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.

I’m glad I’m not President Uhuru Kenyatta, nor CSs Mutahi Kagwe and Fred Matiang’i, nor Governor Hassan Joho and others who have the awesome responsibility of communicating with the rest of us in ways that get us to behave responsibly during the Covid-19 crisis. Like leaders everywhere in the world they must act neither too quickly nor too slowly, not too harshly and not too weakly. But what is the right speed? What is the right style?

It would be much easier if our people were as disciplined and well off as those of Singapore or South Korea, Germany or New Zealand. But we are who we are, with over ten million of us packed together in urban slums and living hand to mouth; and with so many others in remote rural and arid areas where there is limited access to the media, never mind the Internet.

The leaders I have mentioned would be doing well in the countries I have listed. But how much harder it is to be effective here, where even the middle class have been finding it hard to do and not do what is being called for.

We must sympathise with the frustrations of our rationally-driven leaders, who see that all they get is pushback and resentment when they tell us to wear masks and stay home and suchlike.

Whether due to intolerably cramped living conditions and poverty, or as a result of cultural norms of community togetherness, much of what we are seeing is a struggle between the stern admonitions of our leaders and the disconnected behaviour of our citizens.

Understandably, the government’s focus has been on organising our under-prepared healthcare system to cater for the sudden onset of the pandemic, while simultaneously worrying about the shattering effects on our economy. The added dilemma is that the greater concern there is for protecting lives, the greater the negative impact on livelihoods.

What we are beginning to see though is that alongside managing these “hard” issues, increased attention must be paid to the complementary “soft” emotional and behavioural ones. So should some leaders be playing “bad cop” while others play “good cop”? Should each leader be skilled enough to combine the two roles into one, knowing when and how to switch?

It is clear that the big stick of assertively managed lockdowns must be wielded, for merely enticing us with the reward of longer term health benefits if we do what we are being told is way beyond the time horizon of most. But if that’s not working, then what?

Surely we need not rely only on top-down tough messages from smart podiums. It is up to many more of us to communicate within our communities, from the family level upwards, each of us finding our own way to make a difference.

Leaders and people of influence from all sectors – religious, private sector, NGOs, academia, trade unions, musicians and other artists, sportspeople and of course the media – must contribute to passing both the tough and the empathetic messages, complementing and reinforcing what we are hearing from the top.

There is as great a need for this kind of “soft” engagement as there is for the distribution of food, Personal Protective Equipment and other essentials to the most vulnerable. Many are already acting with great generosity, in both the hard and the soft areas, and the more the merrier.

Let me briefly draw attention to the Social Cohesion Committee that has recently been formed by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), within whose mandate such an initiative falls naturally.

The NCIC Social Cohesion Committee (of which I am part) is developing new ways, with musicians and others, to pass messages that more people can respond to positively. It is also organising for psychosocial support to be made available to both the most vulnerable – children and others in emotional distress – and to doctors and nurses.

By listening as much as by telling we can begin bringing Kenyans together, so that the poor do not feel this Covid-19 threat merely threatens the urban rich. And it is by complementing the angry headteacher with the empathetic counsellor that we can avoid future social strife.
So please join this movement for social cohesion. Whoever you are, at whatever level.