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Civic Versus Ethnic Nationalism

This article was first published in 1998. It remains relevant in the lead up to the Kenyan elections.

Matunda Nyanchama, PhD
April 6,1998

Here is something to ponder.

James McPherson, an expert on the US Civil War and history professor at Princeton University, distinguishes two forms of “nationalism”, i.e. “civic nationalism” and “ethnic nationalism”. These concepts are relevant in present-day Kenya, especially in this era of constitutional reforms and poor ethnic relations.

A basic tenet of ethnic nationalism is ethnic identity. Ethnic nationalism, according to Prof McPherson, tends to be inward-looking. It is exclusive to those not belonging to the ethnic group in question and derives its “legitimacy” from related identity (e.g. common ancestry) and “glue components” such as culture and language. Effects of ethnic nationalism can be seen in the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda and the separatist tendencies in the province of Quebec in Canada.

On the other hand, civic nationalism stems from concepts of the rule of law, individual rights, freedom, (possibly) a charter of rights, and equality before the justice system. For example, the Charter of Rights in Canada ensures protection of the individual from the will of majorities or draconian governments; a functioning, competent judiciary, that treats individuals as equal before the law, is an essential element for realization of civic nationalism.

The majimbo constitution, as advocated by a section of Kenyans, with ethnicity at its centre can lead to ethnic nationalism as individual ethnicities assert themselves (possibly) in pursuit of self-determination. (Note that I have used majmbo which should be distinct from true federalism). Advocates of a unitary Kenyan state, on the other hand, can be seen as civic nationalists.

At independency, Kenya adopted a majimbo constitution that was later scrapped just before the country became a republic. Since then, we have tried to enforce civic nationalism with mixed success. Publicly, we have professed a unitary state while allowing ethnic tendencies to dictate a number of national issues. This has undermined the foundations of a strong unitary state. The result: we have not succeeded in realizing a Kenyan nation state. Had we implemented civic nationalism to the letter, Kenya would by now be a strong nation state. Current discontent, even after two multiparty elections, may be partly due to the failure to live up to the letter of the laws and hence failure of civic nationalism in Kenya. We have preached water while drinking wine.

Division of the so called “national cake” is has been neither just nor fair. Very often we heard about the Kikuyu “eating” in the Kenyatta era. (In real sense, it is the elite, as opposed to a whole ethnic group, that would be “eating”.) Moi, who promised to follow Mzee Kenyatta’s “nyayo” has taken this to new heights. When challenged about “Kalenjin eater ship” under Moi, defenders (including the president) of the current regime will point to what happened in Kenyatta’s time.

If the Kenya government were a company, its directors would have long been deposed! And for good reasons. Under the past and present regimes, resources have gone to areas where their yield, nationally, is at best dubious. We see it in the form of roads that have hardly any traffic while economically productive regions remain inaccessible. We have seen factories built in locations where there are hardly sufficient raw materials to process. Yet those in office remain blind to this contradiction: commitment to a unitary state while practicing what is essentially ethnic nationalism.

And there is more, especially with respect to public office appointments. Here, the patronage machinery has been at its best. In general, the patronage machinery has served ethnic interests and in effect weakened national foundations. The results are all too clear: rundown and failed public institutions, corporations and government ministries. Here two cases are clear: incompetent managers and “eaters”. In most instances, executives will compete to outdo their predecessors in both eating from the public coffers and/or disproportionate placement of their kin in their jurisdictions. (When I worked at the KPTC, some people talked of the corporation using the term “ours”. It is said that delegations would go to State House to ask that the corporation, were it to change hands, should be left for “us”, those who regarded the entity as theirs.) Clearly such appointments and tendencies serve ethnic interests while undermining national foundations. Were national interest to be the real concern, then competency would be the first consideration. Talk of a crisis in the management of public affairs!

A competent judiciary is central to realization of a working civic nationalism. The Kenyan judicial system remains weak in the face of political forces that control state power. It is doubtful that we can have an independence judiciary when its officers owe their allegiance and promotions to the executive.

The judiciary is under-staffed and under-funded. It is bedeviled by corruption, just as the society it serves. There is truth in the old adage that justice delayed is justice denied. Today, judicial matters take forever to resolve for lack of enough magistrates, judges and lawyers while files disappear or get lost, be it due to the inefficiency of the system or through corruption. Judges, magistrates and lawyers have also been accused of corruption. Have enough cash, can buy a judicial officer!

Back to ethnic versus civic nationalism. What is the way forward for Kenya?

A constitutional review process is underway in the country. This should offer the opportunity to debate issues regarding the future of the country. Debate should be sobber and as in-depth as possible. The proposed constitutional review team should listen, collate and recommend the true feelings of Kenyans. We should, however, make sure that only informed debate can result in informed proposals. In these circumstances, we must realize that Kenyans remain ethnically polarized and hence may tend to express or propose solutions based solely on ethnic considerations. The debate should high light associated perils, if Kenya has to survive as a country.

Kenyans must choose whether to give way to ethnic nationalistic tendencies that have been our undoing in the past. On the other hand, we can opt for Kenya as a unitary state and strive to build a Kenyan nation state.

Opting for an ethnicity-centred Kenya would make ethnic identity central to governance of the country. It means that every decision will factor an ethnic component to fit some agreed formula that assures a “balance” (how does one define this?) of sorts. But we must also be aware of what we are courting with this choice. Since this an uncharted territory for Kenyans, we can only look at what world history presents. The lessons of former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Somalia are all too stark to contemplate.

The other alternative is to look back and learn from past mistakes. We must look for areas in which we have failed, i.e. those areas in which our past actions and decisions have undermined the building of a unitary state. This choice would enforce civic nationalism to the letter. Here, the purpose should be a constitutional review that strengthens the unitary state so that we can preach and drink that which we preach. This proposal would strengthen the judiciary to ensure its independence; it would place checks and balances in place to curb the excess of the executive; it would enforce executive accountability to the citizens; it would strengthen the legislature so that it becomes as independent of the executive as possible.

That said, it is not certain that such legislation or a new constitutional order would guarantee a just dispensation and the survival of the country as a unitary state. It brings to mind what one writer once said: you cannot legislate morality. But for those with hope, we must keep preaching and campaigning for high standards of integrity for people who hold public office, be they judges, ministers, MPs, civic leaders, civil servants, clergy, etc. We must have incorruptible, clean people in power. The flip side of this is to have an informed citizenry, aware of their rights and obligations. In a word, citizens who can stand for and demand their rights; people who know and exercise their obligations. Such people would obey the law, pay taxes, vote when called upon to do so, etc. On the other hand, they would speak out when they are wronged. This requires freedom including freedom of to associate with whoever one chooses, freedom to move freely and settle
anywhere in the country as well as freedom of the press.

Copyright © April 1998 Matunda Nyanchama. All rights reserved.

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