Kenya: With Such Leaders, It Is No Wonder Few Have Confidence in the Country's Future


At the recent gathering of counties in the arid and semi- arid parts of Kenya held under the auspices of the Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC) in Garissa, a crucially important point was made, but unfortunately it was overshadowed by a rabid and crude display of ethnic mobilisation. The point made was about female genital mutilation (FGM).

For decades, medical doctors have listed the litany of medical problems that stem from this practice, from difficult sexual intercourse to birth complications.

These are quite apart from the excruciating pain of the cut and the many deaths that result from it. Many women who have undergone FGM speak of lifelong physical and mental scars.

In an interview on France 24, Kenyan anti-FGM activist, Nice Nailantei told of how she had to escape from her home in order to avoid the cut.

She and her organization rescue girls from this most egregious of 21st century monstrosities. Nailantei is among a handful of people working to change the mindset on FGM.

Their work would have been made easier had leaders, especially from regions that practice FGM, taken a firm and unequivocal stand against the practice.

But for reasons, arising from fear of losing votes to deeply ingrained patriarchal beliefs about the place and value of women, this practice, which results in the mental and physically scarring of millions of girls and causes tens of deaths every year, is never part of our national human rights discourse.

If war maimed so many millions and killed hundreds every year, Kenya, the AU (er, maybe not) and the UN would have demanded an urgent meeting of the Security Council.

So Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto, facing the gathering and saying that FGM was primitive and nonsensical, should have been the main news item.

Cabinet Secretary of Interior Fred Matiangi has on occasion also taken a tough stance against cultural practices that are in reality criminal acts.

Still, that the deputy president had made such a principled no-nonsense stance against such a horrific crime at such a high-profile gathering should have been a major talking point.

Of course these public denunciations, as important as they are in turning the mental tide, have to be followed by renewed investment in the anti-FGM fight. The work of Nailantei, for instance, would be greatly strengthened by more personnel, finances, legislation, and vigorous prosecution.

Lost opportunity

But as it is, the FGM denunciation did not even make the news that evening. This is because Ruto, Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen and parliament's Majority Leader Aden Duale also used the occasion to perform an obnoxious and dangerous kind of politicking that we must now begin calling out directly and boldly.

This is ethnic mobilisation, a staple of Kenyan politics that is at the heart of our frayed nationhood.

Ethnic mobilisation is done in coded language, it employs half-truths, hyperbole, lies and perceptions to weave a narrative of persecution of an ethnic community and, thereby, create among its members a siege mentality.

The idea is to rally the tribe against amorphous "enemies" -- individuals and communities -- thus deflecting unflattering accusations against oneself, reframing the debate, and changing the narrative.

At the FCDC gathering, Ruto could have just explained, from his perspective, how money, meant for dam construction, and now alleged to have been stolen, was actually used. Then wait for investigations to confirm his view.

But instead, insinuations were made that those alleging corruption did not want the people of Elgeyo-Marakwet to get water or development.

But it would make zero sense--moral or political--for anyone to want to deny poor villagers water. Besides, when a dam is built anywhere in the country, it benefits the people of that region but also other minority communities who live there, not to mention the country as a whole.

In his speech, Senator Murkomen, almost frothing at the mouth, claimed that unnamed people or communities thought they were the only legitimate inhabitants of Kenya.

The senator, increasingly becoming known for wild claims of persecution of "our people" declared that pastoralist communities were "not invited in Kenya."

Duale made a rambling speech about living in one of Nairobi's high end neighbourhoods and was not about to make apologies for it. Then he declared that if the country did not want to stay united, there was the option of federalism.

How had a legitimate discussion about proper use of resources turned into people not wanting others to have water, about communities not being invited to Kenya, residing in Muthaiga, or threats of federalism? Well, that is Kenya's leadership. Any wonder that few have much confidence in the country's future?

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.

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