The Nation (Nairobi)

27 December 2009

Kenya: Traditional Elders in Joint Quest for Leadership

opinion

Nairobi — The time-honoured Kaya elders from the Coast, the fiery Njuri Ncheke bosses from Meru and the royalty of Wanga Kingdom in Mumias are plotting to wrest the future of Kenya from the hands of the country's treacherous political class.

They are not alone in this ambitious quest launched last week. They have marshalled the Ker of the Luo, the Kalenjin and Maasai elders and other elders from each of Kenya's 42 tribes to run a grassroots network of elders.

Although to the urbane middle-class and the society's intelligensia, the traditional elders are seen as a bunch of poor illiterates, their influence in the rural areas is huge.

They are the courts down there. From puerile marital problems to land disputes, it is the elders who advice the government administrators on what should be done. During the post-poll chaos, it is said, that the influence of elders over the belligerent youth was key in sparking the attacks and in ending the violence.

Now, they want to reclaim their place "in preparing a new generation of mature and responsible Africans, with the feet in tradition and the head in modernism."

Coalescing under the ambitious banner of the "House of Traditional Leaders of Kenya", the wazees want a stake in charting the way forward for a stable Kenya.

They want to thwart the urbane perception that slights their intelligence to the erstwhile fact that with age and experience comes wisdom; if only to keep their nigh absolute control over whole tribes and clans and to shield their tribes from the political scheming that has often led to tribal conflict.

Their leader in this quest is one Paul Kamlesh Pattni. The Vice Chairman is Mr Riaga Ogallo (Luo Council of Elders) and the Secretary General is Vincent Mwachiro (Mijikenda Council of Elders).

Are they ready for the mud-slinging nature of Kenya's political leadership with its attendant dishonesty and blatant corruption?

So far they have not been able to ward off the scavenging political class: the elders have been dishing out sacred titles, admitting politicians from every corner of the country into their fold.

They have also kept on endorsing their henchmen as the "right man for the top job."

Will this change? Mr Pattni said politics is not their cup of tea. All they want is to steer the political class towards some political hygiene.

Mzee Mwachiro says this will have to change so as to have a stable society. The only way, according to this Mijikenda elder, is to have the elders "empowered" so as not to depend on handouts from the politicians.

After this, they'll have to claim their space, to coexist with the politicians.

"With the obvious respect that the elders command, we'll eventually pull (the country) together," said Mzee Mwachiro.

He said politicians ought to be comfortable with such an arrangement, but it is unlikely, given the selfish nature of national politics.

The elders' national boss, Mr Kamlesh Pattni, reckoned that their forum is an organization under which all tribes are united.

"Politics brings animosity, our work as elders is to counter that effect and preach peace," Mr Pattni said.

Mr Pattni, a pastor, a businessman, a prince and also a politician thinks the time has now come for the elders to remind the society of the traditional African values.

He didn't see a contradiction of his political ambitions and the current goals of the organization he is chairing.

"If God has given you the capability to handle various things, you should not say no...." said Mr Pattni.

He added that elders are the "back up" to the political leaders.

"When the country was falling apart after the controversial 2007 General Election, it was a total failure of the political class," he said.

The impetus on the elders was sparked of in 2008 when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi invited a few elders to push his agenda for a United States of Africa.

This year, many others joined the pilgrimage to Tripoli to meet the Libyan President. And next year, many more will troop to pay homage to Colonel Gaddafi. It is an annual date with their boss fixed for September 9, every year.

But how does the traditionally rule, with its limited space for dissenting views work in a liberal world with various shades of democratic space?

For instance, are the habitually male councils of elders likely to admit women, if only to embrace gender balance? And how about elections for the elders instead of selections? And the primary emphasis on the bloodline, does it mean that other families can't rule?

Mzee Mwachiro says the questions are legitimate, but then the traditions have to be respected.

His proposal is to have these issues taken care of in the political circles and to have elders concentrate on the basics of societal harmony.

Telling the liberal minds about traditional leadership is akin to reminding them of the infamous one-party rule (or presidential dictatorships) or the military regimes that have dogged the African continent.

Many of these systems are responsible for the skewed resource allocation in the country.

While the elders do play important social, political and economic roles in many places, the capacity of such systems to manage a modern state is woefully hazy.

The Kaya, the Nabongo, the Luo Council of Elders, and the Orkoiyot (Kalenjin), among others, remain primarily symbolic entities, wielding little real power and controlling very little, if any, resources.

Currently, with the tribes spread all over, and each with its leaders, there is a danger of creating a "traditional elite" whose focus will be on mingling with other elders. However, on the flipside, there is the mirage of a total end to ethnic conflict.

According to 2008 Afrobarometer study by Carolyn Logan, traditional "chiefs and councillors, sultans and MPs, kings and presidents all inhabit the single, integrated political universe that, for better or worse, shapes each individual's life."

The researcher argues that in the perceptions of ordinary Africans, it seems that democracy and chiefs can indeed co-exist.

Mzee Mwachiro and Mr Pattni reckoned that if the elders are recognized in law as it has happened in Uganda and Ghana, then absolute devolution won't be hard to achieve.

Plus, with the recent proposal that village headmen draw their salaries from the Exchequer, the initiative by the old men looks rosy.

Though the door is now firmly closed on the process of submitting views to the committee of experts, the elders in Kenya hope that their views will be included and they may land slots in the Senate or even the National Assembly.

They also hope that if the political goodwill akin to what Libya is providing spreads to the rest of Africa, then the tribal conflicts that dot the continent will be a thing of the past.

But as for now, this is just a lofty dream.

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