On December 13, President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Kisumu in what has been billed as a historic visit to the lakeside city. This was not the first visit by Mr Kenyatta. He had passed through the city on his way to this years’ Mashujaa Day celebrations in Kakamega in October.
However, this was a different visit. Its significance was compared by Nasa leader Raila Odinga to a visit by founding president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1961. The President and every other person is free to visit any part of the country.
However, the relationship between Mr Kenyatta and Luo Nyanza has been at best lukewarm, but mostly one of mutual dislike. A county like Homa Bay has not formally hosted Mr Kenyatta. This is despite the fact that he has visited Kisii, which borders Homa Bay, more than five times.
For this reason, the visit was important for its symbolism and more. It communicated to the people that this is supposed to be a new leaf. The Presidency is the symbol of national unity. What he does and says are informative of the state of the country’s unity. Consequently, his visit to the region was warmly received by the region’s leadership which demonstrates an effort to unify a region that suffered the brunt of the 2017 elections, resulting in their boycott of the repeat presidential election.
For the community, it is also an opportunity to self-introspect and chart a new path in engagement in national discourse. Ten years ago, as part of the efforts to explore solutions to the ethnic animosity that partly contributed to the 2007 post-election violence, a colleague of mine pointed out to me that the Luo community were only known for throwing stones and making noise. Then the statement stung and I responded harshly.
Over time, though, I have come to appreciate that perception can very easily become reality.
It is important that the President’s visit starts an earnest engagement on dealing with the key socio-economic challenges facing the nation. Politics drives a lot of our decisions as a country. However, over-politicking distracts the country, its leadership and people.
As a community, this visit should help ensure that the key challenges facing the region become part of the region’s conversations and engagements with national leadership. The community lags behind in several economic indices as a result of under-investment over the years. This ranges from stalled and limited industries, to poor road network and collapsing agricultural sector. Lake Victoria is a public demonstration of this neglect. The water hyacinth menace chokes the lake, limiting the exploitation of the fisheries sector.
There is need to also address the challenges of exclusion and marginalisation. The agitation for a new constitution was driven by feelings of exclusion by several regions of Kenya. The statements by those from Northern Kenyan referring to a visit to Nairobi as coming to Kenya demonstrated the feeling of existence of two countries in Kenya.
Many innovations were introduced in the Constitution to deal with this, the main one being adoption of devolution. Following the creation of counties and the constitutional guarantee of a share of the national resources to ever county, allocations of resources a s a tool for political control was to be limited.
In practice though, the national government still retains most of the revenue generated. The winner takes all politics continued to be entrenched despite the 2010 Constitution. As a result, elections and competition for political power are seen as a do or die endeavour.
It is unsustainable to have a country where one segment feels excluded, unwanted, unappreciated and marginalised. The solution is not a quick fix. It is about robust conversations and a dedicated effort of righting past wrongs. This must include allocation of resources, inclusion in public service and dignified treatment.
The region and community must recognise though that there is mindset that must also be changed amongst its people. Having been socialised in a mentality of exclusion, and adapting to what they felt was a harsh environment, it will require concerted efforts to learn a different engagement modality.
The President’s visit must provide opportunity for this reflection and rediscovering how to engage in national discourse without being ostracised.