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Lessons from Ibn Khaldun on preventing fall of Kenya

Thursday February 27 2020

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In his 14th century work The Muqaddimah, medieval Tunisian proto-historiographer and sociologist Ibn Khaldun wrote about the rise and fall of empires. It is a work unparalleled by any other of its time - in part because it is seen as a precursor to the social sciences.

Khaldun studies world history from antiquity to his own era, and explores how communities become nations and, also, what leads to their demise.

Khaldun is most well-known for his discussion of the Arabic term asabiyyah, which can be translated as tribalism, communitarianism or clannism. Though it is anachronistic, asabiyyah can also mean nationalism in the modern sense.

Asabiyyah is a kind of bond that allows individuals to form a sense of community. The togetherness it describes occurs amongst nomadic societies, modern states, and even empires spanning diverse groups and nations. According to Khaldun, empires rise due to this solidarity. If the sense of togetherness dissolves or is replaced by another, then the empire collapses.

The Muqaddimah serves as an exemplary tool to study civilisation and statehood. Less a manual for leadership than an explanation for why societies excel and then ultimately fail, Khaldun’s text can be applied in any contemporary situation for scholars seeking to understand nationhood and statehood.

Kenya is made up of 42 distinct tribes. Some of them are more closely related than others, but a long time ago, far before British colonialism or any other foreign incursions, Kenya was made up of individual tribes that beyond geographical proximity and trade had little to do with one another. This was our first stage of asabiyyah.

Since the people of Kenyan tribes, like many in Africa, are more community than individualistic oriented, people could identify with their tribes. Khaldun notes that the sense of asabiyyah is most prominent amongst nomadic and tribalistic peoples, but lessens as larger civilisations solidify.

Due to history’s vicissitudes, the identity of Kenya’s nationhood is now comprised of many different tribes coming together under one single organised government. We are at our peak now because while we are ethnically diverse, recent polls suggest that Kenyans frequently choose to identify as Kenyans above all tribal affiliations.

Our sense of community is stronger than ever because after the divisive double presidential elections of 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta ushered in the beginning of the end of tribalism when he shook hands with his main competitor Raila Odinga in March 2018.

We have the choice to either celebrate our asabiyyah as a unified nation state, or resign ourselves to being split again by politicians fighting for their own power above the good of the nation. We can either get carried away by the politicking and let it wear us down, or we can learn from history and recall that nations eventually dissolve when a sense of unity is not strong enough.

Khaldun put it like this: “Throughout history many nations have suffered a physical defeat, but that has never marked the end of a nation. But when a nation has become the victim of a psychological defeat, then that marks the end of the nation.”

As much as we have fought each other in the past, especially during the post-election violence of 2007/8, none of us has given up hope that we want the nation to prosper - we just have not always seen eye to eye on how to achieve that.

But we need to set a better example for our children. We need to show them that the way to build a community is by putting our hands together and listening to other points of view. It is by opening up to the perspective of those with whom you haven’t always gotten along with in the past. It is by identifying with something bigger than you. It is by taking part in the healing process that the President has started.

Khaldun said that “man is the child of customs, not the child of his ancestors.” Meaning, while respecting our ancestors, we do not always have to make the same decisions as they did. We can learn from their mistakes too.

Just look at Uhuru and Raila. While their fathers were historic rivals, these two decided to change the narrative. As we learn in The Muqaddimah, unity can lead to the success of our nation. Alternatively, lacking it could finish us. But after the handshake, we have little to fear in this regard.

Mr Cherambos comments on topical [email protected]