In theory, everyone agrees that tribalism is one of the biggest problems that Kenyans face and everyone seems to have ideas on how to fight it or eliminate it. And I guess it has been this way for years but tribalism does not seem to go away, is it that there is not enough effort on the war or has it actually become a part of our everyday living?
Tribalism just like racism is a problem that exists around the entire world but it is widely felt across Africa, mainly due to leadership woes and selfish circles of power. Kenya specifically has been greatly affected by the vice and we have serious lip service from our leadership although nothing seems to change.
About 20 years ago, majority of Kenya never really felt the effects of tribalism and people co-existed peacefully. There was a little chaos here and there in the cases when one tribe stole from the other but never anything major. The youth went to the same institutions and you would never tell the difference between them. I remember I went to a primary school in Nakuru that was mainly dominated by the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities and we lived in a neighborhood where everyone was from a different tribe and nothing seemed wrong with that, according to my 13 year old eyes and mind. We all went to the school to learn, we did not care what community our fellow students were from neither did we bother about the tribes the teachers came from. When someone pronounced a word wrongly we did not bring about the fact that they pronounced it wrong due to their ethnicity but we laughed about it because it was the wrong pronunciation. We played together as a community that lived together. We learned a few words from each other’s languages and life was just as easy.
In Nairobi, right before the 2002 elections, no one wanted to oust Moi out of power because he was Kalenjin, everyone was discussing his bad leadership and the opposition was united regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Majority of Kenya, including Moi’s own tribe voted against Uhuru Kenyatta who was Moi’s appointee and preferred successor.
Slowly after that, political parties were registered and built around ethic support and every leader who thought was supreme in their community formed their own parties. Politics slowly became a tribal affair and every leader started pointing fingers on the leaders of the other tribes. We slowly let the monster that had eaten so many countries in Africa get a grip of a nation that was always referred by the rest of the world as an island of peace. We made our tribal differences a blame for our shortcomings and we looked at each other as enemies while we had lived in the same neighborhoods since time can document. Now it is such a reality, negative ethnicity has overtaken each and every problem we had as a nation. Each person is looking at a friendly tribe to work with politically, seeking a political party directly affiliated to their tribe.
While our politicians have had a great chance to kill this vice, they have actually taken advantage of it to create hierarchies within their regions and this has continued to fuel hatred among communities. It is a reality that Kenya witnessed the worst tribal violence that it has ever seen back in 2008 after the general elections. While most of us would like to say the violence was just political, the general assumption was that some tribes “must” have voted for specific people and so when there was a dispute, tribes turned against each other.
As a Kenyan, all I did was leave my house early for the polling station in Nairobi, voted for my preferred candidates and returned home to await the outcome. Now when one decides to engage in any kind of a competition, whether as a candidate or just as a participant on any level, they should always expect the competition to go either way – win or lose. I did not discuss with anyone who I voted for apart from maybe a few people I campaigned to convert to my camp before the elections and even then, we talked about it in a friendly way, and each one of us told the other “we shall see who wins eventually”. There was people of my own tribe that were not voting for the same candidates I was voting for and we would all try win more people into our camps. We made fun of each side’s advertising campaigns and eventually shared drinks at pool bars and went home in the same cars. Where the shift came from just amazes me.
So this is where we are, no need for details, but how do we deal with it? Is it a crime to be a member of any tribe? NO, you did not even get to choose what tribe you were born into. My tribe should just be an identity, just as Kenya is, a cultural heritage and a way of me tracing my historic roots. While I carry a name from the Kikuyu, my father was not even a Kikuyu and my kids whose mother is from another tribe have no point to pick up what tribe they are from. But the simple fact that they carry my name as Kenya is today they will face persecution as any other Kenyan will due to their tribal associations. Where are we taking this country? Are we going to have to split Kenyan into small tribal countries?
So we have all talked about the fight against tribalism but are we really going forward on it? My answer is NO, in fact we are far from it, I would say every day we are widening the gaps between our communities and fueling hatred due to small things that we can avoid.
I specifically have an issue with one of the ways the government has decided that tribal balance in resource allocation is a factor to consider. Tribalism will never leave Kenya with this mentality and attitude. Every Kenyan should have equal chances and all regions should be developed on the same pace.
The government should distribute resources according to needs, not according to “tribal balance”. North Eastern is behind in development due to challenges that require more resources and the fact that this region has not been able to produce enough resources to promote its own economy. While it may not be rich in agricultural resources, this area has a huge pastoralist culture that spells great wealth. If the government provided more security along our borders and built meat and milk processing plants in these areas, they would eventually support their own economies and educate their children for a better future.
Centralization of government services (which I hope will be a thing of the past with the new constitution) encouraged urbanization of only very small portions of the country leading to major rural-urban migrations. Somehow, most of the people who are educated end up moving to the urban areas leaving no innovation for the villages. This means poverty continues to grow. If the government can quicken the devolution process and educate people on ways of self sustenance and empower their trades by growing relevant industries and creating the infrastructure required to facilitate inter-regional trade, people would stop viewing other tribes as a threat to their being.
The human mind is quick to seek scapegoats and blame for every situation we get into. The first thing the government should stop is referring to tribal balance as a point in selection of appointees to any office, go purely on qualification and also ensure that every Kenyan has access to equal resources and opportunities. The more we talk about tribal or regional balance, the more Kenyans see themselves as their own tribes.
I dream of a Kenya that will only give me a job because I was the best qualified and not one that will give someone less qualified a job because they come from a tribe that was less represented. Tribalism is being elevated by these standards that our leaders have selfishly imposed. While there has been massive injustice in previous governments that rewarded people from specific tribes, we will not solve anything by using the same vice to “benefit” other tribes that did not gain from it before. Our only solution is to clean out the system, encourage every Kenyan to academically fight for every available opportunity and build systems that the people of Kenya can believe in. I might not make sense to a lot of people but take my word, unless we change this system, we are heading to a place where every person will see the other for their tribe.
Kenya is the only country I would claim I own and it is home to my grand parents and my grand kids to come. I want a better place for my kids than I lived in. I want a better life for them and the only way it starts is to first accept that we are in a whole that we already got into and the first step to getting out is by not digging anymore.
In conclusion, I repeat, we are creating a monster by stating that every appointment or board created needs to have tribal balance. What it needs is qualification. And what every Kenyan needs is equal opportunity, right to education and every human right. What the government (current and future) needs to do is fight to create a balance in development and resource distribution in the country and fill the gaps that we so wrongly created. I love Kenya and if we let it go down to what we almost fell into in 2008, some of us might afford to leave the country for peaceful havens but remember, no one can ever take all their roots and cultures out. We need to protect this country and tribalism is the fastest way we are killing it.