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From racism to ethnicity: How civil service has been ‘colonised’

by kenya-tribune


In 2011 when I worked for the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), we published Kenya’s first ethnic audit of the civil service, which is the largest employer in the country.

While still at NCIC, a colleague would painstakingly go through names in newspapers of candidates shortlisted for jobs in the public service, then look up sadly, saying, “as usual, there is no one from my ethnic community.”

His actions illustrated the nature of exclusion or extremely low representation of minority communities and brought the reality of how people from large ethnic communities like me are insulated from ever having to pore over a list of names.

My experiences of exclusion are based on peacebuilding, where, despite the knowledge I and indeed other women possess, men often make decisions alone, expecting excluded women and the youth to implement.

This exclusion means the violence never ends or takes unnecessarily long because inclusion usually brings sustainable outcomes.

Gerry Loughran, writing on the history of the Daily Nation, this publication’s sister paper, in an article titled Birth of a Nation:The story of a newspaper in Kenya, says “racism was nationalised in government service, with salaries graded by ethnicity.


Class A for Europeans, B for Asians, C for Arabs and D for Africans, the latter being mostly drivers, messengers and cleaners. Categories also extended to accommodation”.

The NCIC study sought to establish through an ethnic audit, why, 48 years after independence, minorities were still struggling to get a foot in civil service.

Had we replaced racism with ethnicity?

The findings were highly publicised, therefore, I seek your indulgence to share again.

Massive exclusion was clear as only 20 of the then 42 ethnic communities were statistically visible, indeed seven ethnic communities had less than 100 members in the civil service.

The ethnic group with the dominant share of positions in the civil service was the Kikuyu, closely followed by the Kalenjin who had the dominant share in the police force and prisons service.

The Office of the Prime Minister had the Luo as the majority community.

All these public agencies exceeded the legal limit requiring that no single ethnic community should constitute more than a one-third of employees in any ministry or state department.

The patterns of staffing suggested numbers in the civil service had a relation with the presidency, because since independence, the Kikuyu and Kalenjin had produced all of the country’s presidents, an argument that could also be made of the prime minister at the time of the NCIC audit who was Luo.

Power, leadership and ethnic patronage clearly influenced the ethnic composition of the public service.

Five ethnic communities—Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luhya, Kamba and Luo—occupied nearly 70 per cent of civil service positions.

Although the five were the most populous, their share of positions in the civil service was a clear variance with their representation in the population at large.

Other arguments included disparities in access to education and infrastructure that made some communities produce highly skilled and better qualified people.

However, the two dominant ethnic communities were not necessarily the most literate and the skewed recruitment cut across all job groups including those that did not require high educational qualifications.

Other justifications included proximity to towns, and using population size of a community to measure its representation in the public service did not translate into all community members being employable.

None of these arguments explained the huge disparities between the excluded and the included.

NCIC identified the country’s failure to recognise ethnic inequalities as a challenge to national cohesion.

The most important thing became what happened to the findings.

The then Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura took administrative action, reviewing how each ministry or department addressed ethnic inequality and increasing the hiring of under-represented communities.

Member of Parliament Mohammed Affey, who led the Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunity, summoned all ministers and permanent secretaries of the ministries that had flouted the law. The committee even conducted its own ethnic audit of Parliamentary staff.

In 2014, the Public Service Commission released a report on identifying and bridging staffing gaps between ethnic communities. The report informed the 2010 Constitution provision for devolution of services and an Equalisation Fund for marginalised societies.

A new law, the Public Service (Values and Principles) Act 2015, was passed to create a balance in favour of minorities.

As I write this, lists are circulating of increasing number of positions held by dominant ethnic communities.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]

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