By P. Anyang' Nyong'o
August first, a debate erupted in the Senate regarding ethnic representation in the government. Making a contribution to a motion I had moved on reforms in the police service and proposals to amend the Police Service Commission Act as well as the Police Service Act, Senator Bony Khalwale alleged that three ethnic groups received more than their fair share in the composition of the current government in the Cabinet and at the level of principal secretaries. He further went on to say that the same is true with the Police Service. Asked to substantiate he produced a report from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission showing that two communities dominate the police service.
Without going into the details regarding the discussions that ensued in the Senate, their merits and demerits, it was the proposal advanced by Sen. Kiraitu Murungi that recognised the gravity of the issue at hand and offered a practical and concrete solution that can help Kenya get out of the dangers of the politics of ethnic domination that has been our bane since independence. Senator Murungi, subsequently supported by Senators Chris Obure and Moses Wetang'ula, gave the example of Singapore-- and Malaysia--where ethnic diversity has been creatively used to enhance national integration and nationhood.
Malaysia became independent in 1965. It had more or less the same level of development as Kenya. In a society that comprised diverse ethnic communities: Malays being 60% of the population, Chinese 25%, Indians 10% and the rest 5%, the Malaysian elites decided to strike what they called "the bargain" in constituting their government and initiating national development. The idea behind "the bargain" was that each community would get their fair share of the "national cake" in proportion to their numbers so as to promote national integration and nationhood.
In 1969, however, there was a terrible outbreak of urban violence in Kuala Lumpur, the national capital, that unleashed vicious ethnic conflict among the Malaysian people. For two years parliament was suspended while the ruling class searched for a long lasting national solution. In the end a policy was adopted to increase more fairness and equity in development, job creation, use of national and ethnic symbols and so on. in other words, the ethnic problem was not pushed under the rug; instead it was exposed for what it was, confronted, a formula found for dealing with it and the formula implemented transparently.
In the 1990s a campaign called "Bangsa Malaysia" was launched: this was to drum up ideological and cultural support for Malaysian national integration and nationhood. With a population of 23 million people and a dynamic economy, Maysia hopes to have 80 million people by the year 2100. Even then it will have laid a firm foundation for becoming a prosperous society since the economic development seems to be consciously integrated with cultural integration and coexistence.
That, of course, is not to say that everything is rosy in Malaysia. Dr. Mahathir Mohammed, the legendary Prime Minister that was behind the great Malaysian achievements since independence, had a tinge of authoritarianism in his politics. But it was a brand of authoritarianism that shunned crony ethnic capitalism while creating a national developmental and democratic state. It is no wonder therefore that Malaysia has gone much further than Kenya in terms of socio-economic development since independence.
But it is never too late to learn. In fact were we a people who are prepared to learn positive lessons from our history we should have learnt a thing or two from 2003 and 2008. But unfortunately we did not.
Following the elections of December 2002, Kenya produced a government that was perhaps the most legitimate and most representative since the first government of 1963. Kenyans were immediately rated the happiest people on earth and we embarked on an economic recovery strategy that was widely embraced and accepted by Kenyans, hence its resounding success within a very short time. We did not, however, seize that opportunity to discuss a policy to deal with our ethnic diversity nor did we pay close attention to national integration as part and parcel of dismantling the presidential authoritarian regime.
Soon the fantastic NARC government initiatives started to be drowned in ethnic turf wars as elites sought to use their proximity to the Presidency to enhance politics of exclusion rather than inclusion. It was the primacy given to exclusion politics that messed up the referendum of October 2005, leading inevitably to the collapse of the NARC government and the end of "the honeymoon with happiness". Kenyans immediately became the most ethnically divided nation on earth.
It was under that atmosphere of ethnic tension and the tension between inclusion/exclusion politics that we went to the elections of December 2007. The results and the violence that ensued should have radically changed our perception on how we run our politics but they did not. The Grand Coalition Government provided yet another window of opportunity for us to use that experience for future political engineering but we have not done so notwithstanding the useful framework provided by the present constitution. Although the Grand Coalition Government was big and unwieldy it provided the widest representation of ethnic diversity in our republic. It was perhaps the most inclusive government without necessarily being more effective than the NARC government of 2003-2005. The lessons we should have learnt from it was how to use that experience to do another Malaysia-like political project in Kenya.
But Sen. Kiraitu Murungi now seems to have hit the nail on the head and woken us up from our stupid slumber. Rather than wait to have exclusive elections from one year to the other, forming semi-inclusive governments from one year to the other, fighting each other from one election to the other, let us take the bull by the horn and answer this question: how do we create a government, a cabinet, a police service, an army, an education system: in short a nation where ALL Kenyans feel at home? How do we deal with the elephant in the room: our growing ethnic alienation from each other? How do we learn a thing or two from Singapore, Malaysia and perhaps Belgium?