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Jamhuri must be about transforming Kenya

The country celebrates Jamhuri Day every December 12. It is a celebration of declaration of Kenya as a Republic.

It encapsulates our independence as a country, our sovereignty as a nation and a people and our ability to determine our affairs. This year is no different.

In the run-up to today’s celebrations I attended discussions organised by Uraia Trust, which focuses on civic education in Kenya. The theme of the discussions was nationhood. The discussions dovetailed with the celebrations we have every Jamhuri Day.

Next August’s General Election has occupied our minds as citizens this year. This is because of the place it plays in our governance.

As a consequence, a stranger coming to Kenya would at first sight think that all our problems start and end with elections. This should not be the case.

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While elections are an important part of our democratic process, building a nation and exercising our sovereignty cannot be reduced to elections only.

Secondly, during the debate at the Uraia forum there was a conversation about our elected leaders. The concern was that leaders are subverting the cause of nationhood.

Those who took this position argued that resolving our challenges requires us to fix the leadership challenges. While true, this argument is only half the picture.

The 2010 Constitution is hailed as a transformative. Indeed, it is. However, Kenyans are still unhappy with the pace at which transformation is taking place. This is where the debate about leadership is normally situated.

In truth, though, nationhood is much more than what those elected to lead the country do. It is much more about what citizens do.

At the height for the struggle for a new constitution, the term ‘‘Wanjiku’’ was coined to depict the ordinary Kenyan. The essence was more than just a participatory concern. It was the recognition that at the heart of creating a different and better Kenya, was the place of the citizenry.

Mahmood Mamdani, in a book titled ‘‘Citizens and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism’’, speaks to the question of meaning and content of being a citizen.

It is important to realise that to create a nation requires active and engaged citizens. Leaders and institutions alone cannot create a transformed nation.

Over the last one week the Education secretary has received wide acclaim for the manner in which he handled this year’s primary and high school national examinations.

I asked a group of religious leaders what he had changed. It was neither laws nor institutions. All he brought was a commitment and dedication to do the right thing.

This signalled to all stakeholders that it would not be business as usual. Laws, institutions and processes then were aligned to support his focus and not as the central focus.

If you compare this with some of the discourse that takes place on corruption and how to address it, you quickly realise where the problem is.

We cannot as citizens outsource our responsibilities to our nation and expect it to transform. Secondly, we cannot assume that citizenship is only exercised around and through elections. While important, building a nation and promoting nationhood requires much more.

It is a debate about giving meaning to the dictates of Article 10 of the Constitution. As Kenyans, we have to remember the words of Chinua Achebe when he stated that what Nigeria needed was a fresh set of Nigerians. The same is true of Kenya.

This does not mean literally replacing the entire population with a fresh set of human beings. It is about changing the kind of Kenyans that we are.

We have to be citizens who realise that sovereignty is about responsibility. It is about a determination to change of environment, to change our philosophies and to change our engagements.

In every challenge, we face, whether it is the levels of ethnic divisions, corruption or quality of leaders, true transformation must start with transforming ourselves. This is what the discourse of nationhood taught me. This is what Jamhuri must be about moving forward.

As we celebrate this years’ Jamhuri we must introspect and rededicate ourselves to being fresh Kenyans and to improving the lot of all Kenyans.

Dr Odote is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

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