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  • Dr. Wyclife Ong'eta Mose

How to Solve the Problem of Ethnicity in Kenya

By Micah Asamba


Kenya is a multi-ethnic society with 42 tribes that have co-existed peacefully. The most dominant groups are the Kikuyu, Luyha, Kalenjin, Luo, Kisii, Kamba, and Meru. Traditionally, the different groups occupied distinct regions in the country. However, there have been movements in recent times for purposes of trade, work, agriculture, and expansion. This has led to interactions between different ethnic communities through inter-marriage, trade, co-existence, and general symbiotic relationships. Although the interactions have been mostly symbiotic, in some cases they have led to clashes and raids. Nevertheless, there has never been a large-scale inter-ethnic violence that has covered the whole Kenyan territory, save for the post-election violence (PEV) of 2007.

Toxic Tribalism is the loyalty to one’s own ethnic group to the point that dysfunction and dogma become the standard. One of the key indicators that someone is toxically tribal is demonization through which the other group is labeled as scum, demons, racist, evil, and stupid. The individual lacks conscious behavior. This is evident through unconscious behavior such as not entertaining contradictory ideas, violence, and being closed minded among others.

To end negative ethnicity, there are key policy recommendations to address the matter. First, there is need for structural changes within the country to ensure that there is more equitable distribution of resources that is not begged on ethnic affiliation. In line with this, political parties should not be formed based on ethnic galvanization as this is one of the factors that lead to polarization, especially during the electioneering period.

The second recommendation is for Kenya to re-invigorate the nation-building project. Focus should shift away from ethnic identity as the main determinant for accessing public resources and opportunities. People should be affiliated to each other based on citizenship and not the tribe. The purpose is to make every Kenyan feel that he or she has the right to work, live, and access services from any part of the country. Furthermore, national qualities should be promoted to encourage citizens to develop the sense of patriotism and belonging. In this regard, simple acts such as singing the national anthem together and participating in games and sports go a long way.

As it has been determined that politics and political parties play a big role in spreading ethnic animosity, there is a need to relook party formation and governance. Parties ought not to only be formed for expedience but instead be based on a set of beliefs, ideologies, and policies that seek to ensure the development of the country. Therefore, they should be judged based on their ideologies and constitutionalism rather than ethnic group of the leadership. Additionally, people within the tribal groupings should be open to differing political views and allow members to express their support for parties of leaders of their choice without intimidation, harassment, or ridicule. The rationale is to create “mixed-areas” whereby members can express divergent issues without fearing for reprisals.

Moreover, the problem can be solved through negotiated democracy which can bring stability in situations where normal democracy leads to violence and instability. A case in point is the power-sharing deal of 2008 after the post-election violence, bring together the warring camps of ODM and PNU. Another instance, through informal, is the case of the 2018 “handshake” that brought together President Kenyatta and the opposition leader, Raila Odinga. Negotiated democracy has been used in other African countries before, including in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and South Africa. However, although in 2008 the power sharing was instituted through a simple Act of Parliament, under the new constitution such changes would require constitutional Amendment through the referendum.

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