New government must recognise our diversity and value meritocracy

This week, Kenyans went to the polls to elect their leaders for the next five years. In the past, elections have been times of tension and uncertainty that tend to exacerbate ethnic rivalries.

Since independence, Kenya has struggled with nation-building. Post-colonial African territories were created by European powers that arbitrarily drew up borders around different tribes, nations, chieftains, and kingdoms forced to come together to form states after decolonisation.

Unlike other countries formed organically in Europe and Asia, such as France and Japan, Kenyans do not have common descent, language, myths, origin stories, or shared cultural practices. For Kenya to prosper, we must intentionally and proactively carry out nation-building to create a collective national identity, self-consciousness, and cultural integration.

It is only possible when all Kenyans, regardless of race, tribe, disability or other factors, are politically integrated and feel like they belong. Kenya, especially in the past few decades, has done well with building institutions for a functioning state while failing in building a meaningful national identity, which is also pivotal for a functional and sustainable state.

Since 1963, political mobilisation and affiliation have revolved around ethnicity in Kenyan elections. It means that governance, resource allocation, and employment opportunities have been skewed to favour the people who belong to the leader, those who support him or those whom he wants to get support from. From the onset, being in government has been viewed as an opportunity to empower one’s people over others with devastating consequences.

For a long time, whole ministries, state departments and county governments have been dominated by one or two ethnic groups. However, recent reports from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) have repeatedly shown that Kikuyus and Kalenjins dominate the national civil service, which may be linked to the fact that the two communities have had presidents for 35 and 24 years, respectively. In addition, NCIC reports on ethnic integration in public universities showed that the bastions of higher education were guilty of tribalism in hiring.

The entire constitutional architecture is designed to foster nation-building such as national values and principles of governance like patriotism, democracy, non-discrimination, etc. Moreover, the Constitution requires that appointive offices reflect the national face. Because of it, we have been somewhat progressing. Unfortunately, however, some departments and offices still blatantly offend this rule. For example, last year, a Cabinet Secretary was under fire for appointing three members of his “community” as board members of a lucrative government institution.

Devolution has also ensured that resources and decisions are made closer to the people, unlike in the past when the president could choose to withhold resources and appointments from areas considered to be opposition strongholds. Still, ethnic minorities within the counties are also having it rough as the “dominant” tribes take up all the appointments.

So far, this election has been notably pro-national unity. However, the online rhetoric between the supporters of the two leading candidates reeks of intolerance, disrespect, and exclusion. To safeguard Kenyans’ progress, the new president must prioritise nation-building to ensure that the country recognises our diversity and upholds merit and inclusivity. It may require new laws that will enable our constitutional aspirations.

Because Kenya comprises people of diverse cultural, religious, ethnic and ideological backgrounds, we have no option but to embrace each other’s differences and respect everyone’s rights under a constitutional democratic society that protects the marginalised. Accordingly, our new leaders should usher in a new dawn where all Kenyans are truly represented.

First published in The Standard on 19th August, 2022. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.