Law, Social Justice & Global Development

The Constitutional Review Process, Ethnicity and Language Politics

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5. The Constitutional Review Process, Ethnicity and Language Politics
The Constitutional Review Commission is bound, by the pre-determined goals of the Constitution laid before it, to address the question of ethnicity and culture in any new document it might present to parliament. Specifically, the pre-determined goals require that ethnic and communal identities must be respected. Section 3(c) of the Constitution of Kenya Review Act stipulates that the object and purpose of the review is to secure provisions in the new constitution which respect ethnic and regional diversity and communal rights including the right to organise and participate in cultural activities. As the Chairman of the Constitutional Review Commission, Professor Yash Ghai, has pointed out, this introduces a post-modern notion into the Constitution, replacing the idea of national unity with one of particularised identity by employing such phrases as ‘cultural practice’ and ‘cultural identity’.
Ngugi’s well-known decision to abandon the English language for Kikuyu - and the contribution he has made to debating the politics of language -prefigured many of Kenya’s contemporary struggles over culture which have been played out in what Eagleton describes as ‘that whole intermediary space which is the material apparatuses of cultural production, all the way from theatres to printing presses…’17 The Kenyan debate over radio broadcasting is a case in point. In August 2000, the then President of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, announced that radio stations broadcasting in vernacular languages throughout the country would be banned. The Attorney General and the Minister for Transport, Information and Broadcasting were instructed to draft a law making it illegal to broadcast in any language other than Kiswahili and English. Commentators immediately identified the move as an assault on the Kikuyu language radio station Kameme FM.
The debate over the acceptability of language in radio broadcasting is located at the intersection of culture and the market. The demands of particular ethnic groups for minority language radio are able to be fulfilled in the new era of the privatisation of broadcasting technology and the liberalisation of channels. The development of vernacular radio is on a continuum with the long-running tendency in Kenyan public life towards ethnic politics. It has after all not been long since the triumphant reaffirmation of ethnic identity known as the Otieno law case.18


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