By Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o
Kisumu is a cosmopolitan city. In other words, many people live there who come from different parts of Kenya and the world.Â Kisumu is therefore a city of immigrants who have lived together with the indigenous people for a long time.
In spite of their homes of origin which some remember and some donâ€™t, few of these people, having lived in Kisumu from birth to adulthood, consider this city their home.Â This sentiment applies to the other two cities in Kenya: Mombasa and Nairobi.
Some people travel many distances to come to Kisumu to transact business during the day and go back to their homes at night. These homes can be as near as Seme or as far away as Kisii. But they all have investments in Kisumu or do business regularly there so as to invest in the future. For them Kisumu is the nerve centre of their lives while their homes are mere dormitories where they stay at night. For all intents and purposes, these are Kisumu people.
One will not be surprised, however, to find that within a radius of 30 miles of the city of Kisumu, many people have come and settled from far and wide to be near the city.
This is one of the reasons why land prices within this radius have been increasing exponentially during the last 10 years or so. Landowners who want to sell have had a bonanza. The city has therefore had a very positive impact on the economy of the county as far as these people are concerned. Kisumu County has seven sub-counties which have all been affected by this phenomenon in varying degrees.
I was therefore very surprised recently when some local politicians were reported to have called for some Kisumu residents to â€œgo back to their homes and stop meddling in Kisumu politics.â€ Let me say this: moments of anger can easily turn out to be moments of madness. And in some angry furyâ€”God only knows over whatâ€” these people might have uttered sentiments in public which had better be hidden within their bosoms!
Be that as it may, their sentiments are now public and we need to deal with their possible causesâ€”or triggersâ€”and their likely consequences.
In politics, one of the obvious causes of such xenophobic utterances is competition for positions in politics so as to influence resource allocation and use. When one is losing in this game, there is always the temptation to eliminate competitors on diverse discriminatory grounds.
Usually, politically weak individuals will resort to such a game. Alternatively, a relatively strong individual may use the same tactic to ward off criticism when found on the wrong. Secondly, people who occupy positions of power and use clan, ethnic or racial discrimination to bring others of the same ilk near them, or to favour them with positions, can also invite such unfavorable comments against themselves.
The sure way to avoid xenophobia is first and foremost to promote a culture of tolerance and inclusivity in a society where people are recognised for who they are and not what parentage, clan, region or ethnicity they hail from. With so many historical injustices in Kenya, this is at times difficult but we need to deal with these injustices rather than keep complicating them by even more injustices.
The second way is good governance at all levels.
Devolution has been introduced in Kenya precisely to bring government close to the people, empower the people through popular participation in public affairs and ascertain that political representation is fair, real, accountable and transparent.
The Constitution is very clear on this and most Kenyans are aware of their rights and ready to defend these rights all the time. At the same time, if some of these Kenyans become xenophobic, they will make unreasonable demands on those in power that may easily lead to bad governance.
Let me say something more about xenophobia for it can be very dangerous to society. In 2006, I was part of a team of experts under Professor Adebayo Adedeji, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), which went to South Africa to carry out a review of the status of governance and development in that country.
This was under the rubric of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). While interviewing residents of Soweto and holding town hall meetings with them, we found that there was a very strong sentiment against â€œforeigners;â€ particularly people from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
These people were accused of coming to South Africa and taking up â€œall the good jobs.â€ The good jobs were mainly skilled jobs in construction and small-scale businesses in the neighbourhoods.
While this was true, it was also a reality that very few South Africans, following the long history of apartheid, had developed skills in these areas. But the xenophobia was mounting and threatening to explode. We immediately reported this observation to the South African authorities, but many were in denial. Others accepted the presence of the sentiments but did not think it was all that serious.
We thought it was very serious and could easily escalate into something nasty should something trigger it. No sooner had we left and finalised our report, than South Africa was thrust into some ugly xenophobic confrontations leading to loss of property and lives.
The moral of this story is that once signs of xenophobia become apparent, they should not be ignored: xenophobia should be confronted, discussed and sorted out. Fortunately, where one has properly established institutions of governance such as in our counties, this should not be a problem. I am therefore addressing us as political and civic leaders.
Let us address this issue and discard some of the myths leading us in that direction while recognising what the real experiences of our people are. The main aim is to develop a culture of tolerance and inclusiveness. After some long discussions, the South African residents of Soweto accepted that many years of living under apartheid had deprived them of the opportunity to develop certain skills.
People coming from Zimbabwe arrived in South Africa with skills; they were easily absorbed into the construction and other industries. While these immigrants benefited, the South African economy also benefited. The South African government needed to have had a programme to develop the skills of these people to enable them get employment. Without the skills, it was unlikely that employers would stop their businesses and wait for them to be ready.
The Zimbabweans came in handy. Through these discussions, we managed to make our audiences see their problems in much more constructive ways rather than wallow in xenophobia as a panacea to these problems.
Likewise, I accept that we have political, social and economic problems in our county. But the solution is not to resort to xenophobia. The solution lies in squarely addressing the issues of governance, and these are plenty. For example: how exactly should the County Assembly play its oversight role in our county government?
How should the executive wing of government allocate and use scarce resourcesâ€”including positionsâ€”for the development of the county? What is the role of the citizens themselves in stimulating development from the grassroots and discouraging the culture of handouts either from the so-called leaders or from the government? Let us go back to basics.
Â Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o is the senator of Kisumu County.