Thursday, November 08, 2007

You needn’t be a tribalist to support federalism-Majimbo!

Published on November 8, 2007, 12:00 am

By Dr.Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

Last Saturday, at the famous Ufungamano Hall, I (not unexpectedly) walked straight into the brawling ring of Kenya’s ongoing political campaigns.

I was a key-note 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 public nature in which I had both personal and professional interest.

I had made it clear to my hosts that I was not coming to speak as a UN staffer, but rather as a concerned Pan-Africanist and a political scientist who comments freely on African issues. That caveat was of no use in the ensuing reports.

I do not usually blame the media for ‘misrepresentation’ or ‘misquoting’ but on this occasion my colleagues in the Fourth Estate really undersold themselves. They were more concerned with my UN status and all the reports even managed to get 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 but which for me 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 a debate that has echoes in many African countries. It is about how to deepen democracy beyond just the right to ritually vote periodically.

In the current charged competition for votes the debate is couched in exclusive terms. On President Kibaki’s side they have succeed in wrong footing the pro-devolution group as majimboists (code word for tribalists) and enemies of the unity of the country. The Opposition has reacted defensively saying they are not clamouring for the old divisive majimbo of the 1960s, rather it is political devolution.

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 from 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 per cent?

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.

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 that the Bomas consensus was to have a very weak form of federalism/devolution which shares powers and resources between the constituent units on a more equitable way but retaining substantial and most importantly the power to levy taxes, at the centre.

It will be very much different from the Nigerian federalism which is centre-centric (all mineral resources are controlled by the centre) but every state (and even local governments) can levy and collect taxes as they deem fit and permissible under the constitution. They can also make laws on non-exclusive legislative areas. However, if there is a clash with federal law the federal law will prevail.

The Kenyan model also differs from the Ethiopian federalism which is based on ethnic nationalities and guarantees ‘the right to self determination including secession’.

It appears that what the political class agreed in Bomas was a more generic association with the South African halfway house between federalism and unitarism. And even that may seem too much for sections of this class as evident from the inability to implement it and the emotional debates around it.

The political scoring games between politicians are preventing a serious discussion but whoever wins the election cannot defer the matter any longer. Unfortunately the Government side seem to be scaring Kenyans with a break-up of the country if federalism is accepted and the Opposition side is too fearful of losing support to put up a principled case for a devolved federalism with Kenyan compromises (even scared of using the word). Both sides are surcharging the public.

While there may be many challenges with establishing a federal system, including the 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 full 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. One, it offers greater opportunities for wider political recruitment of leadership instead of the current situation of being limited to national Cabinet level.

For instance you may not have heard of Yar Adua in Nairobi but he did not come from inside Obasanjo’ hat of dirty tricks because he had been Governor of one of Nigeria’s 36 states for two terms.

Two, marginalised peoples or regions, youth, women and others have wider opportunity for accessing leadership position through the state/regional levels and graduating to national level. A situation in which 60-year-old Kenyans are being asked ‘to wait for their turn’ or regarded as ‘Young Turks’ only demonstrate the limited space available at the top.

Three, gone are the days when it was wrongly assumed that in order to be a nationalist you have to deny being part of a particular community. That strategy has generally not worked instead it produced all kinds of ethnic, regional and religious manipulation in the name of nation-building.

The problem is not in our diversities but the denial of those differences and the politics of exclusion required for enforcing those regime of denials.

The writer is the deputy director of the UN Millennium Campaign in Africa

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, the Peace and Security Programme Director, has spear-headed Justice Africa’s engagement with the African Union since its founding in 2002; positioning Justice Africa as a incisive civil society voice within that body and its constituent organs, as well as acting as a forum and conduit between civil society and the African Union generally. As a Pan-African representative body committed to development and democracy, we also engage with the African Union to support its purpose and to ensure its further success. As well as his work with the AU, Tajudeen has maintained his role as General Secretary of the Pan-African Movement; Chairman of the Centre for Democracy and Development, based in Abuja and Lagos; and of the Pan-African Development Education and Advocacy Programme (PADEAP) based in Kampala and Abuja. In addition to this, Tajudeen continues to produce the weekly Thursday Postcard, a column on African issues that is accessed by millions in Africa and globally, and that is carried in Newsday (Nigeria), The New Vision (Uganda) and on Pambazuka News. Tajudeen will be spending 2006/07 based in Nairobi, acting as Deputy Director (Africa) for the United Nations Millennium Campaign; ensuring that civil society voices continue to be heard in the global effort against poverty and injustice.


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