BY MZALENDO KIBUNJIA
February 28, 2008 seems like a distant memory today, largely because of all the water that has gone under the bridge since the signing of the National Accord and Reconciliation Agreement.
On the fourth anniversary of the day Kenyans recognised that, they had a common history and a common destiny despite their differences. The achievements made to prevent a recurrence of the crisis preceding that watershed, as well as the efforts to build a unified and cohesive nation are remarkable.
The post-2007 election crisis made many ordinary Kenyans more conscious that the peace they enjoy is fragile. Hence, they have become more alert to hate speech and are often the first sentinels to call for the investigation and prosecution of its authors.
Incitement and hate speech have tended to peak in politically competitive circumstances, such as when an electoral event is imminent. Election periods are always tricky in Kenya, but early action to create the right environment for competitive politics can rob them of their dangerous sting.
The National Cohesion and Integration Commission has sensitised the police, prosecutors and judges as well as journalists on the law, and continues to do so as its contribution towards forestalling a repeat of the countdown that Kenya started in its descent to near-war in 2008. The Commission’s partnership with the Media Council of Kenya and the Communications Commission of Kenya is intended to ensure close monitoring of sites where hate speech can flourish.
The swift action to prosecute influential political leaders on hate speech charges before the August 2010 Referendum demonstrated that the new law, enacted only three years ago, is not just on paper.
More importantly, going forward, public information and education to demystify the electoral process among key stakeholders can close the gap that hate mongers exploit to spread their poison.
At the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, an elections desk to act as a focal point for receiving and processing information that is likely to impact on the electoral process provides a unique opportunity to offer rapid responses to potential crises before they materialise.
Besides the specific responses to imminent threats to peace and national cohesion, the Commission remains acutely aware of its wider mandate to address differences in access to opportunity that have created such deep fissures in the Kenyan society.
Its seminal work in auditing the ethnic diversity of the Kenya Public Service presented the clearest picture so far of the exclusion of marginalised groups that fuels suspicion and mistrust. It is instructive that many government departments adopted the Commission’s recommendations and are taking steps to right past wrongs.
The audits generated important conversations, which the Commission decided to deepen, expand and lead. In each County countrywide, the Diversity Conversations on Ethnicity and Race have not only profiled ethnic stereotypes and myths but also raised questions about the things that hold Kenyans together. It is hoped that these diversity conversations can generate a deeper awareness of a sense of ‘we-ness’ among Kenyans.
Beyond the plenary, the Commission continues to engage with the processes for law-making to support the implementation of the new Constitution. These laws must incorporate the principles of national cohesion and integration as their contribution towards mainstreaming national unity. The Commission has been particularly keen to walk with communities in the various Counties to negotiate a common understanding of what the devolved system of government should mean for national unity.
Although differences are healthy in any society, developing and sustaining mediation structures to deal with them – when they occur – is important. The Commission has initiated pilot community mediation processes in Nakuru and Mt. Elgon and Tana River Counties, which show positive prospects.
At the national level, the Commission has been involved in the deliberations of the taskforce appointed to realign the education sector with the Constitution. Besides successfully advocating an aggressive and systematic approach to overhauling the education system to grant access to all Kenyans, the Commission also campaigned for the inclusion of citizenship education in the curriculum. It now forms part of the recommendations.
Further, the Commission has closely supported the development of official policies on immigration and registration of persons, security, gender and equality, among others. Aware that the manner in which the issue of internally displaced persons is resolved could greatly impact on how the forthcoming General Election will run, the Commission contributed to the drafting of the IDP Policy.
Working with the Ministry of Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs, the Commission has developed a National Cohesion and Integration Policy together with a training manual on its use.
The responsibility to nurture cohesion and integration is however not the Commission’s alone. It is a shared national duty. That is why ongoing partnerships with political parties to sensitise their leadership as well as prospective candidates, youth and women are critical.
Last year, the Commission launched the Annual National Essay Writing Competition on the theme of Ethnicity, Race and Nationhood for youth between 11 and 25 years in educational institutions. The competition not only amplified youth voices on cohesion and national unity in an unmediated manner, but also gave the country a glimpse of what young people are thinking about these critical issues.
In taking the debates and conversations to the people where they belong, the Commission has invested in a wide range of activities, among them training of drama teachers on cohesion and integration, sending them on a trip to the genocide museums of Rwanda, and sponsoring the 2012 schools and colleges drama festival, billed as East and Central Africa’s biggest annual arts event.
In recognition of the reality that national cohesion and integration is an ongoing project, the Commission will launch the Kenya Kwanza Campaign, a multi-media patriotism drive that seeks to promote national identity, patriotism and national values as outlined in the Constitution. All these efforts, and more, are aimed at making sure that Kenya never stares into the dark abyss it did in 2008 again.
(Kibunjia is the chairman of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission).