NGUGI: Put ethnic politics and overblown egos aside; let us focus on building bridges

Wednesday December 04 2019

Delegates at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on November 27, 2019 during the launch of the BBI report, which makes a raft of recommendations aimed at bringing national unity. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


On March 2018, arch political rivals, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga emerged from inside Harambee House and shook hands on the steps of the building. In the statements they read to the press, they said they wanted to begin a process of finding out where “the rain began to beat us”.    

The two gentlemen wanted Kenyans to ask questions that would engender a national renewal. What do we need to do — administratively, legislatively and psychologically — in order to transition from an administrative entity of several ethnic nations into a nation-state? Why is it that at every election cycle, Kenyans — professors as well as villagers — retreat into their tribal cocoons and don, literally and figuratively, tribal war dress?


Since 1992, ethnic violence has claimed hundreds of lives, and in 2007/8 threatened a genocidal conflagration. So the two men wanted to create a process that would usher a national conversation about our nationhood and the habits, practices and mindsets that continue to keep us firmly in the ranks of the Third World.

Soon thereafter, a task force comprising of lawyers and respected elder statesmen — all from ethnically diverse backgrounds — was gazetted to gather views from Kenyans on the state of the nation and how to improve it. For months the team received memoranda or heard presentations from all and sundry.

While President Kenyatta and Raila Odinga had made it clear that the initiative — now dubbed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) — was not about the politics of 2022, a section of the political class led by Deputy President William Ruto saw the initiative as a ploy to block him from acceding to the presidency. And thus began a reckless scorched earth politicking so beloved of the Kenyan political class.


At funerals, churches and never-ending weekend rallies that drain the intellect as well as the spirit, the BBI was branded all manner of insulting monikers and acronyms.

In our political culture, a leader has sycophants, not supporters, and their objective is to prove to their political master that they are the most loyal defenders of his interests and ambitions. So they try to outdo each other in sycophancy- insults become cruder, lies more outrageous and war mongering more reckless.

Like the prosperity gospel con artists whipping their impoverished congregations into a religious fervour, the anti-BBI brigade stoked anti-BBI hysteria among a section of the population. The prospective BBI report was maligned, judged, and condemned as a fraud.


And now the long-awaited BBI report is out. It recommends the creation of the office of a prime minister and brings back the office of Leader of Opposition. It also recommends that 35 per cent to 50 per cent of the national budget be allocated to the counties as opposed to the current 15 per cent.

Also proposed are measures to stem runaway corruption.

These proposals seem reasonable and even desirable, a far cry from the bogeyman used to scare citizens.

It speaks to the Megalomaniacal nature of political ambition in Kenya that instead of trying to improve on the BBI so that it creates a constitutional moment through which the nation could reinvent itself, those opposed to it viewed it as a hindrance to their personal ambitions.

I hope the process that follows release of the report will give everyone an opportunity to discuss its proposals and other issues that have kept us a lame-duck country since independence. Let’s use this moment to talk about the usefulness or otherwise of the Senate and the quality and role of MCAs, etc. Let us relook at TJRC, Ndung’u and Akiwumi reports. Let’s discuss our criminal justice system where trials take forever and injunctions against investigating potential criminals are dished out like candy.

In view of the truly horrific and senseless crimes being committed today, is our current sentencing regime deterrent enough? How do we graduate from the crippling notion that when a road is built in Garissa, for instance, it belongs to the Somali community and not to Kenyans who live in that region and people who travel there for business or leisure?

If we put our ethnic politics and overblown egos aside for the next few months, we can make discussion of the BBI report not just a constitutional moment but also a moment for personal and national reinvention.

And history will record that this moment created the foundations of a prosperous, united and peaceful country.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.