Slaying the dragon of tribalism

Thursday November 15 2012

A girl walks past a tattered tent at Athenai IDP camp in Rongai in May last year. The 51 families displaced by floods last year slept in the cold after their tents were washed away by heavy rains placing young and old at risk. Photo|FILE

A girl walks past a tattered tent at Athenai IDP camp in Rongai in May last year. The 51 families displaced by floods last year slept in the cold after their tents were washed away by heavy rains placing young and old at risk. Photo|FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP


Negative ethnicity is one of the biggest obstacles on Kenya’s road to rapid development.

Because of the instability threat it poses, the country’s Vision 2030 aspirations cannot be achieved before it is effectively tackled.

So how can Kenya deal with this problem? The answer lies in how we do our politics. For it is largely a political problem and, if not abandoned or diluted, the ongoing reforms are capable of slaying this dragon.

Kenya needs to upgrade the fight against ethnicity to the top of its national priorities and to sustain it there until the dragon is no more.

  • ISSUE 1 - Job Creation
  • ISSUE 2 -Food Security
  • ISSUE 3 - Healthcare
  • ISSUE 4 - Education
  • ISSUE 5 - Energy
  • ISSUE 6 - Water & Environment
  • ISSUE 7 - Social Protection
  • ISSUE 8 - Public Infrastructure
  • ISSUE 9 - National Security & Foreign Policy
  • ISSUE 10 - Boosting Exports
  • ISSUE 11 - Devolution
  • ISSUE 12 - Ethnicity

Ethnicity refers to the differentiation of members of a society along characteristics usually considered natural, such as place of origin, physical features, or language.

Ethnic diversity should thus be harmless and neutral to national development. In Kenya, however, it adversely affects development by undermining social cohesion and national integration.

Some Kenyans view it positively because it has been used to benefit them, for instance, by catapulting them into leadership positions or giving them access to jobs they would otherwise not qualify for.

Other Kenyans nurse permanent emotional and physical scars associated with ethnicity and have deep negative views about it. When this problem manifests itself in politics, it leads to permanent exclusion of minorities from political power. This leads to grievances and conflict.

This is more likely to happen in the absence of institutions to temper the influence of political power on resource allocation and regional development. When these institutions are absent or weak, corruption, theft and patronage become the rule rather than the exception in governance.

With high levels of poverty and inequality, competition for political and economic power and institutions that guarantee and protect that power is intense, protracted and bare knuckled.

Moreover, elites can provoke ethnic or religious violence in an attempt to gain or maintain hold onto power. The pattern of declining economic growth every time elections are held in Kenya illustrates the impact of ethnic-based politics.

In the 2007 elections for example, political protagonists engaged in an intense struggle to capture the Electoral Commission of Kenya. This led to the disputed presidential results and the violence in which 1,133 were killed and 600,000 displaced.

Access to and use of natural resources such as land, water, pasture, timber and oil can also cause ethnic conflict.

In Kenya, the use of land as a reward has been a major factor behind ethnic conflicts, as this has often involved communally owned land. Deep-seated prejudices and cultural practices such as cattle rustling may also cause conflict.

A national survey by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra) in 2010 showed that ethnic relations in Kenya are generally cordial and that the challenge of negative ethnicity is surmountable.

The survey that covered 2,805 households showed most Kenyans (95%) are proud to be Kenyan despite the fact that 36% are dissatisfied with life as a whole.

Second, about four out of every five (or 79%) Kenyans attach great importance to ethnicity in defining their identity, and hold the view that ethnic diversity is enriching in terms of social heritage, and contributes positively to national unity.

However, most Kenyans prefer to identify themselves using non-ethnic labels such as “Kenyans” (40%), or religion, occupation, gender and social class (30%).

Only 26% of Kenyans identify themselves using an ethnic designation, and this proportion falls sharply as one moves up the education ladder from 31.5% for those with no education to 8.2% for university graduates. This underlines the potency of education as a weapon in the war on tribalism.

It is also encouraging that ethnic affiliations seem to be more rooted among the more elderly people. Thus, 28.4% of persons aged 50 years or higher was more likely to identify themselves along ethnic or clan lines compared with only 16% among those aged under 20 years, and 22% among those aged 20-29 years.

Third, eight out of every 10 Kenyans (80%) feel that people of different ethnic groups are getting along well, compared to only 62% who believe that different socio-economic groups are getting along well, suggesting class differences are more pronounced than ethnic differences.

Fourth and related to the previous finding, in spite of the post-election violence in early 2008, most Kenyans (87%) reported not feeling uncomfortable or out of place on account of their ethnicity while 70% were not worried of becoming victims of crime due to their ethnicity.

Moreover, most Kenyans attest to being non-tribal or tolerant to other ethnic identities. They say they have not experienced difficulties living or relating, working or studying with people of different races, religions, ethnic groups or socio-economic class.

Fifth, it is noteworthy, however, that only about 26% of Kenyans state that they completely trust members of other ethnic groups, a proportion significantly lower than that completely trusts their neighbourhood (about 44%) or members of their own ethnic group (about 45%).

Sixth, Kenyans rank poverty, unemployment, corruption and insecurity as the more difficult problems ahead of ethnic tensions. Indeed, 56% of them believe that public goods are not fairly distributed regionally and 84% are convinced that “more equal distribution of public goods would reduce ethnic tensions drastically.”

This was reinforced by over 60% of the respondents who were optimistic that both intra and inter-ethnic relations will improve over the next decade. This is good, as it suggests that negative ethnicity is not deeply rooted in the psyche of Kenyans.

Kenya can tackle ethnic tensions and mistrust by opening up to the reality of the problem, discussing its causes and laying out a realistic strategy and action plan to address it.

War on negative ethnicity

Key elements in the strategy and action plan should be elevation of the fight against negative ethnicity to the same level as (if not higher than) the fight against corruption or HIV.

There should be zero tolerance to politicians and other segments of the society (including the media) who promote negative ethnicity.

Kenya should also address the grievances that fan ethnic hostilities, including ensuring transparent and equitable distribution of national resources, public services and jobs.

This will help to build public trust across the country; inclusion of aspects of positive ethnicity in the school curricula; restructuring of the quota system of education to encourage greater learner interaction across different groups; promoting the use of unifying languages such as Kiswahili and English in work and other public places; and promotion of sports and other intra and inter-ethnic associations by providing subsidies and developing an annual calendar of cultural events around the country spearheaded by top leaders and attended by representatives of different ethnic groups.

But the main means of sustaining healthy ethnic relations is to accelerate economic growth and generating jobs especially for the youth.

Dr Ikiara is former director, Kippra