Miasma of fear suppresses our nationhood

The “Kenyan society” is imagined in the sense that the people of Budalangi in Busia County may not have met the people of Garsen in Tana River County, but live on the assumption that they share a common destiny.


By Kenyatta Otieno

Recently, I watched horrific video footage of the attack on the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) base in El Ade by Al Shabaab. My bubble bust when I tried to narrate it to a friend, who told me that the original one, which showed captured KDF soldiers, had been brought down by YouTube. The clip generated mixed feelings when I heard how the captured soldiers gallantly underwent their ordeal without a hint of regret. And I asked myself; how many Kenyans can take a bullet for their country? Because I know that as things stand, despite being sufficiently patriotic, I cannot.

This experience reminded me of Tom Brokaw’s bestseller “The Greatest Generation”. The veteran journalist looks at the generation of Americans who lived through and fought in the Second World War. The war came just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt was courageously anchoring America’s fight through the great depression. A generation of Americans of different descents, including Japanese, who were regarded with suspicion, joined the army to defend their great nation against the fascist Adolf Hitler.

It made me ask myself several questions about our nationhood. Social media platforms have flattened our world, such that information – good and bad – is flowing at the speed of light. The flow of social media discussions on a political debate exposes the collision between our ethnic tectonic plates. We are members of our tribes first, other social affiliations second, and Kenyans third. I think I understand why Nation columnist David Ndii published his thought-provoking article that (regional) divorce could be the solution to Kenya’s “abusive marriage”. Since then, many people have fronted counter-narratives but none of them has caught the nation’s imagination like Ndii’s. Is the Kenyan nationhood project a white elephant? We have been at it for over fifty years…

Ndii brought us the theory of imagined societies fronted by Benedict Anderson. We have a country called Kenya but we do not have a nation by the same name. This led Ndii to push the idea that our ethnic nations can as well secede into smaller united and homogeneous nations. The “Kenyan society” is thus imagined in the sense that the people of Budalangi in Busia County may not have met the people of Garsen in Tana River County, but live on the assumption that they share a common destiny. The ideal situation is that the instruments of state in the three arms of government are meant to actualise this imagination while the reality is far from it. That is where Kenya has failed.

Europe had kingdoms that paid allegiance to the religious order of the Roman Empire. The gradual decline of the church led to the rise of nationalism. The new states, high on sovereignty, arose from The Peace of Westphalia treaty that ended the thirty-year war to 1648. These new states adopted rational secularism as a counter culture to the Roman Catholic ideals. By the time some of these states set out to colonise the world, they had built their nations into formidable units for about a century.

Their main agenda for colonising these regions was not to create new states but to loot resources and capture slaves. This means that delineation of countries as they stand today, which International Law chose to uphold for purposes of peace and continuity, was not done with the natives’ interests in mind, and it led to a misconception of nationhood even among their African stooges who received the token of independence that they were deceived they had fought for. This is the genesis of imagined societies in Africa, and Kenya in particular, which our founding fathers, unlike Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, did not bother to re-imagine.

Two other nations that re-imagined their nationhood are Turkey and Egypt; they lie on the border of Europe and Asia, and Africa and Asia respectively. Turkey set out to build Turkish nationalism devoid of Christian, Greece or Islamic influence. Egyptians believe that Egypt was there before Islam or Arabs, so they are simply Egyptians.

Nothing just happens. Every good thing is a product of clear thought and thorough implementation. For Kenya, we expected our nationhood to pan out on its own even as we acted in contravention to nationalistic ideals. Real political power has been a preserve of a few (families), and justice has been served to the highest bidder. In Kenya your ethnicity betrays your political leanings and will open or lock doors of opportunity. The two ingredients of nationhood are equity and justice.

As we approach elections, several politicians who went against their tribes to support the opposite camps are trooping back “home”. Nominated MPs like ODM’s Isaac Mwaura, a self-confessed social democrat, is interested in Ruiru parliamentary seat on a TNA ticket. The situation on the ground is so hostile that even the courageous people like Hon. Mwaura have been forced to back down. Others are treading carefully to avoid rocking the boat prematurely.

Betrayal by fear

Human beings respond to external threats in two ways; fight or flight. Because one is tied to a nationality by fate, the first instinct against a threat is to fight. Very few people have the capacity and opportunity to run away to other countries, so the only option for the masses is to fight. Our political leaders are good at stoking this by creating “siege mentalities” within their voting blocs. The result is such that politicians in Central Kenya do not need to sell their policies to win over the people. All they will say is, “If you don’t vote (for us), Raila Odinga will be president”, and the troops fall in line. The reverse is true in Luo Nyanza as well.

At a press conference some time back, former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka responded to a question from a journalist by asking him his name. When the pressman responded, Musyoka, without batting a lid, told him that his name betrayed him. The journalist was a Mr Muriithi. When your second name opens or closes doors of opportunity for you, fear of betrayal is real yet it is based on something you have no control over.

No one has ever made a sound decision out of fear. Fear feeds our negativity more than the positive side of things because it makes us want to avoid something. The positive side is courage, which makes us take risks and go for better things. At an individual level, fear breeds procrastination, flip-flopping on resolves and forces you to make big sacrifices with minimal returns. When the average psyche of a society is fear, like it is in Kenya, the net effect is to spend our time avoiding things instead of reaching out for better and more rewarding options.

This fear has led most Kenyans to believe that intermarriage across tribes, raising up children who do not speak their mother tongues and sending them to schools with cultural diversity will kill tribalism. These efforts may bear some fruit, but it will be too little and will take a long time; it is therefore not a viable option. This is just a product of positive feed to a negative attitude, like giving a small percentage of huge amounts of profit to charity to pacify the guilt of greed.

The percentage of Kenyans who have a credible chance of marrying outside their tribe is very small. Even at institutions of higher learning, where different cultures are pushed into one pot, the rates of intermarriages are still very low. This will increase with growth of urban centres and the economy, but the current state of our politics does not guarantee this. Even when people marry, in most cases they only embrace the spouse; the rest of the community is left out. Children also do not follow what parents say; they follow what they do.

At independence, majority of the first cabinet was made up of alumni from our top national schools. To date, the people who have held critical dockets in government have been well schooled and exposed. The irony is they still propagated tribalism, nepotism and corruption. Education and exposure has proved inadequate; they give us minimal results that we cannot count on exclusively to reverse the tide of our failing nationhood.

Liberalisation of airwaves led to increase in vernacular radio stations. Meanwhile, the Kenyan middle class is bringing up their children with a notion that if they don’t speak their mother tongue, tribalism will end. Language is only a container and not the content; hate can be spread in any language. This new “tribe-less” generation of Kenyans will only leave a mark if other factors work out; on their own they may end up like Asians – influential in private lives but out on the periphery.

The middle class is also the type who will say, “My wife is Kikuyu, my mechanic Luo, my barber Kamba, my shopkeeper Meru, my house help Luhya and my taxi driver Kisii”, but still vote for his tribal king. To prove this, take a look at the results of 2013 general elections for Nairobi County. Go a step further and ask for the results from polling stations in middle class neighbourhoods. The middle class is quite good at double speak.

The solution is to build a nation where one’s second name is just a name. If the three factors outlined above release children into a society where their second names mean they either succeed or fail, they will default to their tribes even if they cannot speak their first languages. The answer is creating a nation where “Justice is our Shield and Defender” and everybody eats “The Fruits of their Labour” without fear or favour. As long as opportunities are shared out fairly and a Turkana child is just as likely to make it in life like the child in Kiambu, then these sideshows will count.

Fighting fear involves going out of your comfort zone to build trust. Trust cannot be bought or manipulated out of somebody. Trust takes time to build hence the need of a positive attitude to build it. People risk to build private, social and business relationships everyday by trading emotional equity. It works the same way when building a nation out of a country.

It takes sacrifice and courage to achieve nationhood. This requires courageous leaders and people willing to make sacrifices. In the current state, no meaningful development will take place as the political leadership is always in fear of losing out on tribal political bases. This means that funds are channelled to projects and areas with no regard to viability and social benefit, but political patronage. For now, devolution is an excuse peddled against this pork barrel politics.

This courageous lot will be the leaders who will fight for our true liberation. When the colonialists sent Africans to school, their intention was to create a skilled working class to serve them. As more and more Africans learned the colonialists’ ways, they betrayed that “benevolence” by agitating for freedom. The new breed of liberators will be those who will exploit the ethnic bigotry, benefit from it by rising into power, then courageously dismantling that system.

The other side of courage is for the people. This is the type of courage that sent Junet Mohammed, an ethnic Somali, to parliament as the MP of Suna East in Migori, and Abdul Rahim Dawood, an Asian, as MP for Imenti North in Meru. When we begin to look at people as individuals who have special traits that can benefit society, then we will be taking good strides towards nationhood. Let us not be afraid to take the long jump when it is obvious that time will wash away our small fearful steps as we cross the divide. The other side of fear is where the great nation of Kenya lies.



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