By Ogova Ondego
Published January 1, 2013
It is early 2005. Battle lines are drawn. Kenya is polarised. President Mwai Kibaki is pushing for the public endorsement of a contested draft constitution. Several high-profile cabinet ministers led by Raila Odinga are pulling in the opposite direction. They are accusing the President of having dis-honoured a pre-2002 general election agreement that, among others, the post of an ‘Executive Prime Minister’ be entrenched in the constitution.
University teachers, mainly those with the title of ‘Dr’ and ‘Prof’, take to television screens, FM radio waves, newspaper pages, internet blogs and list-serves, unwittingly casting “a shadow on the neutrality of the public intellectual who is now seen as a tout in search of political patronage and rescue from an unfulfilling life of research and correcting students’ scripts”.
As Kibaki sacks rebel ministers from his cabinet in the aftermath of the country having listened to the latter and thus resoundingly rejected the draft constitution in the November 21, 2005 referendum, the academics get even more zealous as political experts, analysts and commentators on the airwaves, in print and on the internet, a trend that is carried right through the general elections on December 27, 2007.
The country erupts in violence on December 30, 2007 following a disputed Presidential poll that has pitted Kibaki against Odinga. Only a team of eminent international mediators led by Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former Secretary-General of the United Nations, helps put out the inferno with the signing of the National Peace Accord on February 28, 2008 that provides for power-sharing between Kibaki and Odinga.
And so some serious soul-searching exercise by the people of letters–academics–begins. It culminates in (Re)Membering Kenya: Identity, Culture and freedom, a 260-page collection of papers edited by Mbugua wa Mungai and George Gona and published by Twaweza Communications three years after the cataclysmic events that would have erased Kenya as we know it from the face of the earth had the international community not intervened.
A project of Goethe-Institut, Ford Foundation and Twaweza Communications, the book reads like an attempt by academics to exonerate themselves from accusations that they “abdicated their role of offering informed direction about the course of events in the country particularly before the 2007 general elections” and that “academics allied to the various political parties took highly partisan and narrow positions, some of which not only negated the spirit of nationhood by actively calling for Kenya’s dismembering but also justifying hatred against particular communities.”
This is the first volume of a three-book series springing from public lectures that brought together academics and members of the general public to discuss what led to the violence that rocked Kenya in 2007/2008 in an attempt “to seek a deeper understanding of the challenges facing Kenya.”
Thus the book–divided into four main sections; Identity, Culture, Freedom, Conflict & Reconciliation–discusses ethnicity, identity, gender, land ownership, truth and justice, media and politics, and gerontocracy and generational competition.
Pius Kakai Wanyonyi sets the pace with ‘Historicizing Negative Ethnicity in Kenya’, a paper that traces ‘tribe’ and ‘ethnicity’ from antiquity, arguing that “originally a tribe had nothing to do with blood, culture and language of a community.”
Looking at ‘ethnicity’ in pre-colonial Kenya, Wanyonyi contends that “ethnicity was a mere sign of identification” that the colonial powers manipulated in their divide-and-rule policy that separated and isolated various African groups from one another to ensure there could never be any unified opposition to the colonial administration. This strategy “weakened the pre-colonial intermingling which existed among many communities.” It “also helped to intensify and fossilize ethnic consciousness amongst the different communities and ended up promoting the feeling of exclusiveness and eventually planted the seeds of ethnocentricism and the urge for ethnocracy” in Kenya. He concludes that “ethnicity-bound governance has damaged the nation-building project and reinforced ethnic sentiments.”
Another interesting paper is titled ‘Negotiating “Kenyanness”: The “Debates”‘ by Peter Wafula Wekesa in which he argues that the concept “‘nation’ refers to a considerable group of people united by a common culture, values, standards and political aspirations and occupying a definite territory and having a sense of common identity.”
Arguing that the above definition may not apply to ‘Kenya’ and that ‘Kenyan’ may be a lie, Wanyonyi contends that the people called Kenyans ‘have not espoused a shared bond and a common cultural identity’.
Had he invested some serious work in his paper and not written it haphazardly, Frederick K Iraki’s ‘Cross-Media Ownership and Monopolizing of Public Spaces in Kenya’ would have made some interesting reading.
Though his giving indefinite dates (1990s), wrong assumptions (most Kenyans hear the opinion or voice of one media owner, the NMG), and factual errors (The Standard Group was the first to launch a private television network, KTN,in 1990; The Kenya Times ceased to be the government paper) vitiate his paper, he nevertheless makes a serious observation on the Media Council that is supposed to regulate media operations in Kenya. He refers to it as ‘ornamental’ as “its mandate and scope does not go beyond reprimanding’ but is also ‘impotent in the face of awesome corporate media interests, chief among which is control and manipulation of Kenyan minds.”
In the last paper, Betty Caplan’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation: A Reflection’, the writer wonders whether there was any real change on December 30, 2002 when Mwai Kibaki succeeded retiring President Daniel arap Moi or was it mere euphoria based on a different man coming to office after 24 years of Moi?
“Did Kenyans get any real change in December 2002?” she poses. “The ‘Moi Way’ template has hardly changed. For instance, was the freedom of speech and association that we experienced not quickly curtailed under the Kibaki government. There have been long-held grudges about land distribution which haven’t been addressed despite the existence of various reports.”
Caplan calls for healing and reconciliation in Kenya. But she stresses that such healing and reconciliation “must not be because we want to lure the tourists back to put money in the pockets of other foreigners who own hotels at the coast but rather because we owe it to Kenyans.”