Gisa is currently studying English at the University of Durham. In this piece he considers the place of unity as an ethical value within postcolonial Kenyan politics.
Unity is considered by many people to be an ethical value, something worth striving for and preserving. There are good reasons for this. We are a social species, after all, and some degree of unity - teamwork, cooperation and collective action towards a common end - will always be necessary for our survival. Having grown up in Kenya, however, I think that it is dangerous to be complacent about this ideal. The problem of unity is that it often acts as a Trojan horse for despotism. This happens when unity is redefined; twisted to mean not voluntary cooperation, but unconditional obedience. The project is not always the “brotherhood of mankind”. Taken to extremes, the goal becomes the goose step, the compulsory unity of the Nuremberg rally. The legacy of colonialism in Africa provides an acute, if more subtle, illustration of this phenomenon, and I believe the Kenyan chapter of this history to be particularly germane.
The problem of unity is that it often acts as a Trojan horse for despotism. This happens when unity is redefined; twisted to mean not voluntary cooperation, but unconditional obedience.
The European conquest of Africa in the late 19th century is often characterised as an episode of “dismemberment”. Ryszard Kapuscinksi, a foreign correspondent based in Africa, however, was perhaps more perceptive when he described colonialism as “a brutal unification, brought about by fire and sword. Ten thousand [largely tribal] entities were reduced to 50 [modern states]”.The political unity of these newfound “entities” was by no means stable. It had to be imposed and maintained by force. Under nonconsensual rule, it pays to be servile to those above you, and brutal to those below. Only those “natives” who married loyalty to the state with a willingness to be cruel could rise through the ranks, often violent military men and soon-to-be dictators like Idi Amin or Bokassa. Domination became the operating principle of many post-colonial administrations often disguised, à la Kagame, as national unity. While Kenya was never ruled by military strongmen like Uganda, CAR or Rwanda, the authoritarian character of British colonial rule, in which loyalty was rewarded and dissent punished, has had an enduring influence on the political culture of the country. And appealing to unity has frequently been the means by which the powerful justify their depredations.
The original sin of the Republic of Kenya was to use empty rhetoric about “national unity” to absolve a guilty political class of crimes committed just before independence. Unity, from the outset, meant impunity. The end of empire in Kenya was grotesque, and the British suppression of the Mau Mau insurrection (1952-1959) can be compared, without exaggeration, to the Soviet gulags. From the mass internment of Kikuyu, including women and children, forced labour, squalor, humiliation, and gratuitous sadism, to deliberate starvation, systematic rape and torture. This, from a nation that went to war with fascism, was cruelty beyond comprehension. Complicit in the violence were the Home Guard, a loyalist force composed of Kikuyu sympathetic to British rule. They were the kapos of the Kikuyu prison camps, and their loyalty was handsomely rewarded. As the British imprisoned and abused their brethren, the Home Guard was allowed to expropriate their land. When the British left in 1963, loyalists found senior positions in the first independent government. And when those who had fought and suffered for independence protested, President Jomo Kenyatta said: “Let us agree that we shall never refer to the past. Let us instead unite…” No reckoning for the perpetrators, no justice for the victims, no reparations for the dispossessed. Guilty of the worst crimes, neither the former empire nor the new oligarchy was eager to face justice. Unity supplied the water, and they washed their bloodstained hands.
The original sin of the Republic of Kenya was to use empty rhetoric about “national unity” to absolve a guilty political class of crimes committed just before independence.
Kenyatta’s successor, ruling from 1978 to 2002, sacrificed both freedom and justice at the altar of political unity. Daniel arap Moi claimed that maintaining peace in Kenya, a colonial agglomeration of over forty different ethnic groups, required severe constraints on freedom. In a 1984 speech, he exhorted his subjects to “sing like parrots… sing the songs I sing. If I put a full stop, you should also put a full stop.” Moi’s notion of “unity for peace” was really unity by diktat, and in practice this meant arresting and torturing his critics, banning troublesome books, and instituting a lurid personality cult. Portraits of the Great Leader loomed portentously over every public space, his name emblazoned on road signs, hospitals, airports, universities. His regime should have been a cautionary tale.
In amnesiac Kenya, however, Moi’s precepts seem to have reoccurred in the form of a constitutional reform bill currently under consideration. The legislation purportedly aims to address the problem of ethnic violence by developing “a national ethos that builds and reinforces our unity” - as if this insipid slogan were a novel idea in a country stultified by 24 years of Moi-ism. Proponents of the bill, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, contend that a “rights-heavy, responsibility-light” constitution and a lack of unity have resulted in periodic eruptions of ethnic strife, most notably the violence that followed a rigged election in late 2007, leaving over 1,000 people dead. The solution, therefore, is to saddle all Kenyan citizens with a set of constitutional responsibilities, including a duty to “cultivate national unity.” The intentions of the bill are plainly authoritarian: unity is vaguely defined, but constitutionally mandated, so that almost all dissent can be branded illegitimate.
In Kenya, national unity has too often been a cipher for the denial of freedom and the debasement of justice. It is not unity that the country lacks, but the elementary values of human decency and political accountability.
The glib claim of the Mois and would-be Mois is that a lack of “unity” is the cause of ethnic violence. This seems to imply that Kenyans choose, almost whimsically, to be violent, that they have no justified grievances and no reason to be angry. As if they are not, in point of fact, defrauded, disenfranchised and denied services routinely, the majority eking out a precarious existence with great difficulty, paychecks away from penury. Against this backdrop, consider whether inter-ethnic division is possible without intra-ethnic unity. This is not to say that tribal and national unity can never coexist, but that a pernicious form of tribal unity, namely unquestioning loyalty to tribal “elders”, is the driving force behind ethnic antagonism in Kenya. Amidst seething resentment, widespread ignorance and desperation, disingenuous leaders turn ethnic unity into inter-tribal violence for political gain. In 2011, incidentally, President Kenyatta was himself indicted by the ICC on precisely these charges - the case was later dropped, after sudden withdrawal of key prosecution witnesses. How, one might ask, can he now claim the mantle of a unifier?
Unity under British rule, unity under Moi, unity under the tribe - all dissimulations of power. In Kenya, national unity has too often been a cipher for the denial of freedom and the debasement of justice. It is not unity that the country lacks, but the elementary values of human decency and political accountability. There can be no harmony where people have no prospects, and where the state is an instrument of plunder. To preach unity here is to perpetuate violent divisions, by obfuscating the socio-economic realities from which they stem. Blood will continue to flow for as long as Kenya exhibits the “nightmarish parody of administration,” as Joseph Conrad puts it in Nostromo, “without law, without security, and without justice.” A “lack of unity” does not even approach a diagnosis of the disease, but “Let us unite” by all means, if we want it to metastasize.