NCIC deals with much more than hate speech

Ah yes, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) – they’re the hate speech guys aren’t they? The ones who hear our politicians stir up their supporters against those of their opponents, and then slap their wrists.

Yes they are in business to hammer hate speech, and it’s definitely what the media love reporting on – the more senior the politician the more prominent the coverage, particularly if such honourables end up in court. But this is but a small proportion of NCIC’s mandate, and the reality is that much more quietly, behind the scenes, they are deeply engaged in bringing conflicted communities together.

How do I know this, despite the almost complete absence of media coverage and hence of public perception regarding this life-beyond-hate-speech?

First, because I supported NCIC with their strategy development in 2011, when I was exposed to their activities up close. Then, more recently I read Alice Nderitu’s book, Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides: A Commissioner’s Experience on Cohesion and Integration (which I reviewed in a column of mine on this page exactly two years ago); and now I am a member of NCIC’s Social Cohesion Committee, set up to promote national cohesion at this challenging time of Covid-19.

To learn about the early years of NCIC, I urge you to read the book by Alice Nderitu, who was one of its founder commissioners. In this article though, let me share something about the conflict resolution and peace-building initiatives they are engaged in right now, which I have been hearing about from current commissioners and staff.

First I’ll highlight their approach in Narok, where longstanding societal problems going back to the evictions from the Mau Forest and the feuds between the Kipsigis and the Maasai have led to the violence we have again been witnessing in recent weeks. Here NCIC officers have made their constructive presence felt in a reassuringly impactful way.

Even in this time of Covid they have been travelling to the affected areas, where they held several weeks of consultations with the affected communities and their leaders, listening to the voices of those on the ground so as to understand the issues, and hence building trust and confidence in themselves.

They collaborated with other agencies, benefitting from their expertise and their networks; held public barazas; organised work projects bringing youth together; and through all this started developing a culture of peace rather than of conflict. As a result of their mediation expertise progress has been made, and without needing to resort to judicial intervention. Seeing their contribution has encouraged both government and development partners to reinforce their support for NCIC.

In their mediation efforts in Marsabit they involved professionals, religious leaders, women, elders and students in promoting peaceful ways of resolving the conflicts over boundaries, grazing land, water and related issues, again adopting a multi-agency approach. And similar approaches are under way to resolve the conflicts on the Kakamega-Nandi border.

The NCIC peace soldiers have learned that while conflict is active it is not a good time for them to intervene. During such periods they must leave it to the security forces to calm things down, and it is only then that they can start engaging those involved in dialogue.

They have found that they need to be flexible in how and with whom to intervene, and another principle of theirs is never to over-promise but to keep their word. Ultimately, their mission is to develop cultures of conflict resolution and peace, generating a constructive win-win atmosphere among the locals. This requires great expertise and experience, which fortunately is available within the commission.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to assess how to involve – and not involve! – the local politicians, for too often they are the very ones who stir up the conflicts to their short term political advantage. It is why the development of grassroots community leadership is so vital, enabling it to become a voice of positive influence.

Realistically, many of the politicians will keep on doing what they’ve always done. And given how their activities whip up emotions that deliberately generate conflict and violence, this becomes natural material for the media to feed on.

Equally, as I wrote at the beginning, for NCIC’s conflict resolution and peace-building to be effective it must be conducted in a low profile way. So please, let us not conclude that just because we aren’t reading about this day-to-day they are only spending their time chasing after hate-speech mongers.