30 October 2009

Kenya: New Cohesion and Integration Team Has Its Task Cut Out for It

Nairobi — A new team set up to instil national cohesion and integration has started work amid fears of fresh ethnic tensions if post-poll violence suspects are taken to The Hague.

But the question uppermost on the minds of many is whether it will succeed in the face of inter-ethnic suspicion that has been alive for four decades.

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission is the first official attempt to inculcate a spirit of nationhood at a time when an upsurge in ethnic tensions is expected should perpetrators of the post-election violence be taken to The Hague for trial.

The commission was set up after President Kibaki assented to the National Cohesion and Integration Bill, 2008 in December last year.

The Bill, first initiated as the Ethnic Relations Bill raised objections, including from former president Daniel Moi, who said that ethnic harmony could not be achieved through legislation.

In an exclusive interview with Saturday Nation, commission chairman Kibunja Mzalendo admitted his team faced challenges, but said Kenyans had learnt valuable lessons from the violence and realised the importance of a national ethos to guide individual behaviour.

Dr Mzalendo said the commission had no powers to prosecute those who fuel inter-ethnic tension but can summon individuals who preach ethnic hatred to retract their statements publicly.

It can refer those who ignore the summons to the Attorney-General for prosecution.

Hate speech

Unlike the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission that will look at political and economic injustices from Independence in 1963, the Mzalendo team's job is to ensure that violence does not recur by coming up with a national ethos that will guide national behaviour.

Kenya, unlike Rwanda, has no legislation outlawing hate speech.

Rwanda was forced to enact the law when it was found that hate speech and ethnic incitement by politicians fuelled that country's 1994 genocide.

The Kenya National Cohesion and Integration Commission has nine members and three ex-officio ones comprising a commissioner from each of the eight provinces and the chairman. The ex-officio members are the chairman of the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights, the Ombudsman and the chairman of the Gender Commission.

Dr Mzalendo said the commission will come up with national values outside the Constitution with the hope that some will find their way into the supreme law.

"The controversy over kadhi's courts would not have been a big issue if freedom of speech and worship were entrenched in Kenyans' minds," he saidHe said some values are, however, beginning to emerge. "Corruption used to be identified with top and middle level government officials. But, with the devolution of CDF cash to constituencies, Kenyans will start seeing it at the grassroots," he said.

Apart from promoting Swahili as a national language and discouraging the use of vernacular in public offices, the commission will also examine the composition of ministries and other public offices to evaluate the ethnic mix.

Those found to be lopsided in favour of an ethnic group will be forced to balance.

This is expected to raise an outcry because, though some ministries are filled with people from certain ethnic groups, they could be qualified for the jobs.

Describing it as "positive discrimination or affirmative action," Dr Mzalendo said sometimes merit has to be sacrificed for ethnic balance.

"There will have to be some sacrifices. We have accepted that there is inequality in employment and distribution of resources mostly due to political patronage. We know that there have been historical injustices, so have to make amends or risk a repeat of the violence," he said.

The commission will try to promote conflict resolution in place of litigation and the focus will be on pastoral communities that are perpetually at war over water and pasture.

Elders will be empowered to resolve conflicts without resorting to the courts.

Dr Mzalendo admitted his team faced serious challenges, with one major concern being that the country might have been polarised beyond repair given the ferocity of the post-election clashes.

Failed states

He also cited the controversy over the Mau as another example where parochial interests overtake the national good.

He was also worried that Kenyans might not take the team seriously because of "fatigue with commissions".

But the main challenge, he said, was overcoming possible perceptions that the commission would try to paper over the sins of the government.

"We cannot be adversorial to the government but we will carry out our duties independent of the Executive," he said.

Dr Mzalendo said there were factors that could work in his team's favour, one of them being that Kenyans now know the impact of electoral malpractices and would not wish to see a recurrence of the mayhem..

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