From a nation of blood ties to one of ideas

From a nation of blood ties to one of ideas
  • Kenyans have tried to get out of the hole they dug themselves into through various constitutional changes.

As an idealist who believes that human beings can achieve anything, I was all fired up by Eliud Kipchoge’s ambition to run the marathon in under two hours.

So on the morning of the Ineos 159 project, I planted myself in front of the TV with the remote firmly secured from other stakeholders, put on my “do not disturb face” and waited for the event to start.

By coincidence, as the marathon got underway, I received a WhatsApp video of a baby that had started walking that day.

Watching the baby excitedly falling and picking herself over and over again, I was humbled to realise that, even ordinary skills we take for granted such as walking are only acquired after a lot of determination and practice.

As I watched the baby and Kipchoge pursuing personal milestones, I was reminded of the words of a philosophy teacher who observed that human beings are probably the only animals on earth that have to learn every skill that are instinctive to others.


Something else that is not innate and is constructed through experience is our tribal identities.

Like the eagle that thought it was a chicken after living among domestic fowl, we construct our tribal identities through interactions with others.

Taking my family history as an example, both my maternal ancestors were Maasais who, for one reason or another, came to live among the Kikuyus.

My late mother, Nyokabi, for instance, was named after her maternal grandmother who was a Maasai by tribe.

On her paternal side, my mother’s great grandfather was a Purko Maasai from Laikipia whose real name was Kumale ole Lemotaka, but whom the Kikuyu nicknamed Hinga.

Proving that ethnicity is constructed, Kumale was so wholesomely assimilated by his host community that his first son Waiyaki rose to become the leader of the Kikuyus in Southern Kiambu.


According to historians, the assimilation of Kumale was quite common in pre-colonial period and many Kenyan tribes are a product of such interactions.

Although colonialism limited tribal interactions, ethnic constructions did not stop and have continued to this day.

Since the advent of multiparty politics, for instance, the rise of tribal parties and mobilisation of Kenyans along ethnic lines have served to define and solidify ethnic identities.

The finger pointing and ethnic labelling that says, 'you are madoa doa and not one of us' is just one of the ways we have solidified our ethnic identities.

Since the 2007 post-election violence, Kenyans have tried to get out of the hole they dug themselves into through various constitutional changes.

The best example of such efforts is epitomised by the Constitution, which divided Kenya into 47 counties.


However, while the objective of the constitutional amendment was to devolve power to the grassroots, it also had the unintended consequence of creating ethnic Bantustans that gave ethnic identities a regional dimension.

The inherent risk of such ethnic federalism became self-evident during the 2017 disputed elections when some regions threated to secede.

Luckily for Kenya, the government recognised the risk and agreed to sit down with the opposition leader to map a way forward.

The agreement, which is popularly referred to as the “handshake”, also resulted in creation of the Building Bridges team to look into, among other things, the causes of frequent ethnic conflicts and lack of national ethos.

In line with universal theories of nation building for a multi-ethnic society, the high level strategy seems to follow two re-engineering strategies.

The first is the consociational approach, which aims to build a government that allows sharing of power by the various ethnic communities.


Accordingly, the BBI team has recommended creation of a prime minister position in order to enlarge the number of executive positions that can be distributed among Kenya’s ethnic groups.

The advantage of this strategy is its inclusivity.

The second strategy that informs the BBI report is based on the recognition that a national identity is diligently constructed over time.

For this strategy, the BBI report recommends investment in education to nurture and create future generations that are imbued with shared values and a sense of nationalism.

In my mind, the constructionist approach is my favoured strategy if Kenyans are to rise from a nation of blood ties to a nation of ideas.

It is consistent with the liberal spirit of our Constitution and is easy to design. The downside to this strategy is that it is long term and undermines ethnic identities.

The writer is a political and economic analyst.