Is it a community of interest or for special interests?

Wednesday November 25 2020
Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto, President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga during the November 27, 2019 launch of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report in Nairobi. PHOTO | TONY KARUMBA | AFP)


Every Kenyan civic and professional grouping wants its special interests to be included in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) proposals. On the one hand, it is good to see people mobilising as ‘communities of interest’, and not tribes. On the other, it seems that ‘community of interest’ has been mistaken for ‘special interest’. The two are fundamentally opposed concepts.

The community of interest principle was entrenched in the 2010 constitution as an alternative to the disabling and dangerous tribal nature of our political culture.

During elections, people mobilise and organise as members of a tribe or a coalition of tribes in order to face off against other tribal coalitions.

Even today, you will hear presidential aspirants inviting members of this or that ethnic group to join their coalition so as not to be left out of the next government.

A journalist once likened Kenyan elections to a census. By looking at the ethnic numbers in the last census, he said, he could tell which tribal coalition would win. Therefore, to cure this mockery of the democratic process, the 2010 constitution proposed that people should build solidarity on common interests, not ethnic ties.

When ‘community of interest’ is taken to mean mobilising and organising as small groups of people with very specific, and often privileged, needs, then it becomes ‘special interest’.


In America, for instance, special interest groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) or the huge Jewish lobby hold the American political system hostage and make it impossible to enact laws they deem detrimental to their narrow interests, even though the laws would be beneficial to the wider American society. Therefore, no matter the frequent mass shootings in schools, the NRA has made it impossible to change the archaic gun laws.

It is with this in mind that I view with alarm the push by governors and Members of County Assembly (MCAs) to hold the BBI process hostage unless their narrow interests are included in the document. The governors, for instance, want their pensions to be part of the BBI proposals. A document supposed to advance the interests of a majority of Kenyans will now be held hostage by a small wealthy (and mostly corrupt) group who want their pensions to be included in the raft of proposed constitutional amendments!

This must be a supreme example of the gluttony that has kept Kenya a poor and extremely unequal country it is today.

The MCAs on the other hand want a certain percentage of the money that goes to the counties to go directly to the wards. This might seem a legitimate concern on the surface, but it brings out three issues we will not be able to solve before the intended referendum. First, will this further devolution of funds not mean de facto creation of another mini-devolved unit? Second, what mechanisms will be used to determine how the millions will be spent? And, third, who will oversight its use given our experience with MCAs?

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator