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President Uhuru Kenyatta/PSCU/FILE

Fifth Estate

Coronavirus: The unwelcome guest that might forge unity in Kenya

After long months of political debate since the special presidential task force released its report in late November, the arrival of coronavirus has brought Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rallies to a temporary halt. And while public gatherings as part of the BBI have been suspended, the public health emergency our country has begun to tackle might just guarantee that the spirit of the movement lives on.

As evidenced by numerous countries across the world, wherever coronavirus reached, illness and death followed. While such negative implications of the epidemic cannot be downplayed, not all that is left behind by it needs to be negative. While our conscious political efforts in building nationwide solidarity and cooperation through the BBI have not yet been fully realised, the current situation might force us to come together even more cohesively as one.

The process of public consultation that the BBI initiative started gave rise to hope in our country’s ability to devise a grassroots movement of reformation. It also gave rise to scepticism in our people’s ability to forge consensus. Rallies and other gatherings spurned numerous quality policy proposals. These often brought out underlying tensions between different interest groups. 

Some commentators viewed the emergence of such tensions as a menacing presence that threatened to halt the progress made through the BBI altogether. According to their reasoning, the BBI could not possibly be concluded when differences emerge at such early stages of the process.

A more sober assessment would nonetheless recognise that disagreements, even if heated, have been inevitable, and even useful elements of this project. Our attempt at “building bridges” is perhaps the most ambitious political initiative undertaken in the modern history of Kenya. Expecting it to be without barriers and challenges would be naïve. 

Addressing the underlying suspicion and social tensions that have mired our society is precisely where the value of the BBI lies. The success of this initiative should by no means be judged by the presence of disputes. Rather, its success must be judged by how those disputes are resolved. Aiming to overturn the long history of ethnic and tribal conflicts between factions in our society in the matter of a mere year requires discipline and commitment from us all.

In a way, rallies did present a major risk factor, as they could have provided a forum for renewed inter-tribal conflict. Apart from our willingness to participate in these events, nothing guaranteed that we would be able to contribute to their agenda peacefully. Nevertheless, this concern was repeatedly proven to be irrelevant. Not only did multiple large-scale meetings end up being concluded in an orderly manner, but they provided useful insight for the BBI taskforce for perfecting their final proposal.

After their initial successes, it has come as a disappointment that President Uhuru’s preventive measures against coronavirus have led to the postponement of these gatherings. This naturally includes planned BBI rallies, such as the much-anticipated gathering in Nakuru, due to be held on 21st March. While the eternal pessimist sees the faltering of the BBI process in this, others might find an opportunity to use the current public health emergency to carry it on. 

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Not by political means but a truly bottom-up process that appeals to the empathy and solidarity present in each of us. A countrywide outbreak of COVID-19 in is not necessary to spur such solidarity. Efforts to minimise the reach of the virus have already required us to watch out for not only our immediate family and friends but also our fellow citizens, be they strangers or not.

Thankfully, we are far from having to confront such an outbreak in Kenya, with only a handful of cases confirmed. Yet the preparations to ward off the spreading of the virus have the potential to bring our people together. Caring for each other in everyday situations, such as on the way to work or in the supermarket, will naturally create the foundations for a much broader sense of solidarity.

The message of the BBI will not dissipate in the absence of its flagship public gatherings. With what will likely be a several-month-long campaign of increased awareness for one another in public spaces, prevention of the coronavirus can potentially give us an opportunity to practise what we have preached. If we successfully cooperate in tackling the spreading of the epidemic and do our best to protect ourselves and our fellow citizens, we will also demonstrate that the message of unity promoted by the BBI is not a distant goal to achieve but already a part of everyday life in Kenya.

Mr Mugolla comments on topical issues. [email protected]

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