Federalism does not mean tribalism

Opinion GOVERNANCE November 7, 2007
Tajudeen Abdul Raheem

Kenya is gripped by election fever. In the frenzied atmosphere everything has become extremely partisan operating essentially as ‘if you are not for me’ then you are against me!

Last Saturday, November 3 at the famous Ufungamano Hall in Nairobi, I walked straight into the brawling ring of Kenya’s ongoing ‘do or die’ political campaigns. I was a keynote speaker at a public lecture on ‘the Great Majimbo debate’ organised by the Young Professionals for Raila. It was obviously a partisan platform but the matter being discussed was of a very public nature.

We may not yet have votes in other African states but we should not collaborate in our silencing by also refusing to contribute to public spaces. What gives foreign diplomats, NGOs and so called ‘experts’ the right to lecture our leaders on all things under the sun and beyond the skies but require other Africans ‘to stay quiet’? I had made it clear to my hosts that I was not coming to speak as a UN staff but rather as a concerned Pan Africanist and a political scientist with some insight into the subjecxt matter.

That entire caveat was of no use in the ensuing reports of the meeting in the Kenyan papers. I do not usually blame the media for ‘misrepresentation’ or ‘misquoting’ but on this occasion my colleagues in the fourth estate of the realm really undersold themselves. Sample these headlines: ‘UN envoy defends Majimbo system’ (Sunday Nation, November 4); ‘ UN official backs controversial Majimbo system’ (Sunday Standard November 4); or ‘Majimbo system : ODM now brings in an expert’ (The People on Sunday, November 4 ) including claims that I was specifically flown in by ODM for the event!

Even in their preoccupation with my UN status they did not even bother to be accurate. All the reports got my position and particular UN affiliation wrong. But this should not deflect us from the political significance of the debate that is wrongly termed Majimbo by Kenyans and Ugandans will know as Federo.

For me it is about wider issues of political and economic governance, devolution of power and the degree to which people of Kenya should have control over their destiny and the accountability of their leaders to them at various levels. It is about how to stop our presidents from monopolising power at the centre and reducing representative institutions like parliaments to personal choir groups.

In the current charged competition for votes the Kenya debate is couched in exclusive terms. President Kibaki’s side have succeeded in wrong footing the pro-devolution group as Majimboists (code word for tribalists just as Federo is seen as another word for Buganda hegemony in Uganda) and their supporters as enemies of national unity. Whereas in Uganda it is the majority nationality that has historically championed Federo, in Kenya it is minority groups with majority Kikuyu elite being opposed to.

The opposition has reacted defensively to say that it is not the old divisive Majimbo of the 1960s that they are clamouring for rather it is a limited political devolution that will give Kenya back to every Kenyan. What is clear is that both sides agree on devolution but cannot agree on by how much.

The government thinks the Constituency Development Fund which came under this regime (even though it was from a Private Members Bill instead of government or opposition legislative agenda) is enough. The opposition thinks it should be extended to regional levels. I think if devolution is so good why is it being limited to 2. 5 %? Who controls the rest? Both government and opposition have to give clear answers to the voters.

Whether you call it Majimbo or devolution the consensus means that everyone is not happy with the status quo. This is where my defence of Federalism begins and the substance of my contribution to the debate last Saturday. One, the response to an overbearing centralised state is devolution of power and clamouring for same by the constituent units in that system. They could be districts, provinces, regions or other administrative areas. Two, in the specific case of Kenya it is clear the Bomas consensus was to have a very weak federalism which shares powers and resources between the constituent units on a more equitable way but retaining substantial and especially the power to levy taxes at the centre.

While there may be many challenges with establishing a federal system including threats of narrow nationalism, regionalism or statism, the solution is not to continue to defend the unsatisfactory status quo but to agree on rights of all Kenyans wherever they may be and the commitment to the rule of law to defend them.

The opportunities of a federal system are just too many for fear to intimidate supporters from articulating it. It offers greater opportunities for wider political recruitment of leadership instead of the current situation of being limited to national cabinet level.

The author works with the UN