Citizenship and Ethnicity: An Examination of Two Transition Moments in Kenyan Politics

Citizenship and ethnicity are usually studied as related topics. In this article, Ndegwa examines how debates over citizenship as a national affiliation and ethnicity as a communal affiliation cause delayed democratization in postcolonial African states. He believes that citizenship theory can better explain delay of democratization in postcolonial states. He argues that individuals in postcolonial societies live with two identities, or what he calls “dual citizenship”: national versus ethnic citizenship. In addition to postcolonial developing states, he briefly elaborates on Israel as a case showing that developed states too can have the clash over these two types of citizenship.    

First type is the national citizenship, also referred as liberal, civic or libertarian. Scholars of modernization tradition envisioned that the newly independent African countries eventually adopt a common national identity to replace the multiplicity of ethnic identities.  Democracies installed in the new nations anticipated a liberal form of citizenship, which bestows on a person the status of a citizen as an individual member of the modern state. Such liberal understanding of citizenship is a private conception. It is part of what is meant by calling individuals sovereign and morally autonomous beings, that they choose whether or not to exercise the rights of the status of citizen in the public or more narrowly the political arena. Such status does not demand that the citizen perform any duties to retain these rights or membership in the political community.  

Second type of citizenship is ethnic, also referred as illiberal or republican. Whereas liberalism is centered on the individual, ethnic groups are centered on the community, and a person cannot claim rights that would jeopardize group claims. Individuals are therefore not sovereign or “morally autonomous” but instead gain rights and deserve defense only as active members of a community. Such benefits are secured by obligations and participation necessary “to define, establish and sustain a political community of fellow citizens”.  

In the article, the author focuses on the case of Kenya. He examines two critical moments in Kenya’s democratization. He discusses in detail the processes of transition to independence (1960-1964) and transition to democracy (1990-1995) through the lenses of national citizenship and ethnic affiliation.  While discussing these significant turning points in Kenyan history, he demonstrates how different views of citizenship, ethnic affiliation and fears of domination by other ethnic groups played key roles in the formation of politics.

He argues that the transition to democracy in Kenya is protracted because the vision of democracy assumed, propagated, and installed is the liberal majoritarian variety, and its presumption of autonomous individual actors is at odds with the reality of individuals fulfilling republican obligations to their subnational community. This condition affects both the "democratic" opposition and the "antidemocratic" incumbents, as is evident from the reliance of ethnic and subethnic or regional networks on the formation of political parties and mobilization of votes leading to patterns that approximate an ethnic census.  

Ndegwa suggests that most discussions of citizenship that draw from North American and European experiences assume a single political community-the modern state-in which individuals participate and into which those previously excluded are admitted through the expansion of civil, political, and social rights. Thus, citizenship is held to be coterminous with the modern, democratic nation-state. He maintains that while debate abounds about differing conceptions of citizenship-liberal, civic-republican, and libertarian-the dominant view is that only one form can or ought to exist in a modern state, viewed as a single political community. For Ndegwa, a related but less rigid consensus holds liberal citizenship as the hallmark of modem democracy. He demonstrates that while liberal/national citizenship does not entail any duty for fellow citizens, republican/ethnic citizenship require some duties for members of the community.  

Ndegwa argues that the current transition in Kenya has stalled because the incumbent coalition of minority ethnic groups proposes federalist structures to limit the danger of domination by larger groups, who advocate liberal majoritarian democracy in a unitary state. That is why, he suggests, Kalenjin people and other minority groups preffered majimboism, regionalism where ethnic groups will have more sway on the territory dominated by their kins. Otherwise, liberal citizenship has the risk of Kikuyu domination as well as misallocation of natural resources.