John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:

Almost any parent anywhere would be an apologist for the establishment of boundaries in bringing up children well. In its more extreme manifestation this sentiment would be guided by the maxim ‘spare the rod and spoil the child,’ which informed my own parents in their desire to make me a model citizen. When it was my turn to be a father, all physicality was removed from the process. However, there was still no brooking of temper tantrums, no answering back, set times for lights out and an insistence on the words please or thank you or sorry whenever the occasion demanded it. In this parental context, boundaries were meant to inculcate codes of acceptable conduct which were never, ever to be transgressed. And all was for the good. We were also brought up and have, in all likelihood, brought up our own children to take pride in our national boundaries. We were taught and, in all likelihood, are teaching our own children that there was a protracted struggle against colonial masters, during which valiant patriots shed much blood in order that we might be free. This is our history, of which we must be proud. We have our national flags, our national anthems and, above all our national boundaries.

In Africa’s case, why these boundaries should be so cherished remains something of a mystery to me because we are forever being told that they were the arbitrary constructs of some rapacious white men sitting around a table, with straight-line rulers and pencils in hand, at the Berlin Conference of 1884. One would have thought that in seeking out African solutions to African problems the African Union or its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, might have called for an Addis Ababa Conference of a certain year to redraw those arbitrary lines so as to have them be more faithful to human migration, ethnicity, conquest and subjugation before the onset of colonialism. It was probably the fear of the can of worms that such a dispensation might open that the founding fathers chose to leave well alone and stick to and, indeed, zealously defend the colonial boundaries which had been imposed on Africa but which could at least allow for some invented form of nationalism, founded on the word of the moment: democracy.

Yet even the founding fathers have since been overtaken by events with the transformation of the world into a global village, inexorably linked by social media. It is true that some quite eminent thinkers of our time have argued that it is nationalism which will continue to make the world go round. However, all indications are to the contrary: nationalism must be on the way out in favour of a novel, more inclusive political dispensation.

To wit, let us look back on some of the breaking news of recent months: The headlines pointed to the Rohingya boat people of Myanmar being persecuted and tossed out to sea because they professed a faith other than that of the Buddhist majority. In this case, it was religion that was the argument for belonging to a nation and even Aung San Suu Kyi, the local beacon of democracy, remained silent on the matter, for political expediency. Then we continue to read about the boat people from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing from political conflict and economic penury and sufficiently desperate to risk life and limb and considerable savings in their search for a better life across the Mediterranean. They are unwelcome on the other side, largely because they are considered to be the wrong colour and race is the argument for belonging to a nation.

Lastly, closer to home, in March 2015, we had ‘black on black’ nationalism with a resurgence of xenophobic attacks in South Africa: A local ruler, the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, declared that foreigners from the rest of Africa were eroding the country’s culture and taking away scarce jobs, not to mention ‘their’ women. The president’s son, Edward Zuma, echoed those sentiments and the scene was set for burning, looting, killing and repatriation to countries hitherto supportive of South Africa in its fight against apartheid. In this instance, being a certified insider was the argument for belonging to a nation.

For us in Kenya, specifically, what is national sovereignty if the president of another country, to be precise, one Barack Obama of the USA, can jet into the country and cause the cancellation of all flights for hours before he arrives and for hours after he leaves? What is sovereignty if the locals cannot use their roads or their phones while he is here because they have been closed or jammed? What is national sovereignty if soldiers from another country, notably the United Kingdom, can carry out military exercises in our country in complete secrecy, without even our own president being able to have an in-depth understanding of what they are up to? How can we be aspirants to a unified continent when one of our declared agendas is to build an impenetrable (sic) concrete wall to separate us from our dastardly (Somali Muslim) neighbours? Not to mention that the kith and kin of the self-same Somalis live among us as passport carrying Kenyans, courtesy of the aforementioned Berlin Conference, with a significant representation among our current, political leaders? And another thought: with our new, devolved government, will our counties become mini-states, like Athens and Sparta in times gone by, where the argument for belonging will be ethnic purity? Surely not.

The truth is that, as we acknowledge our life threatening excesses on any number of fronts, we are obliged to come together as part of one big world rather than lots of powerful and less powerful nations. Otherwise, whatever our belief system it will not be a ‘world without end. Amen.’ Anyone who thinks differently is simply being complicit in precipitating our extinction as a species. In the meantime, I await the mass wearing of T-shirts proclaiming: We are One! Say No to National Boundaries.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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