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Comment & analysis

Peeling the Kenyan Conflict Onion

Alice Nderitu

2008-04-15, Issue 362

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Nderitu argues that development, security and human rights should be the priorities in Kenya post conflict reconstruction; and not creating a bloated cabinet under the guise of power-sharing

It’s official. We have a grossly overpaid cabinet of 40, the largest ever in East Africa. The 34- 44- 40 cabinet debate in Kenya is an ominous pointer to what our politicians consider priorities; positions and not needs. Yet our needs are the embers which opportunely stoked ignite into conflict. Kofi Annan argued as UN Secretary General in 2005 that we cannot enjoy development without security, security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights and that unless all these causes are advanced, none will succeed. This are needs, not positions. He repeated this statement when he came to Nairobi to mediate. What does this statement have to do with our post conflict priorities? Let us use a human rights education training method on analysis, the conflict onion to understand what he meant. To do so we have to peel the onion together.

Experience teaches us that in peaceful situations people relate and act on the basis of their actual needs (what we have to have). The lack of basic access to must have needs lays the basis for the presence of structural violence characterised by resentment which does not necessarily translate into open conflict. As instability rises, people coalesce around collective interests (what we want) rather than needs. With the escalation of the conflict people then withdraw to certain positions (what we say that we want). The positions we then demand at this point and as apart of conditions for peace deals have their roots in the dynamics of the conflict but have little to do with actual needs.

In Kenya, the needs are the core of our onion, the first ring of the onion the interests and the outer ring of the onion the positions. Let’s peel the outer ring. What are the politicians saying that we want? Positions in Government for all parties because it’s the only way to for everyone to benefit and guarantee peace. Let’s peel the second ring - But what are our interests? What do we want? Equality and non-discrimination on all fronts especially ethnicity, disability, gender and equitable access to resources, participation and inclusion, accountability and the rule of Law. The interests are in their totality human rights based approach to development principles.


We urgently need roads in good conditions; to markets for our produce, to a hospital with medicine, to a school with teachers and books, to a water point. We need security. We need leaders we can speak to who will listen just as we do as they address political rallies and religious gatherings. We need the IDP‘s resettled, MP’s salaries reduced and our taxes manageable, we must have an end to impunity and a Truth and Justice and Reconciliation Commission. We must have support for arts and sports and debunk the myth that education is the only way out of poverty for our youth. Sportsmen like Catherine Ndereva, Paul Tergat and musicians like Tony Nyandundo did not hone their skills in examination rooms. We need to afford maize and wheat flour, to get direct benefits for the cane and coffee farmer. We must have our textile industry back on its feet again. We need opportunities for the neglected North Eastern Province. We must have massive land education initiatives similar to the HIV-AIDs campaigns at the community and policy level. We need well remunerated Doctors, nurses, University lecturers and law enforcement officers. We need jobs for our youths.

Peeling onions is a tear shedding business so let’s ask the loaded question; to what extent is the creation of a bloated cabinet based on prioritising of positions truly suited to promoting Kenyans needs and interests? Numbers do not mean delivery of services to meet our needs. Kenya’s post conflict reconstruction will be founded on the basis of solutions to needs and well-understood interests, not political positions.Granted; conflicts do undergo transformations that have nothing to do with the original reasons such as the need for self protection, revenge or the economic or political opportunities offered by the conflict.

But working out the conflict issues (at the level of the various positions and interests) and the conflict causes (at the level of the interests and needs) from wherever you stand will help us all examine our own positions and assist us gain an understanding of the interests and needs of the other side. This will help us lay the foundations for the permanent resettlement of the IDP’S hand in hand with enforcement of the rule of law. Try it. You will be surprised that our original needs are in fact perfectly compatible with each other and that in fact Positive peace encompasses human security, stability and development as needs, not positions as priorities to guarantee peace. And that a cabinet of 40 just adds to our socio economic dilemmas. Brace yourselves Kenyans. We are in for tough times.

*Alice Nderitu is a Nderitu is a senior human rights officer, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

**Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

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