judged to be residents of ‘the Switzerland of Africa’ – a title for which we competed with Cote d’Ivoire, which also aspired to be known as ‘the Switzerland of Africa’, during the long rule of its founding President Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

All these flattering references to Switzerland boiled down to just three features of all these nations: political stability; peaceful coexistence both within its borders and with neighbouring nations; and a steady march towards prosperity for all.

But unlike ‘the original Switzerland’, both Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya have since fallen from grace.

Just as we had a major outbreak of election-related violence in 2008, Cote d’Ivoire also had its election-related violence, but far worse than our own tragedy. In Cote d’Ivoire, the violence actually spiralled downwards into a full civil war. The first civil war raged from 2002 to 2004. Thereafter was a period of uneasy calm with occasional outbreaks of violence, which came to a head in the second Ivorian Civil War of 2011-2012.

All this in a country once compared to Switzerland.

And so, although Lebanon may be a parliamentary democracy, within this overall framework the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from certain religious communities, these being the Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians.

And yet the violence and instability that came to Cote d’Ivoire cannot be in any way compared with the 15-year Lebanese Civil war (1975-1990) with its 120,000 fatalities; tens of thousands displaced; and more than a million citizens giving up on their country and seeking to make a new life abroad.

Arising from this tragedy, Lebanon developed a rather unique form of government, referred to as ‘confessionalism’. What this means is that there is a recognition that the deep divisions within Lebanese society correlate with the different religions that are ‘confessed’ by different communities within the population. As such, the only viable foundation for peace and stability is to have a certain level of guaranteed representation in the national leadership structure, for each of the three most populous communities.

And so, although Lebanon may be a parliamentary democracy, within this overall framework the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from certain religious communities, these being the Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians.

This then is the somewhat imperfect structure of the Lebanese political system, which has made possible a degree of stability. And from this I see a lesson that we Kenyans can learn.

Our deepest divisions are not religious but tribal.

And to the extent that I have understood the broader outlines of what the Building Bridges Initiative is about, there is a proposal within it for a structure within the executive, which ensures that each of the ‘Five Big Tribes’ will have a representative at the high table.

This is not a formula that can possibly satisfy democracy purists. But it is all the same a formula which addresses what has by now been identified as one of the key destructive factors holding the nation back, ie, that our current Constitution more or less guarantees that close to 50 per cent of the population will feel excluded, following every presidential election.

What Kenya needs is not just aspiration to Swiss-like perfectionist inclusivity, but also some down-to-earth Lebanese realism.