What you need to know:
- Two specific facts make fervent Kenyan nationalism ironic, one historic, the other prospective.
- As soon as the Kenyan lot moved into Muthaiga and acquired a settler farm or two, the lofty Pan-Africanist visions vanished.
- One of the most important features of the bureaucratic edifice of the nation-state is raising revenue.
There are few things that offend the sensibilities of nationalists than the suggestion that their beloved nation-states are neither sacrosanct nor immortal, yet this is an incontrovertible fact.
I have been vilified endlessly for igniting the secession debate. It has come as a surprise to many that debating secession does not constitute treason.
As the Court of Appeal pointed out in the Mombasa Republican Council case, the 2010 Constitution anticipates change in the territory of Kenya, which in essence means the country can expand or contract by constitutional means.
Two specific facts make fervent Kenyan nationalism ironic, one historic, the other prospective. Our fervent nationalists are evidently unaware that the founding fathers envisioned one East African nation. Tanganyika and Uganda delayed their independence waiting for Kenya’s to be negotiated but it dragged on too long on account of the complications of the European settler interests, and the others gave up waiting.
But for this, we would be citizens of the East African Federation, or whatever name would have been chosen for the new nation.
Of course, the federation could have failed as did the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (present day Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi). It is also conceivable that Mwalimu Nyerere, who championed it, would have become its first president and forged a cohesive nation as he did in Tanzania.
As soon as the Kenyan lot moved into Muthaiga and acquired a settler farm or two, the lofty Pan-Africanist visions vanished. The late John Keen was the first political detainee in independent Kenya.
His crime was to agitate for unification. Frustrated by lack of progress he remarked in parliament, that the only way to achieve the union was to overthrow the governments. He was promptly picked up and locked up for nine months.
In November 1999, 22 years after the collapse of the first East African Community, the three countries signed up to a new and more ambitious integration initiative with the stated goal of political union.
In 2004, a special Heads of State Summit set up a committee headed by Amos Wako to recommend ways of fast-tracking political federation. In May this year, the Heads of State Summit adopted a Political Confederation as a transitional model towards full federation.
Our nation-states were not wanted in the first place. Fifty years on, we cannot wait to dissolve them—the challenge is one of how, not whether.
By contrast, few ideas generate as much political venom in the EU as the mention of political union. Indeed, Britain’s departure from the EU is underlain in part by suspicion that there is a Franco-German conspiracy for a European superstate. By contrast, the citizens of East Africa, Kenya included have embraced the idea of dissolving their nation-states.
In fact, when the subject comes up, you are more likely invite conversation about who could become the Federation’s first president.
The End of the Nation State is the title of two books both published in 1995 by Japanese scholar Kenichi Ohmae and French Diplomat Jean Marie Guehenno.
“Crisis of the nation-state” features in the title of innumerable learned essays. In “The Global Crisis of the Nation-State” published in Current History, Aviel Roshwald describes the crisis as the nation-state’s “failure to consolidate or maintain national identities that are cohesive yet adaptable, rooted in shared historical memories yet capable of integrating new ones, that helps generate some of the major threats to peace and stability in today’s global environment.” The primary thesis is that the nation-state is not fit for purpose in a post-industrial globalised world.
To get to the heart of the problem the go-to thinker has to be Ernest Gellner, arguably the foremost scholar of nationalism. Gellner theorised the nation-states and nationalism are creatures of modernisation. He defines the work of nation-states and nationalism as imposing what he calls a “high” culture, homogenising and controlling agrarian societies in the service of industrialisation and modernisation.
Nationalism, he writes, is: “The general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases the totality, of the population. It means the general diffusion of a school-mediated, academy supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of a reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous impersonal society, with mutually sustainable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of the previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.”
The industrialising nation-states overpowered and homogenised complex agrarian tribal societies into urban mass consumerist culture.
The nation-state is now on the receiving end of the same forces. We are seeing nation-states overpowered by transnational corporations, driven to open up markets and subordinate themselves to a plethora of trading blocs and multilateral structures and processes. Even the most powerful nation-states confess to a degree of being powerless against globalisation.
One of the most important features of the bureaucratic edifice of the nation-state is raising revenue.
The giant coffee shop chain Starbucks paid a total of £8.1m tax on £3bn of sales in its first 14 years of operation in the UK, that is a tax rate of 0.3 per cent on sales.
The year after it was called out, Starbucks paid $8.6m in taxes, indicating that it could have avoided over £100m in UK taxes.
The global corporate top dog Apple was recently forced to pay EUR13b back taxes by the EU Commission after its sweetheart tax deal with Ireland was declared illegal by the European Commission.
The sweetheart deal gave Apple a tax rate of one per cent against a 12.5 per cent. Apple invoiced its sales in the entire EU market in Ireland thereby avoiding paying taxes to the other countries. While erosion of revenue base is a substantial threat it is not a fatal one. Nation-states can ameliorate tax-arbitrage by shifting the tax base from profits to consumption.
The fundamental pillars of the nation-state is people and territory and there is trouble on both fronts. Europe’s population is shrinking, but it’s doing everything it can to keep people out.
This does not make economic sense. European nations will have to choose multiracialism or decline. On the territorial front, Catalonia’s declaration of independence is only one of several self-determination initiatives. Two months ago, Venice and Lombardy, two wealthy regions, conducted non-binding referenda in which the residents voted for more autonomy within the Italian nation-state.
There are between 15 and 20 active separatist movements in Europe. Post industrial Europe is beginning to look like the Holy Roman Empire.
If the nation-state is imperilled in its birth place, what is the future for Africa’s phony nation-states?
Fifty years after the OAU adopted the sanctity of colonial borders, Africa is inching slowly but surely towards the Pan-Africanist vision of a borderless continent. African countries are currently hosting 18 million refugees mostly from just across the border, making nonsense of these borders. This is nothing new. Our pre-colonial history suggests that Africans have always been on the move.
The nation-state has not done much for Africans. To the vast majority of Africans, it is practically useless. To the 18 million refugees and 50 million plus victims of civil wars, it has been worse than useless. The age of industrial powerhouses is now behind us, and so is the economic logic of the nation-state. Globalisation has relegated mass manufacturing to bottom of the economic food chain.
Should Africa industrialise, which is doubtful, it is because no one else wants to do it.
True enough, the East African Federation will be another nation-state. What its citizens will do when it happens is transfer their allegiance from one nation-state to another.
It is conceivable that the national borders will remain, but we have to ask what purpose they will continue to serve. Why for instance, should the Maasai people in Kenya and Tanzania continue to be separated by an arbitrary redundant colonial border? Will it not make more sense to establish culturally meaningful sub-national units?
One of contentious aspects of Gellner theories is the question of agency—whether nation-building is a purposeful endeavour or force of circumstance.
Gellner contends that the “founding fathers” are really not fathers at all but unwitting handmaidens of a historical process.
Many scholars even adherents of Gellner are loath to contemplate that their beloved nations and exalted statesmen are unintended consequences of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, fated, as Marx predicted, to wither away.
Watching African demagogues shamelessly stoking tribalism, whipping up nationalist fervour in the same breadth, and swearing by the territorial integrity of nation-states whose sovereignty they have already signed away, as committed to protecting their fiefdoms as they are to abolishing them, one cannot help but be inclined to agree with Gellner.
David Ndii, an economist, is currently serving on the Nasa technical and advisory committee. He leads the Nasa policy team. [email protected]; @DavidNdii