What does it mean to be a true citizen?

Ethnicity derails our journey towards nationhood and playing our role  as citizens. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Ethnicity derails our journey towards nationhood and playing our role as citizens. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

In a conversation with a friend about Kenya, its constitution and the path it has travelled the past decade, we got to asking ourselves what makes a country unique? Is it its weather, its people, its rules or its leaders? We could not agree initially.

In reflecting on the issue, I remembered a book I had read by Mahmood Mamdani titled ‘‘Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism.’’ One of the important lessons I took from the book is that of the importance of being a citizen and how ethnicity derails our journey towards nationhood and playing our role as citizens.

Far too often we complain about the challenges that leaders bring to their wards, constituencies and country. Every so often we console ourselves that during the following election we will be able to improve our lot by electing better leaders.

While there is some merit in this aspiration, in any case elections is a critical component of the democratic development of any nation, far too often we fail to reflect on our role as citizens and the expectation from citizens in the process of developing the country.

The Social Contract Theory as captured by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke requires that citizens delegate the powers to govern them to elected leaders. The leaders who govern us are a reflection of the quality of the citizens.

When we are dissatisfied with a leader or the leaders we have we should ask ourselves what our role is in getting the type of leadership that we complain about. The solution in improving quality of leadership must first focus on improving the quality of citizenship.

It is important to then understand what a citizen is. Mamdani speaks of citizens and subjects. A citizen has both rights and responsibilities and is in charge of their destiny.

Citizens have to realise that to blame other people without realising the role they play in both the creation of those problems and their resolution is defeatist.

This reality does not just apply to the political sphere, but all aspects of human engagement. The quality of the education sector, for example, is much about leadership as it is about the citizens who engage in the sector either as teachers, parents, workers or students.

Unless all these categories of people play their role so as to correct any ills that exist in the sector, all that will be seen is complaints. Further citizens normally contribute t or acquiesce in the standards of performance of a sector or society.

The Constitution elevates the place of citizenship above that of leadership. It explains why the Chapter on citizenship is even before those of the arms of Government. This is recognition of the fact that citizens constitute and influence the executive, the legislature and the Judiciary. This is both about relationship as it is about responsibility.

Many Kenyans prefer to wait for someone else to take action when action is necessary. We forget the famous quote that ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for the country. This is the essence of citizenship.

When you see a country progressing do not think it is a miracle act. It involves the concerted act of citizens and their leaders. Leaders have to lead citizens. As citizens we owe it to ourselves ad to succeeding generations to play our part in building a more prosperous and democratic country.

The task of nation building is one that cannot be undertaken from the perception of behaving like a subject. It must be about activating our citizenship, fulfilling our obligations and then making demands on leadership.

It cannot be more about demands from leadership without meeting your side of the bargain as a citizen. The full cohort of citizens rights must be exercised by all Kenyans with a view to taking the country to the next level.

It is easy to agonize, criticise, complain or throw in the towel. None of these options develops. Progress is aggrieved through action. One may make the wrong decision in life. But it is through such actions that we learn, correct our errors and succeed. To fear to make a mistake is to accept not to change.

This is not true citizenship. True citizenship requires constant engagement and action. It is only by talking and acting can we make our democracy better and our country more prosperous.