Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Kenyans should answer the ethnic question

Sunday Nation 20 May 2012

Lately, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) has been in the news discussing the ethnic composition of various national entities and arguing for redistribution to show the ‘face of Kenya’.
Their mandate is derived from the National Cohesion and Integration Act as well as from the Constitution, which requires that all public institutions demonstrate an ethnic balance in their staff complement to prevent any one ethnic community from dominating positions in government.

All these measures were informed by a historical view that previously in this country, election or appointment into public office resulted in an ethnic feasting orgy, where all jobs were allegedly distributed among village-mates and friends of the individual wielding the power. These measures were legislated to attempt to redress the imbalance and prevent similar occurrences in future.

Additionally, the NCIC has developed a draft Ethnic and Race Relations Policy document and circulated it for discussion, providing guidelines on how Kenya should eventually become a more ethnically integrated society. Numerous policy statements in this document address diverse issues from the national language to the production of periodic reports on ethnic and racial diversity.

In this regard, the NCIC has done a commendable job and it behoves all Kenyans to interrogate this draft policy and make suggestions on how it can be improved. However, the NCIC currently labours under the somewhat comical tag of ‘national tribal monitor’ that has only busied itself with counting members of ethnic communities in public institutions. It will be necessary for the Commission to shed this comical image if anyone is to take its pronouncements seriously.

For instance, recently, the commission required all public institutions to provide information on the ethnic composition of their workforce. This was done without providing any guidelines on how this would be done and what parameters would be used to determine ethnicity.

The result is that many institutions simply went into their human resource records and used the surnames of their employees to deduce their tribes without further consultation. The resulting report has been dismissed by some observers as ‘shallow’ and ill-thought out, and nobody seems to be taking it too seriously.

Another example of the nonsensical nature of this type of tribal census arose during interviews for the Gender Commission, where some applicants were denied positions based on their assumed ethnicity.
An applicant with Kamba, Kikuyu and Luhya heritage was locked out on the basis that her ‘tribe’ was already over-represented in other commissions. Her argument that nobody had asked her what she considered to be her ethnicity was dismissed as being merely academic.

It is therefore commendable that the NCIC has recognised that one’s ethnic heritage can only be determined by asking them, and has provided for ‘self-identification’ as the key method of ethnic identification.

There is an unintended positive outcome to this approach. If we are all honest with ourselves, at the next census most Kenyans will identify themselves as either ‘multi-ethnic’ or simply ‘Kenyan’. It is conceivable that entirely new categories of ethnicity will arise, leading to a situation where it will no longer make sense to conduct an ethnic survey of employment practices in public and private institutions.

Hopefully this will also eliminate the all-important ‘tribal arithmetic’ from the calculations of our ethno-political demagogues as they plan their next election strategy.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine lukoye@gmail.com; Twitter: @lukoyeatwoli

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