When people feel safe, national unity flows effortlessly

Friday March 8 2019

Kenyan fans cheer athletes

Kenyan fans cheer athletes during the IAAF World Under-18 Championships at Kasarani Stadium in 2017. In that moment of identification with fellow countrywomen and men, regardless of religion, age, ethnicity or gender, all are bound as free citizens, equal in human dignity. PHOTO | LOC | NMG 

ALICE WAIRIMU NDERITU
By ALICE WAIRIMU NDERITU
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In what promises to be a busy electoral year, voters in Guinea-Bissau, Comoros, Algeria, Benin, Malawi, Botswana, Mozambique, Tunisia, Namibia, Chad, Mauritania and South Africa will be going to the polls.

A study of the manifestos and speeches finds guarantees of “societal peace and national unity” or “peaceful co-existence between our people” being bandied about. This happens in every election year, it appears.

True enough, conflict permeates the fabric of societies, ethnic and sectarian tensions fuelling separatism, igniting violence and splintering whole populations, threatening – you guessed it - national unity.

Few, if any, African countries escaped the consistent disruptive legacy, bequeathed by colonial boundaries and administrative methods based on ethnicity and religion.

The manifesto perusal led me to ask, “What would need to happen if a party in an imaginary country truly wanted to implement a manifesto that promises national unity?”

After the campaigns, winners could continue to prioritise national unity as an agenda. They could use the language of profound change, clear and unequivocal in defining the process of unifying a people: Value, dignity and respect for their right to worship and freedom of assembly.

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They could articulate a vision, identifying legislative and policy levers required to turn these goals into a national unity framework. A “dedicated team” with sufficient authority and clout to set ambitious targets for action.

However, even with all this, the most likely scenario would be of national unity turning out to be a quixotic fantasy, a mirage, an idea for the next election manifesto.

If you have witnessed those fleeting spontaneous moments of national unity when, say, Nigerians cheer the Super Eagles football team, or Kenyan or Ethiopian strangers crowd into restaurants to cheer on marathon champions running in faraway capitals then you know that to launch a human renaissance around national unity you need ownership from the masses.

In that moment of identification with fellow countrywomen and men, regardless of religion, age, ethnicity or gender, all are bound as free citizens, equal in human dignity.

The “dedicated team” could set aside a budget to travel to other countries to “benchmark.”

However, perusal of what other political parties did after taking office will show them that they already beat them to the “benchmarking” and good reports are sitting in shelves gathering dust.

These reports of previous “benchmarking” say that unified societies uphold the rule of law, work to end poverty and address injustice, provide for equality of opportunity and equal access to services especially for the most vulnerable – the poor, elderly and young.

The irony of traveling to “benchmark” after elections is that the campaign period helps politicians, as they interact on a face-to-face basis with voters, to develop a genuine understanding of what works in their contexts. They see first-hand what unequal societies look like, the suffering of the vulnerable, the ethnic exclusion.

What would the “dedicated team” need to have to receive support from those cheering on the Super Eagles and the marathoners? The answer is: Imagination. Transcending the superficial differences of party politics and partisanship. Less political theatrics.

Space to discuss differences in a civil way. Leadership to initiate frank dialogues with people on how to fulfil the aspirations of a unified country; not overlook any existing legacies of division and fragmentation. Then, crucially, find ways of ensuring freedom for cultural expression and educational reform in line with contemporary development thinking.

When people feel safe, national unity flows through spontaneous, unforced interaction. Opportunities for spontaneity present themselves in, for instance, shared narratives in sports, music, books and films.

Sectarian discourse recedes when a culture that thrives on diversity exists. When national unity happens, it is not quantifiable, or measurable.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. [email protected]

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