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Ethnic FM? Kenya Needs a Tribal House of Lords

By Mungai Kihanya, The East African (Nairobi), 21 September 2000

Nairobi - When Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi ordered Attorney General Amos Wako to liaise with Minister for Transport and Communications Musalia Mudavadi and draft a legal notice outlawing private vernacular radio stations, he argued that these stations were perpetuating tribal chauvinism in Kenya.

This is not the first time that the government has attempted to remove vernacular languages from the airwaves. In the mid 1980s, the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation had been ordered to stop playing vernacular music on its Kiswahili national service. The argument then, as now, was that the music was promoting tribalism.

Tribalism is a sensitive matter in Kenya. As soon as he ascended to power, President Moi declared a war against it, starting off with the banning of all tribal organisations. In every speech he has delivered since then, he has made it a point to remind the nation that it must eradicate this vice.

However, it appears that, despite his efforts, tribal chauvinism has escalated during Moi's era. It has been argued that this trend is caused by the president's constant reminders to Kenyans to shun tribalism. He reminds us that we are from different tribes and that the difference matters!

The dream of a country where all people will see themselves as one Kenyan tribe cannot be realised. Our tribal differences give us the cultural diversity that we cherish. It is contradictory to ask one to forget his tribe and at the same time remind him of the importance of keeping his traditional cultures through cultural events such as national music festivals.

The way I see it, we have two choices: we can appreciate and accept the fact that we are different tribes, or fight it by banning everything tribal including the speaking of vernacular languages, not just on radio and television, but also in private conversations.

Whichever we choose, we must embrace it in full. The latter option, of course, has no room in a civilised society. So we are only left with the former.

We can fight tribal hatred and chauvinism through acceptance if we establish a system where tribes meet and discuss their differences.

Since tribes are not individuals but groups, we should put in place a mode of tribal representation.

To do this, we would have to go back to the tribal welfare societies and encourage them to grow into strong lobby groups. Each of these associations would then be asked to select one leader (or Chief) to sit in a National Council of Chiefs, which would become an upper house of parliament.

The National Council of Chiefs would be a forum where tribal differences would be sorted out. Issues such as tribal favouritism in public offices and tribal clashes would be discussed openly and taken to their logical conclusion. The current dispute over grazing grounds amongst the pastoral tribes could have been solved by this council.

The Council could also take charge of cultural activities at the national level, including, for example, inter-tribal sports tournaments and other cultural festivals. It will be remembered that the two leading football clubs in Kenya, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards, were formed by the Luo and Abaluhya associations, respectively. In fact, the letters AFC used to stand for Abaluhya Football Club!

The current parliament, whose members are elected from various geographical regions, could remain as it is and become a lower house.

The leader of the political party with the majority of members in this house would still be the head of government, but the head of state would be chosen from the upper house. Each member of the upper house would have one vote, thus giving each tribe equal weight in the resolutions of the house. The same principle of one-tribe- one-vote would apply in the election of the head of state. This would ensure that the person selected is the one with support from a majority of all tribes.

The length of the term of office and the mode of election of the members of the National Council of Chiefs could be determined by the individual tribal associations. That way, tribes would have a level of autonomy in deciding how to elect their Chiefs and how long to retain them.

Apart from sorting out matters of tribal conflicts, the upper house could also vet all bills passed by the lower house before they become law. This would ensure that no law favouring or oppressing one tribe was enacted. In addition, rather than have a ceremonial head of state, it would be preferable to give him/her some executive authority; perhaps even the power to veto decisions of the head of government.

The system of checks and balances would work like this: The head of government would be answerable to the lower house of parliament. But the majority of the members there being from his party, he could bulldoze a decision through this house. If that happened, he could be overruled by the head of state. However, the head of state's decision could also be vetoed by the National Council, where every member is from a different tribe.

Before introducing the system, some details will have to be sorted out. For example, how do we define a tribe? Which tribe does a person of mixed ethnicity belong to? Are Indian Kenyans a single tribe or different tribes? What about European Kenyans, are German Kenyans the same tribe as Italian Kenyans?

How about those groups that do not wish to be involved in the house, how would they be represented?

This is not a completely new idea. The first parliament in Kenya was intended to give an equal say to all the tribes through the Majimbo system. However, the system did not refer to tribes explicitly.

We have spent the past three decades pretending that our tribal origins do not matter and we have failed miserably. I believe that the only way we can become a homogeneous nation is by accepting that we are different and learning to respect our differences.