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Ethnicity in civil service? Media must first remove log from their eyes

analysis, monitoring

Nation-building is a daunting task that requires the efforts of the state, civil society, church, media, and everyone. These stakeholders, like musicians in a band, must work in harmony to achieve goals that support national values, which are the cornerstone of nation-building.

The media plays a significant role in informing and educating the public about critical issues like corruption, negative ethnicity, marginalisation, and economic inequality. However, misrepresentation of facts or glossing over crucial issues by failing to provide context might not only undermine their cardinal responsibility but could also lead to misinformation and disinformation.

Take this sensational headline in The Star (October 12), “Shareholding storm: Raila men demand ethnic audit of public service.” The article reports that five ethnic communities that dominate the Public Service Commission include Kikuyu (45,291), Kalenjin (35,991), Luo (25,382), Luhya (25,382) and Kisii (16,167).

Indeed, skewed national representation in the PSC is worrying. There’s not a single nation on Earth that was built by excluding and marginalising others, because that often sows seeds of resentment and bitterness. These twin issues lead to fervent calls for secession and annexation, resulting in state violence and fragmentation of society.

Therefore, at face value, the media have right to call out communities that dominate state opportunities that should be distributed equitably. The Star story echoes the Constitution’s vision to address historical injustices against minority ethnic groups. The press is simply speaking on behalf of those communities that have been prevented from enjoying the national cake.

Yet the media has also been largely guilty of promoting ethnicity as the organising principle for winning elections and resource allocation. When the media write stories with the words ‘Kamba nation’, ‘Mulembe nation’, ‘Luo Nyanza’, or even ‘Mt Kenya region’, how do they hope to achieve national unity?

Does ‘Mulembe nation’ even exist, or this is a figment of imagination invented by the media? Does it mean that, despite the diverse nature of Kenyan communities, the media must still insist on lumping each of them as homogeneous groups? This is the fundamental question that must be asked, even as the same press takes a high moral ground to report on ethnic imbalance in the civil service.

The Kenyan media has a turbulent history of polarising society. Most of the time, as documented in Philip Ochieng’s I Accuse the Press: An Insider’s View of the Media and Politics in Africa, the top news leadership of leading media outlets has often entangled themselves in political conflicts that have absolutely nothing to do with national interests. Because of vested interests that date back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the political establishment discovered the enormous power of the press, a trend has emerged where the burning issues of the day are not sufficiently addressed.

The media attempted to shed their old skin of favouritism in the early 1990s with the advent of multiparty democracy, which also opened space for more news outlets and more freedom to criticise President Daniel Moi. The mainstream press, through courageous reportage, became more critical of the excesses of the Nyayo regime, in as much as they were overshadowed by the alternative press, which included such radical magazines as the Society of Pius Nyamora and Gitobu Imanyara’s Nairobi Law Monthly.

When Nyayo lost in 2002 and President Mwai Kibaki took over, the media once again forgot their public watchdog role, and the scourge of ethnicity found its way into the public service. This formed the prologue to the 2007 post-election violence tragedy that cost more than 1,000 lives and left close to 600, 000 people displaced. Did the press learn any lesson from that catastrophe? Yes. But that has not meant they have stopped their fixation with tribe as the organising principle of winning elections.

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