The day after the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Report was launched at the Bomas of Kenya, I was almost assaulted by a fellow faculty member and supporter of the proposals in the report while having coffee at the University Cafeteria.
This was the latest, perhaps the most intense example, of intolerance in Kenya.
The incident demonstrated how fickle democracy in Kenya is, even with some of the most learned people.
My crime that day was my suggestion that “I hope this will be fair and that justice will be seen to have been done if everyone is to trust the outcome.”
My “friend” is a senior faculty member who perhaps read too much into my statement. He didn’t even ask me whether I supported BBI or not. He perhaps acted on less than half the information about my political leaning.
He is not alone. Many Kenyans are simply intolerant of ideas outside their tribal ideology and act on the slightest information. Often, they regret later.
On social media that day, Kenyans exchanged bitter words, based on what they had heard and not what they had read in the document. Some of the honourable Members of Parliament were not ashamed to propagate falsehood.
A senior member of the Senate wrote “I have gone through the full BBI report twice and Tinga doctrine which states that election is not free and fair unless he wins was not addressed.”
The comment was met with an avalanche of tweets, similar to the messages that led the country to degenerate into the 2007/8 post-election violence. Sycophants posted videos in praise of their tribal chieftains, oblivious of the fact that to build a sustainable democracy we must agree to disagree.
Each one of us must tolerate others even though we may not accept the opposing view they might hold.
But that incident at the university cafeteria was not without motive. The gentleman had been boiling inside his heart.
My statement only served as a trigger to act on our past differences, which I didn’t know about. Although he was angry and incoherent at times, he managed to say something about my previous week’s article on spiralling debt in Kenya.
In his view, the debt issue is a diversionary propaganda to stop ODM leader Raila Odinga from taking up the presidency with President Uhuru Kenyatta as Prime Minister.
Pretty good, I responded, and proceeded to ask him to write his opinion as a rebuttal to my article. That is how people exchange ideas, in other words agreeing to disagree gracefully. I concluded.
I realised that he wasn’t done with me yet when he asked me what I thought about the duo.
I told him that I respect the two gentlemen but reminded him that I was under no obligation to share with him, or anyone else for that matter, my opinion. My political beliefs are mine.
He concluded that I leaned towards anti-establishment. I protested that he was wrong. Then suddenly he said: “You were okay when you fought with David Ndii. Now that he has bewitched you, you are reciting some of his lines.”
“No sir,” I retorted, “but doesn’t Dr. Ndii work with Hon. Raila?”
“It doesn’t matter; he will be kicked out,” he concluded.
Even though we love our leaders, we must always sound an alarm if what they are doing will negatively hurt the entire country.
In terms of leadership for this country and in the absence of ideology that glues together people from different tribes, I try to imagine, beyond rhetoric, what can bring unity in our country.
Differing with the Government is a healthy thing that often shows political maturity of a nation, depending on how much they can tolerate.
Then I asked him if he had any way of predicting behaviour of the five leading presidential candidates in Kenya. He didn’t think there was anybody else in Kenya who could lead better than “what God has chosen for Kenya”.
He however noted that some were only popular within their tribal enclaves.
“But isn’t it true that the base of Kenya’s successful leaders has always been the tribe?” I asked.
“True,” he responded but before I could say anything, he added that only very few leaders who can mobilise people beyond their tribe.
I was very patient with my fellow faculty member. I learnt many things from him and I hope he too learnt something from me.
I could have dismissed him as a tribal chauvinist but I didn’t because I wanted him to understand that we can disagree on some issues but that does not mean we hate each other.
In 2008, I saw video footage collected by media that were never aired because of ethical reasons. Media rightfully kept away the videos that would have torn the country further. I have never come to terms as to why people could be so cruel, so barbaric and ignorant to maim their own as they did.
It started with simple SMSs with disparaging remarks about people from a different background. Then it shifted to violence fuelled by rumours from specific Internet sites and then forwarding of SMSs.
Thank God there wasn’t widespread social media use at the time. We probably would not be having a country. Now we have social media and pictures are shared without any censorship.
In the 2017 General Election, some young men were almost lynched in Uasin Gishu when the local youths suspected that they were foreigners. Later it emerged that they were children of a prominent member of the community.
The children escaped death by a whisker. Had they been “foreigners”, they could be dead by now. We must educate citizens to see beyond tribe, and that our differences are a normal part of life.
We love to quote Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”
But we fail to contextualise the same by replacing the words black and white with different ethnicities of our country.
Let us read the BBI report and make our own judgment. In it, I hope they defined what ails us (What our problem is and how to solve it).
In my view, our greatest problem is behaviour. The so-called National Ethos is not the solution. Strict enforcement of the law without fear or favour may just do it.
The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito