By Â Seth Odongo (Dikembe Disembe)Â
No raised pedestal will the eventual history of the presidency of Uhuru Kenyatta be pegged at more than on ethnic relations. At a time when his friend in Zimbabwe thinks that the rainbow nation of Nelson Mandela was a ridiculous idea, Kenya, despite all the progress in half a century, still got a lot more patching up to do in the area of ethnic relations. To deny this is to be brutal to the future.
In the recent past, especially on the national discourse, columnists in our daily newspapers are raising the question of ethnic relations devoid of ethnicity talk. In the foregoing, it will be fitting for a premise to be made of intentionally distinguishing the two; which, unfortunately, often get lumped up as one in our usual idle chatter as we jump from one national calamity to the other.
A fact and a truth may well be developed here. The fact is; president Kenyattaâ€™s charges Â at the International Criminal Court stems, by and large, from the â€˜mishandlingâ€™ of our ethnicised politics in the 2007 general elections. Truth is, even after ascending into power, the initial actions of his presidency does not give a rousing picture of a man who has learnt anything!
Ethnic relations, like race relations, take a decisive leader to tackle.Often, the leader may be constrained by the political system to practically do very little, but no president under the sun can be limited in using the â€˜presidencyâ€™ to bring a national conversation on any wicked problem facing his nation, and people. President Kenyatta, unlike his Deputy, William Ruto, sits on a rare human treasure-history-which only him can use to “bend the course of time”, and finally amputate the tumor of tribalism in Kenya. The problem is; Uhuru Kenyatta is a tribalist. He is an accident of a decade of great tribal engineering of the nation state-state after Moi. Sadly, Kenyatta also happens to be a Moi School of politics graduate
I happened to be in the United States when the jury in the infamous Zimmerman trial returned a â€œnot guiltyâ€ charge after “white-hispanic” murdered one African-American called Tryvonne Martin. The United States is a country with deep-rooted race issues (which they do not want to call racism), some dating back to centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. Â The United States, to an outsider, is a model democracy; but the bonds that hold that democracy often suffers the worst social tsunami which jolts its leaders into the reality of their country. It so happened that when this murder case made it to the top of the American society as an issue to ponder on, the person occupying the White House, like President Kenyatta in our own State House, was also a product of history. A history of both the tribalism in Kenya and racism in America.
But, unlike Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama often marvels the American society. On issues which demands the collective psyche of a nation to be summoned summarily, Obama occupies the head in a long politico-intellectual experiment where Uhuru hangs precariously at the tail end.
In some 18 minutes, Barack Obama took time to hijack a polarising national discourse and placed it between American beliefs on the rule of Law and its flirting with checkered history of post-institutionalised slavery. In those 18 minutes, the American presidency reminded its citizens that they still had laws that needed to be relooked at, and that, theirs is a society still ‘not perfect’ insofar as race relations is concerned. In the next number of days after POTUS weighed in, people did a lot of ‘soul-searching’; the kind that is needed here at home to begin our own version of a more perfect country. Even Newt Gingrich joined the conversation, momentarily firing up a debate among hardcore Republicans. But I digress!
The weight of the presidency; when used in times of great need, has the impact of making citizens ponder over each otherâ€™s fears, thus, accrue the necessary courage to confront them. The weight of the presidency, whose SI unit is the person of the president, is among the rarest of gifts which only democratic systems boasts of. Anarchists may lurk in dark dungeons of the state machine but they can never outmarch a president determined to rewrite wrongs-some going generations past their own ages.
In a few weeks to come, the nation will be faced with one of the hardest tests any â€˜freeâ€™ people can ever fathom. As hearings begin at the ICC, the Kenyan people, already deeply divided along ethnic faultlines; cracked open with an election which brought out every filth in key strategic institutions meant to safeguard functioning democracies by reconciling competing interests, people, and ideologies, will need more than just assurances of management by skype.
Kenya is a deeply tribal country. But then again, no country buries deep-held tribal differences so fast as Kenya. When it happens, a leader rises at the top. There are leaders in post-independence Kenya who have transcended the bloodthirsty narrow-mindlessness that took Kenyatta to the Hague; in contrast, there are leaders who have exploited the very ethnic fears that caused the orgy that was 2007 post-poll chaos to rise so high and amass so much for so little. From Nyanza to South Coast; the landscape is littered by wealthy characters of a dubious past and present.
Uhuru, who came into the presidency through an incredibly fear-mongering propaganda machine, where, joined by another ethnic jingoist, built a tyranny of real and ‘massaged up’ numbers, is carrying a personal problem that only a deliberate reconstruction of the nation can take away. Rather than build on the quicksand and air castles of “duly elected president”, and which the ICC may soon blow away, Uhuru needs to confront the increased polarization that he is accused of perpetrating with bloodier results. His contemptuous attitude towards other tribes, whom his government is convinced are “others”, is stark to all keen observers interested in Kenyan politics.
The truth is; while the kenyan state can often be subjected to rule by fiat and clenched fist, the kenyan nation cannot. Our history after independence has proven that each generation’s dictator has had an equal force of opposing spirits and while we once had Nyayo House torture chambers, today, because the resolve of that generation, it is no more.
One would have expected, therefore, that before his trials begin in earnest at the Hague, President Kenyatta would have proved to the world that he was not part of the death squads which descended on harmless â€˜otherâ€™ kenyans in Naivasha and other parts of the country. President Kenyatta, in these few hundred days, would have â€˜personally reflectedâ€™ on the perception that his tribesmenâ€™s stranglehold on the Kenyan state â€˜worriedâ€™ him, and that he is â€˜thinkingâ€™ of a â€˜rainbow nationâ€™ of his own. But a rainbow nation cannot have only two colours, and express mostly one.
No kenyan president, at least history has proven shown, will ever assume ‘greatness’ with the question of ethnic relations kicked below the table. As another friend aptly put it: Kenya cannot survive half tribal and half free! But then again, do they care about “greatness”?
The writer comments on ethnic, social and political events in Kenya