Sunday, May 16, 2010

The question we can’t answer: How many are we?

Sunday Nation 16 May 2010

It is almost nine months now since the government carried out a census that was meant to help with planning and resource allocation throughout the country, according to the Planning ministry.

The Minister for Planning promised at that time that the results of the census would be out in record time. Indeed, a December target was set and, for the first time, Kenyans were assured that they would know their total number within a few months after the census.

However, as the deadline approached, it was postponed to early this year before being put off indefinitely.

According to the minister, he was prevented from releasing the results by the Grand Coalition Principals who needed time to study the results and presumably confirm their veracity.

There were murmurs in the street that the real reason for the delay in the release of census results was due to shock over the massive increase in the numbers of some communities, with suggestions of ‘‘rigging’’ in time-tested Kenyan fashion.

Fears that the results may cause a significant ethnic realignment ahead of the next General Election were also expressed.

Newspaper reports late last year provided provisional figures nearing 40 million Kenyans but, early this year, there were indications that the results were shelved as a result of speculation that some communities managed to somehow inflate their numbers for some political purpose.

This issue of tribe in the census had been discussed emotively, but was dismissed by the government as misguided rants by civil society types out to oppose every government move, whether good or bad.

In the absence of convincing information from the government, rumours will continue to swirl about the true motives behind the silence over the census results. It is a shame in this day and age that our government is still playing ethno-political games with the nation’s vital statistics.

The current situation only serves to confirm the fears some of us had during the census about the question on one’s tribe.

As a matter of fact, those of us who answered that we were Kenyans may now justifiably hold up our heads in pride, because our decision not to allow our ethnicity to be used for political arithmetic may be one of the reasons the results were rejected as inaccurate.

Those that were counting on our numbers in order to assert their ethnic hegemony are now having difficulties reconciling the figures to suit their nefarious designs.

As things stand now, nobody knows what the government is doing with the census figures they have. It was earlier indicated that investigations were going on to find out how the figures for some regions and tribes were presumably manipulated to reflect very high rates of growth in tough economic and environmental conditions.

Translated, this means that senior politicians in government were worried that they would have to redo their ethnic arithmetic to include people they used to ignore in the past.

Figures indicating that some tribes’ contributions to the national average had declined in favour of others must also have caused plenty of sleepless nights for the perennial schemers in government. Excuses about tampering with the numbers must not be used to deny Kenyans results of a census that cost the country lots of tax shillings.

Even today some enumerators are still bemoaning the non-payment of dues several months after the job was done. What would be expected of a government that cares about its image in the eyes of the citizenry?

Firstly, a complete and transparent presentation of census results is absolutely necessary. Secondly, if any anomalies were detected at any stage of the counting process, an audit should have been carried out, the culprits identified and punished and remedial measures instituted.

Withholding the results indefinitely is akin to the ostrich burying its head in the sand in the hope that difficult times would pass it by.

Finally, if the problems with the results are such that they are irredeemably damaged and are of no use to the government or anyone else for that matter, the government must publicly acknowledge this and order a fresh census to be carried out in a more professional manner.

In this new count, emphasis should be placed on more important planning parameters such as place of residence, employment status, access to basic services such as health, education, food, water and sanitation, rather than on useless trivia like tribe. This will eliminate the incentive to tamper with the tribal arithmetic for whatever purpose.

If, on the other hand, it becomes clear that we cannot even count our people accurately, then it stands to reason that the results of the forthcoming referendum will be quite hotly contested and it is not even entirely inconceivable that a recount will uncover similar errors in that count!

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

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