Ethnic violence is nearly always a result of political competition based on personality stereotyping. This is because personality stereotyping involves the making of general statements about an individual or group so as to depict them as ‘less than human’ than ourselves, with the sole intention of splitting that person or group from the wider humanity. These statements include a recent one by an MP from Eastern who said that ‘Wajaluo Wajue Kenya Inawenyewe’ in one of the on-going ‘peace’ rallies.
Unfortunately personality or group stereotyping is actually very dangerous as it introduces emotional ‘poison’ in a society because of the de-humanizing effect it crates. Politically it then leads to situations where political opponents and their respective supporters view each other as enemy combatants in a do-or-die war, rather than ideological rivals competing to determine how their overall community will be governed. The problem is then compounded when such competition requires only one winner; who is then expected to govern a society that includes both factions. This leads to situations like the 2007 general election; the related violence, and the Coalition government because both sides must be in power.
Kenya is gearing up for another general election and all indications are that those seeking political office have not learnt anything from the 2007-08 fiasco; (or maybe they learnt that they one can force circumstances to ensure inclusion whatever the outcome!). This is not good for the country because the coalition government has indicated the challenges of dealing with national issues like escalating living costs, ICC, etc. Kenya needs a vibrant opposition after the next general election if we are to fully implement the new constitution
This then requires a process of challenging the poison being spread about ‘them’ if whoever wins will be able to lead a nation that includes those who did not support him or her. To do this we must challenge the stereotypes being circulated about various leaders and live only that competition that will be about policies and/or ideology. A process like this was publicly launched last week by a group called KikuyusforChange. It is called Engaging Ethno-Centric Stereotypes.
Engaging Ethno-centric stereotypes is about local groups inviting leaders who are being depicted as ‘demons’ by their rivals, to town-hall meetings between such leaders and opinion leaders of the communities that are being sold stereotypes of the said leader. The objective here is to expose these myths and stereotypes to public debate within the context in which they are being spread, and defuse any tensions being raised. The initiative is based on the belief that perceptions are realities to those who hold them, for as long as they have not been challenged with facts to prove otherwise. This can be done for marginalized communities, social groups or even religion. The objective is to publicly challenge public conversations that are used by unscrupulous and irresponsible leaders to split Kenyans.
There is a Swedish saying; “Sweep first before your own door, before you sweep the doorsteps of your neighbours’. This means that engaging ethnic stereotypes must be done from ones doorstep, and in the context of one’s own environment.
In this regard KikuyusforChange launched a series of conversations between Prime Minister Raila Odinga and opinion leaders from the Kikuyu community, about stereotypes and myths held about him in the community and being circulated by sections of the community’s leadership.
In the KikuyusforChange context the initiative is focused on challenging the myths being spread about Raila; from statements that he took Uhuru to the Hague, he hates Kikuyus and would marginalize them were he to become president; or that his government will give us special IDs, etc. KikuyusforChange wants these statements interrogated to ensure the community is not being ‘whipped’ by politicians out to protect local political territory not so much from Raila, but from local challengers with better policies for the voters.
It is also meant to challenge those behind these statements on whether they realize that Kikuyus are part of Kenya; and that whoever leads Kenya after President Kibaki will lead both Kikuyus and non-Kikuyus. Finally KikuyusforChange wants to ensure that a political strategy that asks Kikuyu voters to elect politicians who will fight Raila in the next government does not sell the region short as far as political service delivery is concerned, (especially because if Raila were to fail in his ambitions it would leave leaders elected to fight him with nothing to do for five years!).
However the challenge is not to members of the Kikuyu community only. A Yiddish proverb says that ‘if all swept their doorstep, the whole street would be clean’. This means that as part of the wider ‘Siasa Mpya’ campaign voters from all communities must take control of political conversations in their backyards and set the agenda of what is important in determining who will lead them. As we sweep our doorsteps let us also sweep as Martin Luther asked us to sweep ‘ … So well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”