The recent calls for a referendum to change the Kenyan constitution and implement a parliamentary system of governance, rather than a presidential one, may remain just that, talk. However, that should not take away from the fact that many Kenyans, I included, are unhappy that despite a new constitution, we remain as divided along tribal lines as ever before.
The March 4th elections split the country right down the middle, with the two major coalitions garnering support from different tribes almost exclusively. Indeed, the candidates who attempted to run on other platforms such as national unity and “issue based politics” such as Professor ole Kiyiapi and Martha Karua performed dismally, coming dangerously close to being usurped by the comical Dida (where is he, by the way?)
This only served to remind Kenyans two things; firstly, that even with a new constitution, you cannot legislate a stronger nation, where national identity, values and ideology matter more in politics more than one’s tribe. Secondly, it put ethnic identity and tribalism back at the centre of the national dialogue on politics, where it deserves to be. And this is where the hot political topic of the moment, whether we should change our political system to a parliamentary system rather than a presidential system, comes in.
The argument is this: as long as Kenyans are voting for a president, and certain tribes have the numbers, the control of state machinery, control of a subservient and intellectually bankrupt mainstream media and a judiciary whose reputation among Kenyans is still not positive, then the “other Kenyans” will never see their tribesmen as President or his Deputy. Instead, we should have a parliamentary system, where the strongest political party forms a government and elects a prime minister/president from within its ranks in government.
Of course, this argument has various holes. I do not think that a parliamentary system will promote national unity, since the very same Kenyans who are voting along tribal lines for a president will be the same people voting along tribal lines to elect their members of parliament and political parties. A parliamentary system requires very strong political parties, where the Members of Parliament realize it is only their support for their party in parliament that keeps the government in power. In a country like Kenya, where political parties are weak and lack the capacities to exist without the financial, political and personal support of the most powerful tribal chiefs, this would be a recipe for disaster. Imagine a situation where a government is only propped up by a few votes in Parliament. A few brown envelopes pushed to some hands would see mass defections to the opposition and the government would collapse and elections held. And of course, the proponents of this system fail to tell us how Kenyans uniting in political parties that are ethnic in character to choose a prime minister rather than a president makes tribal differences disappear.
But this is not to say that they do not have a point. As long as we are voting for a powerful president and only one group of tribes can win at the expense of others, ethnic divisions will remain part and parcel of our politics.
There have been various solutions tried in Africa and beyond to solve the ethnic character of politics in countries, and there is no magic bullet as yet. Indeed, despite the devolution and separation of powers tried in the United Kingdom it could see still the secession of Scotland, while the USSR and Yugoslavia collapsed long ago with the various ethnic nations in these countries becoming fully fledged nation states. Indeed, as is evidenced by the upheavals in Russian regions such as Dagestan, and the efforts of Kosovo to break away from Serbia, sometimes there is no end in sight in ethnic groups demanding sovereignty from a heterogenous multi-cultural nation once the process starts.
The efforts to support devolution and decentralization of powers from the national government should continue to be supported. But this will not be enough. I think, as I mentioned a while back in a post I did on tribalism in Maseno university politics, Kenyans should consider permanent power sharing and consociationalism.
Consociation is a system of government whereby all major groups in a state are guaranteed representation and a seat in government. In such a situation, all the ethnic groups in the country would have a seat in government and political power guaranteed to them according to their relative populations, for example one tribe getting the presidency, others the prime minister, another tribe the vice president, others the speaker, and so on. Consociation has been attempted in Lebanon, and although the country is still divided and prone to ethnic violence, the system of government has quelled insecurity and civil war, as well as promoting coalitions in government and some semblance of an all-inclusive government.
Whether or not Kenyans change their constitution or not, we cannot run away from the fact that the process of forming a cohesive and united nation has not had the best results. Ethnicity and tribalism remains real, and unity is still a mirage. The conversation about the right of all communities to be part of government, and share fairly the political and economic benefits of being part of Kenya should continue. Hopefully it will someday lead to solutions we can use to unite all Kenyans of various ethnicities, economic classes and religions to unite in a legitimate government so that we can achieve socio-economic and political development together.