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Talking Ideas Past the Din Ethnic Politics

By Matunda Nyanchama
, Ontario

August 27, 2007

In the past month we have had ongoing conversations with a number of colleagues that are gunning for parliamentary seats in the coming elections. Discussions have centred on the place of ideas. The issue in question is that of selling ideas in a political culture dominated by ethnic politics. A major challenge such aspiring MPs face has to do with political alignments now taking shape; alignments that revolve around ethnicities.

There is the Western Alliance bringing Nyanza and Western provinces to win the presidency. Recently, opposition and Government MPs in the Rift Valley met to forge a common front for the province. Others mentioned include a GEMA-aligned political groupings and Ukambani-based alliances that would be the vehicle for Kalonzo Musyoka’s run for presidency. And many others may emerge.

These alliances lack competition based on ideas, issues and different means of advancing the nation. Rather, they are based on “community interests”, itself an amorphous term since no community has uniform interests. In my view, the alliances perpetuate tribalism and advance the concept of eatership that has dominated Kenyan politics since independence. They are based on the false notion that a fellow tribesman would allow the tribe its turn to “eat”. In reality only those close to the centre of power, including others from different tribes, will end up eating!

The alliances themselves are nebulous and bring together individuals that would otherwise be strange bedfellows were the politics ideological. The alliances fail to distinguish those with questionable records from the past and progressive-minded individuals bent on bringing real change to the country. In the dominant ethnic-based politics, there is hardly any room for different ideologies!

We barely hear of ideas and issues that were the subject of the plethora of visions of presidential candidates. These have taken a back seat even as we get close to election time. Yet we know that it is ideas that will move the country forward just as we know that having a tribesman in state house in not a guarantee that one will benefit!

Things need not be that way! A new vision is required if the country has to extricate itself from the challenges of ethnicity. This process that would unlock the country’s tremendous national potential.

Some of us still treasure and nurse the hope that a time will come for voters in Kenya to elect individuals based on the strength of their manifestos: that, rather than numerical tribal strength, political winners will be individuals that present superior development programs for the country. It is the New Vision we dream of; and one we will work for!

A such, as removed as issues are from current political discourse, it is worthwhile for aspiring MPs that subscribe to the New Vision, to package and present plans, proposals and concerns that would positively impact the voter, and possibly change the current discourse. The sends of change must be laid and the early we start the better for all Kenyans.

In one such discussion, the issue of information communication technologies (ICT) came up. Given the rapid advances in global technology, to what extent should ICT be part of the agenda in the current elections?

One of the biggest challenges facing our country is job creation. How do we as a nation provide jobs for the many graduates from primary schools, secondary schools tertiary colleges, and universities?

The answer lies in the creation of sufficient good and services that would absorb this human resource. Such goods and services would exploit this human resource potential we current have, and in the process benefit individuals, families and the nation. We need creative minds to identify business opportunities and entrepreneurs to turn the opportunities into viable enterprises that provide employment.

ICTs have a major role to play in national development. A good example is the phenomenal growth of mobile phone usage in many African countries. Africa is the only continent where the number of mobile telephones exceeds fixed lines.

ICTs increase efficiency and effectiveness with which tasks are carried out. They are an infrastructure component in the same league as roads, railways, and airports. Good roads cut transportation costs and save time for the movement of goods and services. The same applies to ICTs with respect to the exchange of information.

In the recent past, there has been talk of e-government to facilitate ease of access of government services to save time and costs. It means that my old father doesn’t have to spend the whole day going to and from the land registry (for example) to find the status of a title deed application; with help, he could access the same information at some Internet-enabled kiosk.

In real terms, the ICT sector is not a huge employer compared to sectors such as manufacturing, transportation, financial services and agriculture. That said, however, ICTs can act as a catalyst for economic growth. A good example is that of India where cheap bandwidth has been instrumental to growth of the outsourcing business. In turn, this has made global IT giants of some Indian companies such Tata, Infosys and Wipro. This is a similar effect as the building of the interstate highway system in the USA had on interstate commerce and in the process spurred substantial economic growth.

With the foregoing, we need to put matters in perspective and talk about goods and services as much as we talk ICT. Below are random examples a prospective MP could talk about in discussing development.

Tourism (in all its shapes and forms) and its potential:
Cultural tourism is ever-growing globally! Can we create tours that focus on our cultures (past and present) and tap into such elements as music, song, dance and folklore? How about strengthening museums that capture these elements and include interesting historical aspects of our people?

For example, in Nyanza the legend of Lwanda Magere could be a hit were it to be lionized and curated in a museum and (possibly) turned into a movie. To this, add the element of Luo music, perhaps centred on the nyatiti! Charge for shows, songs and dances; package associated components into merchandize with DVDs and CDs sold to cultural tourists and possibly exported around the world!

We already have Dedan Kimathi’s story whose dramatization could pick up from where Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo left it in their play of the hero’s name! Or how about the story of Gikuyu na Mumbi or the story of Wangu wa Makeri or that of Waiyaki wa Hinga!

In Gusii we have the famous Otenyo who killed Norcott the conquering colonial administrator. Otenyo’s tale would explore facts of the encounter. The tale will establish the fact that Otenyo’s was an act of resistance against colonial intrusion. We also have the legendary Sakagwa the Seer of Mwamogusii, who warned late in the 1800s of the arrival of light-skinned people that would change economic dynamics of Mogusii, suggesting that only those with “men/boys” would reap the associated benefits!

Cultural tourism has a limitless set of possibilities. In the process we can learn from the success of others such as India and its famous Bollywood. We shouldn’t shy from our history and could use this to enhance both our culture and derive economic benefits for our people.

Such diverse tales, commercial hits and associated merchandizing, and with the touring world coming to learn about us, would be proving employment for a substantial segment of our people. There will be the curators, the actors, music composers, entertainers and service people in the industry.

Kenya has excelled in horticulture with its penetration of the European and North American markets. Most horticulture products are grown around Nairobi for obvious reasons: proximity to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Improved infrastructure across the country should widen the catchments for horticulture. This along with an efficient supply chain should be able to get products from anywhere in the country for airfreight through the international gateway.

I read about women that have taken to growing pepper for export from South Nyanza. In the process, they have increased the earnings from their plots several-fold. Can we learn from this? How can it be replicated where possible in the country?

Food Processing:
Kenya produces a number of food products that end up wasted because of lack of facilities to process them. Driving from Kericho to Nakuru to Nairobi is often an encounter with farmers selling produce at throw-away prices. Be they potatoes, bananas or cabbage, these farmers could obtain much higher returns through adding value through processing.

Ugandans and Tanzanians have discovered substantial value add to their bananas. Aside from making crisps they also make portent alcoholic spirits that grace liquor stores the world over.

Integrated Planning & CDF:
CDF is one of the landmarks of the current parliament and government administration. One wonders what used to happen to all that money during the Nyayo era! Today, various committees in a constituency sit and arbitrate over the use of funds; millions of shillings at that!. And despite accusations of misuse by some MPs, there is national consensus that the fund has advanced the distribution of national resources to the local level. In the process, it has positively impacted a large swathe of Kenyan lives.

That said, there is a need for better planning to ensure maximum return from allocated funds. I have heard of cases where money is divvied up among (say) locations with each location having its own project priorities. At any one time there are a number of partially completed projects in different locations that are not delivering full value to constituents. Yet, with a degree of planning, a constituency could create a master plan, prioritize constituency-wide projects such that projects started are completed before embarking on new ones. Prioritization would also avoid duplication and ensure efficient use of the funds.

The government recently announced that professional managers will assume the management of CDF funds. This is a good move towards ensuring effective and efficient use of these resources. Incorporating integrated planning into the equation would drive further benefits to mwananchi.

Kenyans need to learn that the way ahead for the nation is based on sound ideas. They should thus bet their votes in individuals that bring a different style in our politics. In this New Vision, the politics is based on issues, concepts and ideas; and the ways and means of realizing these ideas for the benefit of the country. Ethnicity appeals to passion while ideas appeal to reason.

Our duty as a people is to practice the politics of reason over passion; in the process, we would be advancing the New Vision for Kenya!

(NB: future articles will focus on related subjects not covered in this article)
© August 27, 2007 Matunda Nyanchama

Matunda Nyanchama, a Canadian-based information security professional, was the founding President of the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA). He can be reached at

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