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Unmaking Tribal Kenya

In February 2008 I wrote “Making of Tribal Kenya”, partly as an attempt to understand the causes and viciousness of the 2007 post-election conflict (see also Kenya: Roots of Post-Election Conflict and Hope for the Future). In it I decried the lack of a national vision of who we are as Kenyans and called for social re-engineering to create a common view of our nation that captures our people’s imagination; and perhaps rally the nation towards collective universal good.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Today, we have a dual-headed government, a coalition formed following a national accord between Orange Democratic Party (ODM) and Party of National Unity (PNU) where bickering has become professional. In this government ministers and parliamentarians go to war with each other on a continual basis. Few are asking how we can make Kenya a better place and avoid the pitfalls that led us close to the brink of national collapse. Indeed, unless these are fundamentally addressed, history stands to repeat itself.

In the essay “Making of Tribal Kenya”, I finished with a quote from late Mozambican president Samora Machel: for the nation to live, the tribe shall die. However, can we really kill the tribe?

According to www.dictionary.com the following two definitions closely capture the essence of a Kenyan “tribe:”

“An aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc.”

“A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.”

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with belonging to a group of people of common ancestry, customs and traditions. I have some “beef” with the concept of lack of “formalized leadership. Given Kenyans’ aspiration to democracy, leadership must be formalized and elected to lead any segment of the population.

Our undoing may lie more in practices arising from existence of the tribe, for example tribalism. The same online sources define tribalism as “… tribal prejudice or exclusiveness … “, that imply discrimination of others not of the same tribe. Reason: the tribe may never die, as Samora Machel willed.

There will always be the “tribe” or a form of it! Indeed, even if one were to unify all ethnic groups to a “Kenyan tribe”, that itself is a tribe! And within that “tribe” there will be “mini-tribes” – clans for example, as in the case of Somalia. In that country, despite having the same religion and language (key unifying attributes of a nation) they still fight along clan lines. Here clan (again according to the online sources) is “a division of a tribe tracing descent from a common ancestor.”


In our country, we have 41 ethnic groups. These have sub-ethnic groups within them. As an example among the Kalenjins, there are Nandis, Kipsigis, Elgeyo, Turgen, Marakwet, etc. and within them, there will be clans. In Kisii we have many sub-groups such as Nyaribari, Bogirango, Bobasi, Machoge, Bonchari,and Bogetutu. And within each of these are clans. For example in Bogirango, we have such clans as Bosamaro, Bonyamatuta, Bomabacho, Bogichora, Bokiambori, Bonyaiguba, Bosaragei, Boisanga, Bogensinsi, and many more. Further, within a clan, you will have sub-clans (“houses”); and within sub-clans one there further divisions.

We occasionally get into interesting debate with some of my cousins of the same grandfather but of different grandmothers! Frequently there arise issues of “houses”, i.e. which grandmother one is descended from!

It suggests that the “tribe” shall NOT die! We have to live with it. What we must tame is its negative derivations such as tribalism!


Over years the word “tribe” has taken negative connotation for example implying primitive, backward, and inward-looking. I much prefer the term ethnic group: people of the same race or nationality who share a distinctive culture. Indeed, prior to colonialism present Kenyan ethnicities were really nations. Amalgamation of the country of these distinct entities has not produced a Kenyan nation, something we should all be working towards.


Different ethnicities are necessary for our diversity and hence a potential source of our strength as a people, derived out of the rich cultures, customs, languages, music, dance, food, history and many more. This is an envious mosaic that as a country we should aim at tapping into for the benefit of the country; and one we must ensure to bequeath this to the world and future generations. Indeed, some leading thinkers (of the creative class theory) believe that development is accelerated substantially when one places together people (groups and individuals) of different backgrounds, provided they are working for a common cause and common destiny. Such people would freely put their knowledge, experience and commitment towards the shared common purpose.

A common purpose and a shared destiny is what we lack as a country, although the impact of this this reality became nearly apparent following post-election chaos of early 2008. I remember people in Western Kenya and Rift Valley worrying scared because of failure to get seed, fertilizer and other supplies needed for the farming season. In Central Province produce was wasting away as markets were unreachable!

Our failing as a nation is that there is no big picture of what we are as Kenyans! Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki have acted variously to strengthen ethnic bonds at the expense of the Kenyan nation. Throughout our independence history the ethnic group became the basis of arbitration. All failed to define, project and sell a common purpose for all Kenyans.

We can neither become a nation, nor survive as one, without understanding that we have a common destiny as a people. Our common purpose must include searching for common well-being (ufanisi wa umma), justice, fairness and equity for all.

Benjamin Franklin’s famed saying: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” is apt for Kenya at the moment. As a country we can work together towards a shared, prosperous future and thrive collectively. Alternatively we can proceed on the path we are and continue to suffer individually and collectively.Choosing the latter is a sure end to the dream of what Kenyan would have been!

Our politics should be predicated on national interest and premised on the principle of common good and shared common destiny; in this respect political parties must compete for power and win based on the strength of the ideas to advance the common cause, rather than sectarian, self-serving and ethnic interests.

Fellow Kenyans must understand corruption weakens the strife for common good and undermines merit and misallocates resources. It is in the national interest for all to resist corrupt deals and fight such corruption at every possible chance.

Part of the common purpose is to build just society, where justice, fairness and equity are the order of the day regardless of one’s station in life. In that New Kenya (a new Mecca) diversity would be strength, and negative ethnicity, nepotism and cronyism would be shunned; an anathema! Our Kenyan identity would embrace a character of caring for fellow Kenyans, knowing it strengthens us collectively, the Kenyan family.

Indeed, our every action would be based on reason aimed at the common good; and while passion has its place, it must be tempered to reduce negative impact on national cohesion.

As a nation, our country must appropriately place itself in the family of nations and realize its rightful place on this earth; thus each citizen act needs to be informed with global thinking, despite those acts being local. Such consistency would earn us the destiny we design and realize the common good we crave.

Our greatness as a nation would be realized with achievement of national cohesion based on common purpose, economic prosperity, and regional and global leadership; as a people we must aspire to become a regional giant, a continental powerhouse and global tiger! It can be done.

In the end our common destiny would embrace the concept of social and economic justice for all.


If as Kenyans we were to reach the stage where believe and share a common purpose and a common destiny, we would understand that disruption of the nation as happened in the chaos of 2008 hurts us all: morally, materially and risk Kenyans’  life and limb!

With this reasoning, the logic would drive common interests that are pegged to this common purpose and common destiny; and thus lead to values that inform our daily conduct, including the way we see and treat fellow Kenyans, and the way we pick and choose our leaders. Only those in sync with our view of our eventual destination would be elected. And then it would not matter where the aspiring leaders were born. We would see them as leaders! Full stop!

Future leadership must develop a platform that re-engineers the Kenya we know today to a Kenya where ethnic origin is moot.

I have mentioned prosperity several times in my posting. In good times divisions are less amplified than in times of scarcity. It is important that foundations of the nation provide for the creation of wealth and fairness in the distribution/sharing of the said wealth.

Scarcity can be real or perceived! If one created the impression that water will run out at the watering hole, even if there is some water dammed upstream, the animals behave as if the water will run out soon! Perceived scarcity! As well, scarcity can happen in cases where there is unfair distribution of the national wealth, where there is no fair access and use of the wealth as in the case where just a few control what is really national wealth. This is the case in Kenya which has one of the most uneven distribution of wealth.

A common purpose, common destiny message cannot sink in situations of pervasive poverty and where survival is a struggle! Clearly, distribution of national wealth through creative programs must be part of the platform to transform the nation.

Try this refrain

One Kenya

One Nation

One Kenya

One Destiny

One Kenya

One People

One Kenya

One Tribe

One Kenya

One Nation

NB: in a future article we will tackle the ways to attack the twin challenges national unity and creating national wellbeing.

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