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Sticking together is the winning formula for Kenya

Friday July 26 2013


Kenyans are right to claim Chris Froome as one of their own; he is, after all, proud to be Kenyan.

But as his teary eyes suggested while the national anthem played at the conclusion of the Tour de France last Sunday, his ties to Britain are also much stronger than just those derived from the need for the funding, training and technology that cycling under the British flag brings.

Some commentators in Britain have raised questions about just how British a Kenyan-born, South African-trained resident of Monaco can be. Froome’s relaxed approach to identity and citizenship is alarming for those who deal in the simple but flawed categories of nationalism and ethnicity.

Most potential critics have been disarmed by his victory, although some remain sceptical about his performance in a sport blighted by drugs. With these sceptics yet to produce any evidence to support their doubts, it seems Froome has reached the pinnacle of his profession because of his easy cosmopolitanism— taking the best from each of the places he calls home.

Froome’s situation is more typical for many Kenyans than might first appear from his origins as a grandson of empire. Questions of who belongs where have run through so much of the country’s politics over the past half century. The answers to these questions are often depressing efforts to impose artificial and rigid boundaries of ethnicity.

The flexible and multiple identities Kenyans move in and out of in the course of their daily lives are hard to find in politics. It is, therefore, all too easy to forget that this is a tremendously cosmopolitan country— Kenyans may not necessarily vote together but they certainly work, play, live and love with one another.


The potential rewards to be accrued by a keener appreciation of this innate cosmopolitanism and the challenges to it have, perhaps, never been greater. As ever, Kenyan citizenship is being pulled in several different directions at this moment.

The most important of these forces is at work in the counties. There are many obstacles in the path of devolution, but the new county administrations will only succeed if the residents of each and every one feel that their county government represents them as individual citizens and not as members of an ethnic group.

In other words, if the counties are to retain any legitimacy, the right of Kenyans to live, rent and buy property or set up businesses wherever they wish; to be represented in government and to enjoy personal security must be upheld by the counties as a matter of habit and not just under the threat of legal action.

There can be no doubt of the size of the challenge facing counties that try to embrace cosmopolitanism, as illustrated by the on-going saga of the IDPs. According to UNHCR, there are still around 300,000 IDPs.

The failure to resettle every single one should be a source of embarrassment to all members of the previous government. However, Kibaki’s coalition government cannot be wholly blamed so long as some sections of society deal in labels such as ‘visitors’ to describe the blameless victims of the 2007-8 violence.

While criticism by local populations of the mismanagement of resettlement schemes is fair, to target the IDPs themselves as punishment for the failings of politicians and administrators is wrong-headed.

At the national level, a different sort of question is soon to be posed to cosmopolitanism. As the Kenya Defence Force and the Somali government consolidate their hold over southern Somalia, pressure is increasing to disband the refugee camps and send their inhabitants back across the border to Somalia.

‘Kenya has to be freed of the 600,000 refugees from next year,’ this newspaper quoted Francis Kimemia as saying earlier this month. Already an agreement has been struck between the governments in Nairobi and Mogadishu to facilitate a programme of voluntary repatriation of refugees. But many refugees and others are concerned about just how long such programmes will be voluntary.

The reluctance of many Somali refugees to return home is understandable. Besides their justified concerns about the security situation in Somalia, many have established deep roots in Kenya over more than two decades.

A considerable number of these of so-called refugees were in fact born in Kenya, but are now strangers in their own land. Moreover, while often presented as a drain on the national purse, as citizens, consumers and investors, Somali refugees have done a great deal to benefit Kenya.

Indeed, they exhibit many of the values that Kenyans take great pride in, such as self-help and entrepreneurialism. But such qualities are ignored by those that see the refugees as aliens who must go back to Somalia.

Another type of regional integration will bring with it another challenge to cosmopolitanism. Although subject to constant delays, the process of ever deeper East African integration continues towards the eventual and still distant goal of economic and political unity. What will it mean for Kenyans to be East African citizens, subject to regional laws?

Older readers, raised in an era of Pan-Africanism and close ties between the Anglophone territories of East Africa, might well shrug their shoulders and wonder what the big deal is.

But they might also reflect that the champions of East African integration in that era were flummoxed by the challenge of convincing Tanzanians, in particular, that they too will enjoy benefits if borders and markets are opened still further across the region. To do so now requires the championing of the intrinsic value of cosmopolitanism, in this case instead of nationalism and the instinct to protect.

The answer to all these challenges to notions of Kenyan citizenship should be the same. Whether one is interested in the future status of IDPs, Somali refugees, the counties or the East African Community, open and flexible notions of citizenship are mutually beneficial.

In the absence of a strong sense of nationhood, cosmopolitanism is the glue that keeps together a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society fully integrated into the global economy.

Cosmopolitanism provides the ties of reciprocity and mutual respect that constitute the real foundations for political stability, economic growth and social justice. It opens up business, politics and culture to innovation.

It makes the country an attractive place to invest, inspires Kenyans to do business or get an education overseas, and allows for members of the diaspora to remain engaged in public and private life from thousands of miles away.

The only real alternative to cosmopolitanism is parochialism, which protects mediocrity by privileging individuals whose only claim to jobs, land or power is their identity and place of origin.

As we can see across the world, such individuals invoke fear of outsiders stealing land and jobs, destabilising local politics, and threatening security in order to protect their own turf. The potential benefits of the application of liberal ideas of citizenship are, however, much greater than the potential costs.

Politicians are fond of initiating repetitive discussions about the Kenya we want, but cosmopolitanism is something that should inspire pride in the Kenya we have. Kenya and East Africa is better off together. As Froome has taught us, cosmopolitanism means everyone wins.

Prof Branch teaches at the University of Warwick in the UK