Numbers are very interesting things and have fascinated people throughout history. There are numerous references to numbers in almost every record of human development. Holy books mention them a great deal.
The Decalogue (the Ten Commandments given to Moses) is one of them, and perhaps because of this the number ten is one of the most important numbers in almost every system of counting. Again in the bible, number seven and seventy have very important symbolic significance.
Numbers are fascinating for their apparent simplicity and exactness. They are some of the most unambiguous statements.
And yet for all this, they can generate such strong passions, disagreements and controversy.
Now, everyone watches numbers, but none more so than politicians. The population of a given area is studied to establish its demographic composition and therefore the likely voting patterns.
The size of crowds at political rallies can either send a politician to cloud nine or plunge him to such depressing depths from which he may never get out. In recent times opinion poll numbers have become a must watch for politicians.
Pollsters are the modern-day soothsayers, much sought after for their ability to foretell the outcome of an election. Their numbers have the same magical pull and suspense as that of the earlier fortune tellers.
Whole teams of experts are set up to keep a close tab on the numbers. They study them with the intentness of the fortune teller looking into a crystal ball, gazing into the stars, or at the pattern of lines in one’s palm.
And from what they see from their gazing, they can then tell their fortune seekers what they really want to hear.
The ways numbers are studied, shuffled, shifted and turned around have turned the exercise into a game . And now the numbers game has come to East Africa, actually has been around for a while.
In Kenya the numbers game is about parliamentary constituencies and population. And, you guessed it; the game is raising a political storm.
Which is predictable. It seems politicians thrive in the storm and dust which they raise. When the rest of us are rubbing our eyes (from the dust) and sheltering from the wind, politicians walk through it with their eyes wide open.
The numbers storm in Kenya is being raised by the setting up of a commission, chaired by Andrew Ligale, to redraw parliamentary constituencies.
You would expect that to be a straight-forward exercise involving simply surveying and demarcating territory basing on clear-cut logistical considerations. But, no. Politicians, always alert for opportunity, think otherwise.
They are busy painting the work of the constituency redrawing commission in ethnic and regional colours. The basis for this is the ever-fascinating numbers.
So, Nairobi politicians want their representation doubled because of the city’s bigger population and because they generate more wealth than any other region.
It is about another of those dust-raising numbers games – distributing the national cake, where the stakes are about sharing it according to the size of one’s contribution, not the extent of one’s needs.
Politicians in the central province have also put in their claim for a larger constituency share based on sheer numbers. The claim is couched in a well-known democratic principle – one person, one vote.
That has, in spite of the democratic protestations, raised the spectre of political domination by the ethnic groups around Mt Kenya. You can bet your last shirt that is bound to raise a howl of protest. And it has come quickly and loudly
The sparsely-populated north and north-east are up in arms. They are making a counter claim of bigger representation so as to right historical injustices.
Their claim is similar to what in Rwanda is referred to as bringing development to those marginalised by history.
Andrew Ligale and his commission are literally screaming their independence, saying that they will not be swayed by the numbers claim. It’s all a game of numbers, you see.
Behind the dust raised by the numbers debate lies another more serious concern.
The killings that followed the general and presidential elections of December 2007 are still fresh in people’s minds.
The fear that if politics is played according to the current numbers’ game, the post-election violence may be repeated in all its chilling gruesomeness and this is on everyone’s mind, except perhaps for the politicians.
In neighbouring Uganda, the numbers game has been taken to another plane. The political territory is continuously being divided into ridiculously small districts. The divisions, of course, translate into parliamentary constituencies and more members of parliament.
Here in Rwanda the numbers game is played rather differently. We are bucking the regional trend – building bigger units, consolidating, not fragmenting.
Rwandans have, of course, been victims of the numbers game in the past.
There was the cynically named policy of ethnic equilibrium (balance) that was founded on an arbitrary and fictional population ratio. The policy was an inverted, perverted and bastard form of proportional representation. As everyone knows the result of this calculated cynicism was the disinheritance of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans.
Rwandans are also painfully aware of the genocide committed against the Tutsi in 1994 which was informed in part by numbers and exclusive claim to ownership of territory.
There is also the continued downward revision of the number of those killed in the 1994 genocide. It is a numbers game meant to deny the genocide.
In East Africa the numbers game has, in the past, had dangerous consequences. The way it’s being played out in Kenya might be no exception, Ligale’s loud protests notwithstanding.