As much as we may deny it, one of the reasons Kenya’s Senate could not hold a healthy conversation over revenue allocation is ethnicity.
Defined as ‘the state of belonging to a social group’, ethnicity remains the biggest threat to our progressive Constitution as a nation.
But it is not something to wish away because it is part and parcel of our diversity.
In fact, the expression of ethnic identity is protected by the same Constitution alongside other rights and fundamental freedoms.
How do we get out of this dilemma? How do we celebrate our ethnic diversity without stoking ethnic tensions?
Multicultural societies such as Kenya’s call for careful management of ethnic relations through the Constitution and strong institutions. This is part of the reason devolution allows the semi-autonomy token to 47 regions of the country.
Unfortunately, and probably inadvertently, these Counties were defined in ethnic terms, with boundaries neatly coterminous with ethnic boundaries.
The effect of this is that County representatives who are Senators find it difficult to transcend the ethnic warp to which they are hostage.
In the current dispensation, being a Senator comes with the risk of having to be an ethnic ideologue whose political survival depends on how vigorously they wave the tribal card.
Fortunately, there have been proposals here and there to get us out of this social problem. Some leaders strongly feel our governance structure needs to revert back to the old provinces so as to de-ethnicize regions, having come to terms with the fact that diffusing power to many small units – as the devolution act does – comes with the backlash of ethnic demands.
Others have proposed a third level of government comprising 14 regional units as the solution and with it, other attractive incidentals like the abolition of County Assemblies and reduction in numbers of Governors and Senators.
Whichever way it goes, impending constitutional changes must dissipate the legacy of tribalism in governance and politics of Kenya.
The success of nation-building initiatives in multi-tribal nations depends on the management of ethnic diversity and relations, with key enablers being cohesive legislation and policies.
Case studies have built a body of evidence as proof that unity in diversity is only possible within a framework of social justice and political equality.
Kenyans are already aware of this; that is why they are suggesting a range of alternatives in achieving the “ethnic balance” ideal.
Yet not much progress can be made with building bridges or uniting ethnicities without reference to challenges other societies have faced in an attempt to address the ethnicity problem.
Traditional ways of ‘suppressing’ ethnic bigotry such as Franco unleashed on ethnic communities of Spain are a flop.
South African minoritised black people celebrated their freedom, representation, and “participation” with the collapse of Apartheid and with successive ANC regimes yet ethnic issues persist.
In Canada, simmering tensions between Francophone and Anglophone communities around Quebec would have been resolved by means of the strong institutions and norms put in place.
Unfortunately, Francophone Quebec has been quietly considering secession from Canada regardless.
And despite being the “land of the free”, the USA has been struggling with poor and often acrimonious ethnic relations for centuries.
The bottom line, ethnicity is difficult to eliminate, but it can be managed. Since Kenyans move, mix, and settle freely, ethnocultural diversity has increased.
The sense of plural civic community is possible to achieve the moment neighboring communities have equal and equitable access to resources.
Since the President himself has made it clear that he favours constitutional reforms, we are looking forward to a draft that slays the ethnicity dragon.