David Ndii is at it again. In the aftermath of the election, he has revived talk of his incendiary proposal for divorce. Basically, he postulates that Kenyan ethnic communities are in “an abusive marriage” and if they cannot come to an accommodation, they need to consider going their separate ways. Despite being one of Kenya’s foremost public intellectuals, he is demonized by many in the ruling establishment and among their rabid supporters.
Although the proposal far preceded the elections, Ndii’s most recent comments were made and will be understood in the context of the election and especially the contested presidential poll, which is now the subject of a Supreme Court petition. The root of his argument is the perceived domination of Kenyan political life, and the opportunity to “eat” the national cake, by a few large tribes.
The current focus of the griping is the Kikuyu-Kalenjin axis inaugurated by the alliance of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto. But the narratives of domination, by either a single community or an alliance of a few of them, and resistance to it are as old as the country itself.
The logic of oppression and extraction was built into the state by our founding fathers, the British colonialists. They created a structure of government that was meant to entrench their lordship over all they surveyed and to facilitate extraction from natives.
Local communities didn’t take too kindly to this and eventually ganged up to demand their independence. However, their inheritance from the departing and receding British was the colonial state, which they failed to fundamentally reform and instead fell into squabbling over who would control it. And always, behind this, was fear of domination, which is really fear of the state.
In the run up to Independence, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party was created, almost overnight, as the vehicle for what was largely seen as a Kikuyu-Luo alliance to take over the state. It was immediately opposed by the rest of the “small” tribes who majorly ganged up under the auspices of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU).
The deck was shuffled again after KADU was swallowed up by KANU and the Luo jettisoned soon after. Though Daniel arap Moi, with his Kalenjin bloc, was nominally the number two in the party and in government, it was clear that for all intents and purposes the state now belonged to the Kikuyu elite. This was to continue until shortly after the death of Jomo Kenyatta. Now it was the turn for the Kikuyu elite to be tossed out into the cold where they joined their Luo counterparts to oppose the Kalenjin (Moi’s) state.
This alliance eventually forced Moi’s retirement and the re-enactment of history as the Luo were once again double-crossed – this time by President Mwai Kibaki – and kicked out of what again became the Kikuyu state. The violence that followed the 2007 election gave rise to the first all-inclusive government where elites from all communities got in on the feeding frenzy. The 2013 elections again saw the Luo shut out by the current Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance. A partnership that is perhaps slightly more equitable than the version between the current President’s father and Moi.
What I’ve detailed above is a very simplified and simplistic model of Kenya’s history. However, it has the distinct advantage of helping us appreciate a fundamentally important fact that explains why Kenya is where it is today and why we go round in circles. The problem that we have been skirting for all these years is the state itself as a tool for domination rather than an expression of the people’s aspirations. We are fighting over who becomes the next oppressor, rather than trying to uproot oppression.
Which brings me back to Ndii’s argument. Last year, in response to his abusive marriage thesis, I wrote that Kenyans are actually in an abusive relationship with their elites, rather than with other tribes. The extraction that the state facilitates, and that is the real prize the elites are battling over, is from all Kenyans regardless of ethnicity – we all pay whoever gets to be the piper, some more than others, but that doesn’t mean we get to call the tune or avoid the rats.
In fact, the whole talk of ethnic domination is a device to hide state domination by the elite of all tribes, which has led to a situation where 8,000 individuals own 62% of everything. Dismembering the country will not fix this.
Clearly, as Ndii holds, there is in principle no reason why a discussion on secession or mutual separation cannot or should not happen. We should not fetishize Kenya since, as we have seen, it was not created for our benefit but rather as a tool for robbery. Think of that next time you feel compelled to sing its songs, salute its flag or declare its eternity. For most of the country’s existence, it has been little more than a mostly illegitimate political and administrative arrangement that we have been struggling to master. The 2010 constitution gave us a chance to begin to get to grips with that challenge and provides an agreed upon vision of how it can be made to work for us.
Part of that vision is decentralization as a cure to the overbearing central state. Since before independence, majimboism or its current iteration -devolution- has been at the crux of the struggle between those who were seen as domineering and the rest. It was one of the major issues that divided KADU and KANU. Although a pillar of the Independence constitution, which created 7 regional governments and assemblies, it was undone by KANU in the 60s which, among other things, simply starved the regional governments of revenue.
Today, devolution remains at risk. The fact that the vast bulk of the tax money is controlled and retained in Nairobi, where the elite congregates, rather than disbursed in the counties where the people are dispersed is in itself telling. There is a deep need to ponder the continuing centrality of the national Presidency in our politics (it was, after all, largely modelled on the colonial Governor-General) and the fact that it remains a potent symbol, not of unity as envisaged in the constitution, but of domination.
Simply put, the work of implementing the constitution is not done. It has only begun but the night is here and it is full of terrors. Only by doing the hard work of facing up to our history and rebuilding the state from the bottom up, not as a tool of oppression, but as a means to enable popular aspirations, can we hope to extricate ourselves of the vicious cycle.
We therefore must, as Ndii says, not shy away from scary discussions about the means we use to compel those in power to abide by the constitution, or even the possibility of separation if that fails. But we also must not be seduced by the easy, tribe-based formulations he offers, that only serve to mask the real nature of our state. However, the only way to truly appreciate what Ndii gets wrong, is to seriously engage with what he gets right.