The inaugural conference of the Kenya Scholars and Studies Association (KESSA) was a two-day event in Bowling Green State University (BGSU), Ohio, USA. The event was addressed by Dr Jendayi Fraser, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Bush administration. Also present was the Kenyan Ambassador to the USA, Rateng’ Ogego.
Those present, though, deeply engaged in the proceedings and debates that the presentations generated. Discussions were intimate and all the more worthwhile. As one person commented, it was not simply coming to listen, ask questions and learn from others but a chance to get to know others, and build relationships.
The subjects of discussion at the KESSA conference were diverse and touched on the social, economics and technology.The summary here is chronological based on the presentation and in no way depicts any order of merit/preference on the subject/presenter.
Dr Patrick Dikkir presented on liberation of the Kenyan psyche, what Ngugi wa Thiong’o terms ‘decolonizing the mind.’ Fourty-five years after independence, the Kenyan mental condition remains deeply colonized and lacks Kenyan rootedness. Consequently, our culture (language, modes of communication, relationships) face the threat of extinction. It is not clear that all about Africa’s past was glorious. That said, the direction Africa, and Kenya for that matter, is taking suggest a “master-slave” relationship with its former colonial powers, with Africa always on the receiving end.
Constitutional reforms and role of the constitution as a nation’s governance framework were discussed. An interesting part of this was the nature and conditions to force the political elite to accept reforms. One that generated a lot of interest was the “zero option”, as Prof Shadrack Nasongo termed it. To date, self-interest dictates the debate on reforms. The question for Kenyans is this: how does one align interests of the political elite with those of Wanjiku to ensure that Wanjiku benefits from the changes?
There was a presentation on globalization and African leadership. Political and managerial actors in the country are often at the mercy of external forces, some of which they have no control over, according to Prof. Meshack Sagini’s presentation. This global “governance” (viewed as national, bilateral, and multilateral) often creates conflict and confusion and in the process can distort a nation’s development. A good example is the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) (the “bitter pill” as some termed them) of the 1980s. SAPs resultant effects include institutional decay, reduced capacity in social service delivery (education and health specifically) and the reversal of substantial gains had made since independence.
The World Bank (WB) and its approach to African Diasporas featured in Lisa Aubrey’s presentation. Lisa talked about the Ban’s recent African initiative, which seems to have been conceived without sufficient participation of African people, both on the continent and the Diaspora. The WB is focused more on the “markets over people”; and the “private sector over good governance.”At the core of this: the $4 billion remittances from the African Diaspora to the continent. At $1 billion, the Kenyan Diaspora remittances constitute 25% of all African remittances. The question for Africans is the extent to which to trust the Bank to steer this very important aspect of African development, given its history and associated grand failures.
The challenge for Africans is how to take control of such initiatives to determine collective destiny. This would be in line with calls from erstwhile leaders including WEB Dubois and Kwame Nkrumah. One challenge to overcome is the divide and suspicion between Africans (especially the power elite) on the continent and those in the Diaspora. Studies suggest that the power elite on the continent wish for and accept support in economic development. However, they see the Diaspora as a potential source of competition for power and control. In others words “your money is good for me, but I don’t need your participation in management of national affairs.”
An interesting side discussion arose regarding the similarity between the World Bank Diaspora initiative and the Kenyan Diaspora Draft bill, in which the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA) was heavily involved in shaping. A question was raised regarding who “copied from whom”!
The subject of “truth and reconciliation” has dominated the political discourse since the 2003 election of President Mwai Kibaki. Despite recommendations for creation of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), the government has not acted in that respect to date. Prof Osaak Olumwullah opined that it is time we had a TJRC. It is even more urgent today in the face of the post-election debacle of 2008, where more than 1200 people were killed, close to 1 million displaced and property worth millions of shillings destroyed.
A well-constituted TJRC would establish the truth about historical injustices (with a view to righting them) and help heal the wounds inflicted by the recent conflict. Moreover, it is through truth-telling that the country’ true heroes would be known, and help create a true Kenyan nationalism. The country must take the “bull by the horns” and face its past, ugly as it may be. Those who forget their history are bound to repeat it!
The TJRC should however avoid becoming a tool of the political elite and hence be captive of the elite’s version of “truth”. The next challenge is how to incorporate restitution in the process for truth alone would serve little without restitution and (hence) justice for those wronged by acts of the past. A key issue here pertains to economic crimes and the money looted from public coffers: money the country needs for economic development but which past looters may be unwilling to bring back to the country in fear of punishment. The TJRC must be a tool for a better tomorrow as opposed to an instrument of retribution.
Dr Benard Manyibe talked about a strong internal market as a means of jumpstarting the nation’s development. Example: why can’t Kenyan regions/municipalities/cities compete with each in the arena of investment, human resources and the like? For example: (a) Kakamega would flaunt its many advantages and what that would mean for investment and quality of life versus (say) Kisumu, Mombasa , Nakuru and Nairobi (b) On the other hand, Nyeri may present its own “value proposition” as of advantage over others in competing for the same opportunities. All this can be achieved through public policy initiatives focused on growth, with the effect that competition would lead to improved services as the market would dictate winners and compell others to make improvements in order to be competitive.
To achieve this, however, requires substantial local autonomy and strengthening (e.g. through rational tax sharing) of local governments. Such competition may also act as a bulwark to the cancer of tribalism that bedevils the nation as investment and human resources would drift to areas with competitive advantage.
Noah Midamba made a presentation (jointly created with Prof J. Bagakas) on opportunities the post-election crisis presents for socio-economic development. The crisis brought to the fore the reality of haves versus have-nots in the country. Indeed, many of those that died were in lower economic ranks compared to the well-to-do who were mainly barricaded in middle-class homes. Moreover, while the have-nots were clashing in the name of tribe, the haves were cooperating across ethnic lines to protect their status and material holdings. The crisis highlighted the most affected segment of society, the youth, and the levels of poverty in which they wallow; compared with compensation of elected representatives. At the current pace of development (political and economic) the country’s national fabric is under threat of bursting.
There is thus an urgent need to address issues of ethnicity: pass a law that heavily punishes individuals that discriminate against others due to ethnicity! There is urgent need to address issues of the constitution, with respect to decentralization of executive power and allocation of national resources. There is need for massive investment in the economy to address joblessness. Infrastructure projects can provide substantial employment for the youth while enhancing the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure. The environment also provides opportunities: how about converting the tons of waste into power generation and in the process create jobs ?
Question: China has been heavily involved in African infrastructure development. Is this the right approach? Is Kenya at relative advantage from this Chinese involvement? Are we courting one form of colonization versus Western domination?
In her keynote address, Dr Jendayi Fraser spoke of what the Bush administration has been doing in Kenya. On post-election chaos she emphasized the need to succeed and her government’s commitment to help the Grand Coalition succeed. In this respect, the US government had provided monetary support. This is in addition to funding in areas of poverty alleviation, trade, agriculture, and national resource management, HIV/AIDS, malaria and many more.
According to Dr Fraser, Kenya is a strategic partner with a key role to play (among others) in the fight against terrorism and conflict resolution (as in the case of Southern Sudan). For this reason, the US would like to see Kenya remain stable, which in turn would aid regional stability. The post-election disruption badly impacted not just Kenya but countries dependent on Kenya’s infrastructure such as Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.
Dr Fraser emphasized the need for proposed reforms to focus on accountability, poverty alleviation and stemming corruption. In this respect, the US government was aiding the country’s efforts towards peace and reconciliation and using diplomacy to help the key players’ (Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki) coalition succeed.
Dr Fraser denied that the US government’s policy is motivated by the growing Chinese influence in Africa, saying that her country has its own national interests and pursues policies that serve those interests. On a related note, Dr Fraser talked of US government promotion of trade as a means for developing the continent. In this respect, she said, her country had taken up the issue of subsidies in the most recent round of Doha, saying her government advocated for reduction (if not removal of farm subsidies) to help developing countries farm products become more competitive.
Dr Kefa Otiso provided a statistics-filled presentation of national inequalities: poverty levels and education attainment among others. The outcomes depicted by the statistics represented historical decisions made over the last 45 years of independence. In many ways, the statistics directly tie the influence wielded by people from different regions in the exercise of power.It is no wonder that people are passionate about the machinery of government and who controls that machinery; many see control of government as a means for empowerment and advancement of their regions, and hence “their people”. It is no wonder that the post-election violence happened in the country; violence that may have been sparked by the anger wrought of unfulfilled expectations.
Dr Francis Koti talked of the use of geospatial information technology to aid urban planning, drawing from a practical example done in the Town of Athi River, just outside Nairobi. Such application of technology can offer planners a comprehensive view of resources, infrastructure and help aid better planning and provision of services. Technology can also assist in efficient record keeping that would be of historical importance as urbanization grows. He talked of the need to professionalize urban planning as a means of creating urban centres that offer meaningful quality of life for its residents. This would require decentralization (legal/political/fiscal) and in the process empower urban centres to address local needs. As it stands though, technology is expensive and out of the reach of many urban centres. To address this, the Ministry of Local Government could create a department of “shared services” to provide such services. A good start would be the e-Government initiative that is intended to exploit technology for efficient delivery of services to the public.
Elimani Swai’s presentation touched on a segment of women in Tanzania and how they are perceived. Specifically, she talked of the stereotypes associated with Tanzanian women doing cross-border business, how society sees them and how they are treated. The impact is in the women’s relationship with their families, their kin and the larger society. The exact nature of the impact of family relationships is a matter Elimani is exploring in her research. However, she wondered what raises such stereotypes and causes such potential turmoil for the “border women” yet hardly anyone talks of “border men” even as many engage in similar and parallel business with the “border women.”
At the centre of this are gender issues and stereotypes, which negatively depict women in legitimate life undertakings. The borders may be political but have substantial impact on social relationships and present challenges for women affected to negotiate their special relationships, especially within their families.Despite the negative stereotypes, the women continue to trade. What keeps them going? In what way would they redefine the negative view society has of them?
There was a discussion on the subject of Old People in Kenya by Samwel Mwangi and specifically the challenges they face considering the changing socio-economic conditions in the country. As opposed to days of yore, families in modern Kenya hardly live together and hence cannot provide for and support their older kin as in the old days. Aside from distance, western influence and drift towards nuclear family continues to impact the lives of old people; what with weakened family bonds? Most old people live in isolated rural areas with little in terms of amenities and support. With neither social security nor health insurance, many struggle to survive. This problem is likely to worsen as more people live longer, with rural urban migration, weakening social ties and in the face of little social support from government resources.
The challenge for Kenya is to recognize this as a problem and put in place mechanisms that would help improve the quality of Kenyans senior citizens.
Beatrice Miringu presented on the subject of biodiesels and (specifically) the use of the Jatropha, a plant with hardy characteristics with potential to change the landscape as a source of fuel. The plant, which can grow in semi-arid areas, can provide fuel domestically and industrially, depending on the degree to which it can be harnessed. Jatropha extracts could replace kerosene for home lighting and cooking, domestically. It can also be processed for vehicles and help alleviate the oil import bill. The plant is also said to be flexible in the matter it can be crushed, at home or in industrial-scale plants. Other potential uses include soap-making, both domestic and industrial.
According to Ms Miringu, the plant has been grown successfully in countries like Mali from which others (including Kenya) could learn. The challenges lie in creation of a national policy that addresses land use, for biodiesels plants can disrupt food production without a clear land use policy. Such a policy would provide scoring criteria for land use, ensure efficient production of food and biodiesel plants and mandate the best land use practices. Such a policy requires a multi-sector approach and requires that a country creates priorities based on a defined national vision, for example, Kenya’s Vision 2030.
On the second day, discussion focused on two areas: (a) Governance and (b) the Role of the Diaspora. Later, discussions focused on the role and structure of KESSA.
On Governance, there was consensus that there has been more rhetoric than substance with respect to constitutional reforms. The country today has the same colonial constitution which has been amended when it served the interests of the power elite. To date, therefore, Wanjiku does not have a social contract with those that wield power in Kenya. Yet, presented with the opportunity to the change the constitution, politicians focused more on power rather than fundamental change. Since power implied clashing interests, the country went into a stalemate. The post-election violence of early 2008 was a culmination of the standoff with respect to change; it is noteworthy that the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) the major opposition party at election time came to being following the referendum of 2005.
Question: How does Wanjiku get her voice heard and be incorporated in the reforms?
A spirited discussion centred on what the “zero option” is and the point at which the country would either reform or perish. The country nearly got there following the elections debacle of 2007. However, no sooner had the protagonists' thirst for power been addressed than the issue of reforms disappeared from the headlines!
Question: Do good and selfless elites that would be Wanjiku’s advocates exist?
If there is such elite, our country Kenya has yet to find it. The story of the country’s civil society is a case in point. No sooner does the equation of power change than yesteryear champions for Wanjiku change! Some of the most vocal yesteryear advocates of change have turned out to be some of the worst oppressors in power. Kenyans should not forget the story of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
This can be addressed by nurturing institutions and the culture of constitutionalism; civic education to ensure Wanjiku (note that Wanjiku’s view is not homogeneous) is her own defender; evolution of a non-ethnic national Kenyan vision as a collective guide for nation-building; removal of the winner-take-all provision in the governance of the nation. Kenyan can also learn from successful reforms in countries like Ghana and constitutions in effect in such places as Botswana.
In the end, though, Kenyans may settle for incremental change; change that doesn’t threaten the status quo and which gets the support of the elite. This is so for reasons that, as it is today, Wanjiku has no means to force change. Any civil agitation, as has been seen in the past, is quickly taken over by elite interests with Wanjiku as a vehicle for these interests.
The Role of the Kenyan Diaspora
The Kenyan Diaspora has received a lot of attention lately, specifically because of the remittances to the country: Kenyans remit approximately $1 billion annually, being 25% of Diaspora remittances to the continent!
Yet this Diaspora has little and no say in the governance of the country. Kenyans in the Diaspora that have taken other countries’ citizenship are deemed to cease to be citizens of Kenya. Those in the Diaspora (even Kenyan citizens) cannot vote either! Protection for Diaspora investments has no formal structure and hence may be deterring investment flow into the country. Moreover, in the eyes of the power elite, the Diaspora is good because of the funds it provides. Yet this same Diaspora is seen as potential competition for the power elite.
So what role should the Diaspora play?
Kenyans in the Diaspora, being removed from the day to day ethnically charged environment have a chance to forge a Kenyan identity, irrespective of ethnic origin. This would be possible if only Kenyans away from home can look at themselves as Kenyans rather than as Kikuyus, Luos, Kambas or Kisiis. Based on anecdotal evidence following the last elections, Kenyans in the Diaspora have a long, long way to go before they see themselves as one. It is noteworthy that some of the most virulent vitriol during the elections was perpetrated by Kenyans abroad! And that many of them raised moneys for parties purely because of the ethnic alignment! Those that disagreed with mainstream direction of their ethnic groups were heavily censured and vilified!
The Kenyan Diaspora has a role in diplomacy and lobbying for the Kenyan nation; it also has a role in lobbying the Kenyan government for its own interests. Indeed, the Kenyan Diaspora should seek more concessions from government with respect to (a) protection of their investments, (b) citizenship rights, (c) voting rights and (possibly) (d) Diaspora representation in the nation’s governance. Moreover, the Diaspora should ensure to maintain its watchdog status!
Meanwhile, the Kenyan Diaspora should mobilize resources (skills, money) in order to contribute to the nation’s development. In this respect, KESSA could provide a lead in studies that focus on the country’s challenges and the solutions thereof. The Diaspora can nurture thought leadership and hence provide inform the development of the nation.
In doing all this, the Diaspora need not re-invent the wheel! There are examples from European (especially Eastern Europe) Diasporas and others such as the Jewish, Chinese and Indian Diasporas.
The Role of KESSA
In the closing session, roundtable discussions focused on the role of KESSA. A number of people offered different suggestion, with clarity coming from the president on what KESSA can legally engage in.
Suggestions included research, grant and proposal writing, outreach to Kenyan institutions for collaborative research, recruitment of Kenyan students for American universities, welfare of KESSA membership, among others. Others urged KESSA to development a mouth piece – journal, newsletter, etc. – that would formally document and articulate research findings as well as KESSA’s official position on some key matters. In the end, KESSA should help contribute to change in Kenya, and among Kenyans in the country and the Diaspora.
One caution: KESSA should remain focused and not attempt to be everything to everybody with the risk of losing its focus and effectiveness. The association must focus on studies and seek partnerships and collaboration with organizations in other areas. The subject of scholarship, creating linkages for scholars on Kenyan-related issues, prioritizing areas of studies and seeking resources for such scholarship should be the heart for the association.
By Matunda Nyanchama
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
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