Modern Kenya: Will the Tug of Ethnicity Win Over Nationalism?

A new book by professor Bethwell Ogot details the issue of ethnicity in modern Kenya. (Photo courtesy Carlos Mureithi)

The peoples of Kenya are nations without a state: a group that feels bound by common descent, history, culture or language, but not an organized political community under a government. That’s at least according to Bethwell Ogot’s sentiments in his book, “Kenyans, Who are We? Reflections on the Meaning of National Identity and Nationalism.”

With Kenyan voters heading to the polls on Monday, the author attempts to shed light on the basis of ethnicity in the country, explaining how it has led to great political instability in this culturally-diverse country.

The subject of nationalism has been extensively covered by academics. Irishman Benedict Anderson states in his celebrated work, “Imagined Communities,” that a nation is a socially constructed community imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. Briton Anthony Smith, on the other hand, has in numerous texts argued that that nationalism is a modern phenomenon and that nations have pre-modern origins.

Ogot, meanwhile, goes to great lengths to discuss the way in which an early nationalist ideology aimed at uniting Kenyans under a single national ideal during the fight for independence was killed, and how the concept of nationhood by an ethnic-minded political elites’ influence on the way Kenyans identify themselves today was rejected then.

Ogot revisits the fight for independence, an era when Kenyans from different ethnic backgrounds came together for that common cause by putting aside their regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious and communal differences.

But that was then. Ogot contends that it was just a temporary convergence because of the common interest of expelling the colonialists and that Kenya now finds itself somewhat divided and with “no strong attachment to the nation” exhibited by its various ethnic groups. Ethnicity has become a de facto byword for democratisation as political parties are headed by ethnic patrons who represent ethnic blocs.

The roots of the problem of ethnicity can be traced back to the British colonialists. Before they came to Kenya, local communities were interdependent through mingling, trade and migration and the concept of ethnicity was not cast in stone, but a fluid one of acceptance for the other if one chose to join a particular group. There were no inter-clan and inter-ethnic rivalries, at least not the grotesque proportions seen during the post election violence of 2007-2008.

For instance, Kenyan historian Gideon Were’s research findings in his book, “A History of the Abaluyia of Western Kenya,” show that between 30 and 40 percent of Abaluyia clans, such as the Abatachoni and Kabras, were originally Kalenjin. Prolonged contacts between Bantu and Kalenjin speakers were producing new societies which were ethnically Kalenjin, but which today are culturally Luyia.

Similarly, several Luyia clans are of Maasai origin, for example the Abashimuli and Abamuli. Coexistence was the norm and not the exception which seems to be the case now. Boundaries on maps did not exist. Then the Britons came. They introduced the concept of administrative boundaries based on ethnic and linguistic units for their own administrative convenience. The colonizers’ process of dividing locals into tribes froze cultural development and population mobility, in effect halting the comfortable situation. Slowly, a new administration system based on provinces and districts would continue to divide the previously united populaces.

Ogot, a history professor and the chancellor of Moi University in Kenya, is a pioneer writer on the field of nationalism in Kenya.

With “Kenyans, Who are We?” he has managed to put together a rich historical analysis of the subjects of national identity and nationalism.

His inclusion and in-depth examination of case studies is a particular masterstroke: the ‘cultural’ court case surrounding the burial location of the late Kenyan criminal lawyer Silvano Melea Otieno for instance. This places the questions of ethnology and legality in a Kenyan context. Luo customs dictate that Otieno had to be buried in his rural home while he, a metropolitan, wanted to be laid to rest in Ngong town.

Ogot  is scathing of the Kikuyu community’s  leading men because of what he perceives to be their ethnic inclination in their politics, from Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta to his son Uhuru Kenyatta.

“Despite their ages, they have failed to think outside the ethnic box,” Ogot writes of the junior Kenyatta and his presidential running mate William Ruto, two people he also accuses of spreading hate speech.

The author  puts on show his mastery of Kenyan history as he takes the reader into smooth transitions through different periods, from the colonial era to the recent political times.

His choice of the possessive forms “our” and “we” when discussing matters related to the Luo ethnic group leaves the reader wondering whether his intentions were to write for a particular group or for the entire nation or simply typographical errors resulting from merging different papers submitted at various academic functions, a feeling the reader gets particular towards the end of the book.

The coverage of the subject matter ends  three-quarter way as the fourth chapter seems misplaced; more  of a scholastic ode to the author’s academic colleague Thomas Odhiambo than an extension of the national identity and nationalism debate.

Even then, Ogot’s pointers will help readers understand themselves.

So, who are Kenyans?

Perhaps, as the author illustrates, the result of British colonialists’ actions as they assumed tribes to simply be units living in a defined area and put them in tribal pigeonholes, a move which brought about a ripple effect of the primary setback discussed in the book: politicised ethnicity which has become democratised by political parties that are headed by ethnic patrons and represent ethnic groups.

You can buy a paperback copy of “Kenyans, Who are We? Reflections on the Meaning of National Identity and Nationalism” by Bethwell Ogot for 1,000 Kenyan shillings in leading bookstores in Nairobi, Kenya.

Carlos Mureithi is a writer at Sahan Journal. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him at

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