Saturday March 9 2013

We need to see past our native nationalities

By David F. K. Mpanga

I would like to apologise to all my readers for not having come up with a piece for last week. I was attending the Bowman Gilfillan Africa Group Annual Partners’ Conference held at a beautiful golf resort in the stunningly scenic Western Cape Province of South Africa. I had expected that I would be able to squeeze in a couple of hours to write my piece but I was not able owing to the hectic conference schedule.
This year, the conference was an executive training run by two brilliant intellectual drill instructors from Harvard Law School, Professors David B. Wilkins and Ashish Nanda. Using eight case studies, which we had to read and internalise before the training sessions, the professors taught us about: how to manage our two most precious resources, time and staff; how better to manage law firms as businesses; and the impending effects of globalisation on legal practice in Africa. It was an eye-opening and, without being hyperbolic, life-changing experience because the method of instruction relied more on the stimulating thought and inspiring action amongst the students than on dictating answers.
In fact the professors were at pains to stress that there were no right or wrong answers because what practicing lawyers are faced with are mostly dilemmas rather than problems. Problems have solutions and can be solved if you apply yourself efficiently and effectively to seeking a solution. Dilemmas, on the other hand, are simply opposing choices which you have to take and live with the consequences.
Dilemmas call for the making of decisions and they do not go away just because you have decided to ignore them. If anything, they just get worse. Professor Nanda likened an ignored dilemma to an elephant swept under the carpet. It may be covered up but it’s still there and is a major obstacle to the smooth functioning of a legal practice. Addressing the same issue, Professor Wilkins said that the hard decisions that you have to make when faced with a dilemma are like taxes; you either make them now or make them later with penalties and interest.
The conference ended the day before the Kenyan general elections and our colleagues from Kenya rushed back on the first flights home so as not to miss the vote. We wished them luck and teased them about the need to accept the results without too much fuss.

Being the first election since the unfortunate violence that marred the aftermath of the 2007 elections, the world’s eyes have been on Kenya.
Everybody has been hoping and praying for peace to prevail and we have been on a rollercoaster ride with the Kenyans as the automated tallying system broke down and results had to be tallied by hand.

For the first time in my life, I stayed up a couple of nights running to watch the tallying of a Kenyan election, not because I have a favourite candidate in the race, but because I wanted to know if I need to stock up on petrol and those supplies that we, in Uganda, have to import through Mombasa port in Kenya.

I also have relatives and close friends in Kenya and I wanted to see that the process was going well and that they will be alright.

From watching the results and talking to relatives and friends on the ground, two things struck me. Firstly, despite all the rhetoric and hype, Kenya’s election was still essentially an ethnically driven contest.
The various ethnic groups were essentially voting as solid blocs for either of the two leading contenders and in some ways a census could have arguably been a cheaper and more efficient way of resolving the matter.

Secondly, despite the bitter experience of 2008 and all of the calls for peace, neither of the main rival camps seemed to be taking any or adequate steps to prepare their supporters for the possibility of defeat. To the contrary, both camps were quick to shoot from the hip when matters appeared to take a turn against them.

Informed Kenya watchers I spoke to voiced quiet caution. They hoped that the tension would pass but they wondered how the nation will fare in the next five years. Will the winners be able to unite the nation and heal the wounds? Will they be able to reassure the losers? Will the losers respect the process and commit to re-engaging democratically or will they become disillusioned with the process as the reality of what the political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi has called the “tyranny of numbers” dawns on them?
It seems to me that negative ethnicity or “tribalism” is the elephant under the carpet here; and not just in Kenya but in many of the nation states that were created by the Western imperial powers. We find this issue too controversial and difficult to confront.

It creates a dilemma, for how can we create viable nations and regional blocs if we still adhere to our native nationalities? How do we harness our native nationalities to the effort of building modern viable states in the 21st Century?

There are no easy answers but as Professor Wilkins said, we all must confront this dilemma and begin making the hard choices now or pay later with penalties and interest.