By Oduor Ong'wen
Kenyans have learned, practiced and perfected the art of flying like chicken. Like most birds, chicken can also fly. But unlike other birds, they cannot soar high and only fly short distances. This is what Kenyans have done at every stage in our struggles for nationhood. We have gallantly fought to assert and defend our independence and forge a nation out of our many nationalities. But we have also undone these efforts with alacrity. The latest episode in this one step forward two steps back journey is being replayed in the Building Bridges Initiative conversation.
While it was gratifying to see everyone troop to Mombasa last weekend to declare their support for the BBI, it is not lost on keen observers that many of the politicians were and still are talking with both sides of their mouth. The Naivasha retreat by a section of Jubilee politicians underscores how skin deep our nationhood quest is. Every time we thought we had got it right, we have ended up shooting ourselves in the foot, thanks to our unwavering allegiance to sectarianism and self-aggrandisement. It happened immediately after the attainment of independence when the nationalist fervour was neutered less than two years later. There followed a long period of autocracy, repression and the emergence of unrepentant looting cabals in the formal and deep state. The nadir was almost three decades of, first de facto and later de jure, one-party, one-person rule. It took the courage of a few Kenyans – workers, peasants, university dons and students, clergy and various professionals – to mobilise the nation and end the autocratic regime and return Kenya to democratic and accountable system of governance. But we once again flew too low and for a very short distance. The much-hyped Second Liberation was outflanked, encircled and aborted.
Another decade of sustained struggle marked by twists and turns spiced with arrests, teargas, extra-judicial executions and political chicanery finally led to a National Constitutional Conference at Bomas of Kenya that gave us a progressive draft constitution that was immediately nipped in the bud. It took a national madness of us slaughtering each other, burning people who had sought refuge in churches, ethnic cleansing and mass displacement of “visitor populations” in 2007/2008 for us to finally overhaul the Constitution – but ending up with the Bomas Draft being substantially diluted. Again, at this juncture in 2010, we thought we as a country had exorcised the ghosts that have always stood on our path to forging a nation. Once again we aimed high but flew low and a very short distance.
Why is it that our attempts at forging nationhood are always thwarted when every promise is there for all to see as happened immediately after 1963, in 2004 and in 2010? In my view, it is because we have not been able to give appropriate appreciation to the reality of being a socially diverse society. Unlike countries that found themselves in similar situations like South Africa or Tanzania that were able to forge nations out of ethnically diverse countries, here in Kenya were either quick to deny the motive force that ethnic diversity is or retreated and submitted ourselves to its most backward dictates. We either consciously or otherwise evaded confronting what has become known as The National Question.
We have naively assumed that a Luhya labourer at a construction site in Nairobi would stand in solidarity with a fellow Gikuyu labourer because their class interests dictate that they do so. In our romanticisation of class struggle, it is easy to lump the Kamba and Kalenjin policemen and assume they will collectively and in class solidarity confront the oppressor since “they have nothing to lose but their chains.” I aver that this would not happen unless and until we confront the National Question. A Luo worker would rather identify with a Luo manager as long as the promotions even at the factory shop floor will be based on the surname of the worker. A Digo petty trader is more comfortable defending a Taita parastatal chief accused of graft because they have been collectively oppressed as watu wa mwambao wa pwani.
We as Kenyans have over the last sixty years lived another lie. We aver that politicians will come and go but Kenya will always be there. Welcome to the fool’s paradise. The reality is that republics are the most delicate and potentially transient of political entities. Those who make this argument forget that barely two decades ago we had a country called Yugoslavia. Others were the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. These republics are no longer in existence. Closer home, we now have four neighbouring republics in the north fashioned out of two – from Ethiopia and Sudan, there now exist additional republics in Eritrea and South Sudan. At what cost do these people end up with these self-determining entities? More than three times, Kenyans have been at the verge of joining these cleavaged former “cohesive countries.”
Let us remove our heads from the sand with alacrity. After August 2017, the threat of Kenya breaking into two or more republics was very real. As our politicians would say, it was going to be messy, noisy and I dare say bloody, and with consequences. But there are persons who call themselves leaders in this country but prone to mistaking threats of war for war games. I am not sure if President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga broached the National Question but the nine issues they identified in their Memorandum of Understanding form very good beacons for the discussion thereof. A look at contemporary history would make those of us that care for this entity called Kenya take the BBI-triggered conversation very seriously.
In both theory and practice, the national question was a subject that generated debate, controversy and disagreement within the liberation movement in South Africa. Despite widespread agreement that South Africa’s ruling class has cynically promoted tribalism and racialism, as well as fraudulent types of nationalism, in order to divide the oppressed and exploited majority, there is no consensus over how to define the nation., national identity, and nationalism. With the collapse of white minority rule and installation of a democratically elected government under the leadership of the majority this matter is far from settled if the recent xenophobic attacks against non-South African blacks is anything to go by.
As I have observed herein before, the national question lies at the heart of the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 and of its destruction in 1991–92. A vision of national liberation and modernization brought the various South Slav nationalities together after World War I. However, seventy years later, a retrospective, mythical, antimodernist vision tore them apart. The appeal to the concept of self-determination was used to justify both.
At the center of China’s modernization drive as it concerns national minorities are four core issues: social equality, economic development, cultural autonomy, and national integration.
To establish the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 at the high point of a revolutionary drama. Three aggregate forces soon contested Bolshevik power, whose future was far from secure. First, the Bolsheviks were faced with indigenous counterrevolutionary forces whose armies sought to overturn the revolution. Second, the armies of various Western capitalist states, including the United States and Japan, invaded the fledgling Bolshevik state. Finally, the Bolsheviks found themselves face to face, as the czars had been, with the problem of the non-Russian nationalities. By the mid-1920s, Soviet leaders had overcome the first two obstacles and firmly established state. The inability to conclude the resolution of the national question aided Soviet Union’s imperialist foes to undo the revolution.
Northern Ireland is a product of the opposing forces of imperialism and nationalism. Ireland was England’s first colony, and it has been said that the conquest of Ireland was the model for British imperialism. As a consequence of England’s attempt at domination, Ireland has been home to a variety of nationalist movements. The two nations’ mutual history offers many insights into the relationship between imperialism and nationalism, and the impact of class, ethnicity, social consciousness, and national movements on this relationship.
As it has everywhere else, at least in Western history, the national question has evolved in Quebec in the context of the formation and transformation of the capitalist economy and the liberal democratic state. The internal market and wage relations that tend to homogenize economic practices within a social formation (money, weights and measures, salaries, free circulation of individuals and goods) were becoming institutionalized at the same time as the modem state was becoming the center of regulation of social relations and relations of power that are now administered in the name of the nation within the framework of popular. With its French heritage, Quebec has ad to fight to assert itself within the English speaking Canadian state, with intermittent threats of seceding.
Even though more than seven decades have passed since India became independent, doubts remain in the minds of many regarding its future as a viable nation-state. Every now and again commentaries on the Indian political situation fill with speculation about how long Indian unity will hold. These speculations are inspired by Western notions of the nation-state where ideally language, religion, and political sovereignty have coterminous boundaries.
A keen interrogation of the nine “Handshake Issues” at the centre of Kenya’s National Question. Can we develop and exhibit national ethos and ensure inclusivity and equality of opportunity without asking why we are likely to see a Luo slum dweller pelting a Gikuyu worker with stones as opposed to seeing these two confronting a Kalenjin industrialist to demand decent and dignified working conditions? From where I sit, it is impossible to eliminate corruption amongst us as long as looting of state coffers is seen as bringing home booties of conquest. State power will remain a trophy of victory – hence divisive and fraudulent electoral processes – to competing ethnic formations as long as the national question remains unresolved.
In the on-going discourse, the most fundamental question that has so far emerged was the proposal by coastal counties that Kenya should adopt a federal system. Let’s debate in earnest and develop the capacity to soar high and tenacity to go far.
January 28, 2020