8 January 2012

Kenya: This Tribalism Debate Is Reminiscent of the 'Asian Question' in the 1980s


The heated debate around human rights commissioner Hassan Omar's article on the dominance of Kikuyus in powerful government ministries should be a cause for concern as we enter an election year.

Omar's opinion that President Kibaki has perfected the tribalistic tendencies of his predecessor, Moi, has been quickly condemned as hate speech.

Bloggers have had a field day condemning Omar as a war-monger, while others support him for daring to say what many are afraid to voice publicly.

The "Kikuyu Question" raised by Omar has undertones of the "Asian Question" that dominated public discourse in the early 1980s when Martin Shikuku sparked off an emotional debate in Parliament by accusing Asians of controlling the economy.

Shikuku drew criticism from Krishan Gautama, the lone Asian MP at the time, for preaching racial discrimination. But he was generally lauded for calling a spade and spade.

Later, prior to the multiparty elections of 1997, when Kenneth Matiba, leader of Ford Asili party, asked Kenyan Asians to "peacefully pack up and go", few indigenous Kenyans accused him of hate speech or xenophobia.

Kenya's ambivalent position vis-à-vis its Asian citizens was also reflected in 1972 when Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda.

While Julius Nyerere of Tanzania condemned the move, Mzee Kenyatta remained silent.

Similarly, in the late 1980s, when the now defunct Financial Review and Finance magazines accused Kenyan Asian businessmen of being "sleazy, greedy and crooked", nobody accused them of propagating stereotypes.

Asians were easy game in a country where they stood out as an economically successful - but powerless - minority.

As is its nature, the Kenyan Asian community did not publicly react to any of these statements. As a non-indigenous minority, the community has learnt to lie low and not draw attention to itself.

This behaviour has cost the community political influence, and has made it even more inward-looking. It is often argued that Asians are not interested in political office or that they already wield enough economic clout and therefore should not be "rewarded" with government positions.

The latter assertion is based on the idea that political influence and access to wealth are one and the same thing, and interchangeable.

But we know that not all members of an ethnic group benefit when one of their own is in power.

The majority of those who languished in IDP camps after the 2007 violence were Kikuyus, though the president was a Kikuyu.

In fact, in Kenya, having a member of one's tribe in power can often mean that one is more vulnerable, particularly if one is poor.

Unlike the Kikuyu who have the numbers, Kenyan Asians are not large enough as a group to matter in an election, though some of the more unscrupulous have exerted political influence through corruption.However, if the idea is to make access to public office more equitable and representative, then we should see a lot more Asians in the civil service and in government.But this has not been so, partly because since the 1960s, recruitment of Asians into government has been actively discouraged by Africanisation policies.

Most Kenyan Asians have thus developed an apathy towards the country. They invest abroad and encourage their children to take up British, Canadian, American or Australian citizenship.

These children are now contributing to those societies because their parents and Kenyans at large did not fight for their right to be recognised as equal citizens.

However, the fact is, having a Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo or even Asian in power will not automatically translate into good fortune for all members of these ethnic groups.

Luos will not become the most prosperous if Raila Odinga wins the presidency, just as northeastern Kenya will not suddenly become a breadbasket because there are more Somalis holding public office.

The problem with Kenya's politics is not that it is tribalistic, but that the political elite manipulate tribe to protect their own economic interests.This helps obscure the fact that in Kenya, there are only two tribes - the rich and the poor. The third tribe - the middle class - is not yet big, strong or politically-conscious enough to pose a threat.

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