December 01, 2015
News /
Posted by NCID

Dominic Burbidge, lecturer and researcher at the University of Oxford, presented his research on “Democracy Versus Diversity: Ethnic Representation in a Devolved Kenya” as a seminar organized by the NCID at the University of Navarre.

“This title was chosen to juxtapose democracy and diversity, the idea being that a large proportion of the international community assumes that both of these things are good and compatible and we only tend to say we wonder if diversity is a threat to western democracy (migration)”, explained Dominic Burbidge. However, according to his research in Africa, and especially in Kenya, there is fear of the contrary, that democracy can threaten diversity.

As Burbidge explains, people from minority communities fear that through a voting procedure citizens can put power in the hands of someone who mobilizes along ethnic lines, using the office as an instrument of exclusion. “Here is where the dilemma of politicization of ethnicity starts”, said the researcher from the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics & International Relations.

Historical Roots

In 2010 Kenya approved a new constitution that delegated decision-making power to 47 county governments. The geographic boundaries to the counties was based in part on the divisions colonial Britain had made in order to lower the costs of management, forming the boundaries mostly on along ethnic lines.

“British colonials didn’t want to enforce fair rules across the colony; rather they appointed people to sort out matters locally,” said Burbidge, “they did not care about inconsistencies.”

One key historical area of conflict was land distribution. According to British colonial law, people that were not originally from the area where they were living could not have land or partake in meaningful economic activity without the permission of local leaders.

“That started the politics of exclusion, where indigeneity was the means of guaranteeing rights,” explained Dominic Burbidge.

Exploring the issue

Burbidge researched the issue by tabulating the ethnicity of county executives to roughly measure representation in these important local bodies. In doing so he establishes a general index to identify those counties undergoing intense inter-ethnic political competition. For example, some counties have nearly all executives coming from one ethnic group, despite having a significant second ethnic group in the local population.

According to his presentation, a consequence of this situation could be ethnic tensions and political competition arising in hotly contested counties. In other words, devolution – a democratic policy – may encourage diversity to become politicized towards unwanted ends.

Useful research for legislators and judges

Although it is not a “silver bullet”, Burbidge demonstrated the importance of incorporating social science research into the legislation of a country. According to him, there is “a road for the social sciences to help put into context judgments so as to provide parties with awareness of what cases they can bring to court.” This is particularly the case with devolution in Kenya, where cases are being heard in court without any common understanding of whether the county governments involved are representative of their local populations.

“We create legal rules according to human rights, but then we don’t provide those people affected by those legal rules with the information to know the context,” said Dominic Burbidge. He added: “If a judge in Kenya makes a decision without the demographic context, it can be interpreted politically.” In this way, the social sciences can help ensure that policies are less likely to cause discontent or violence.