Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan made history on Wednesday, 5th May 2021 by being the first female President to address Kenya’s joint Houses of Parliament, National Assembly and Senate. The cherry on the cake for this historic moment was her powerful, eloquent and uplifting speech delivered in the beautiful language of Swahili. The speech that captured a rejuvenation of the Kenya-Tanzania relations was also delivered with anecdotes that had Kenyan legislators and viewers at large hooked throughout its delivery..
During her speech, President Samia made light of the moment Senate Speaker Kenneth Lusaka struggled to read out a year in Swahili. She went on to express her fondness for Kenya’s Parliamentary proceeding, particularly the debates that had members contributing in the ‘interesting’ Kenyan Swahili. Unlike Kenya, Tanzania’s larger population communicates in Sanifu Swahili, something that is mostly common in Kenya’s coastal region. This is largely attributable to the cultural similarities between that Kenya’s coastal region and Tanzania.
Kiswahili is provided for as both a national and official language in the Constitution, unlike English, which is only official. Besides Members of Parliament (MPs) from the coastal region, majority of the legislators struggle to articulate their thoughts and ideas in Kiswahili as they easily would in English, something their Tanzanian counterparts do with so much ease. President Samia’s ability to articulate matters on policy, development and trade between Kenya and Tanzania posed a great challenge to our leaders.
At institutional level, Kenya’s Parliament recently translated the Standing Orders to Kiswahili, itself a step in the right direction. However, legislations are only available in English. On the other hand, their counterparts in Tanzania have started the process of translating over 400 laws to Kiswahili following guidelines that the Ministry of Constitutional and Legal Affairs issued in March this year. To that extent, our neighbors Tanzania have given themselves an edge in the pursuit of a more inclusive democracy. Through the translation of these laws, their citizenry is bound to have a more effective engagement with the law-making process.
The language barrier has also played out during the public participation processes conducted at national and county level. Gazette notices are published in English and the public hearings mostly conducted in English by the government officials. This has made it difficult for Kenyans to submit substantive contributions owing to fairly complex language that characterizes legislative proposals.
The importance of having sector lead stakeholders share views on laws pertaining to their respective fields cannot be downplayed. However, the ordinary citizen ought to have an opportunity to understand the implications that these proposals have on their everyday lives. Consideration of such views gives law and policy makers more perspective and, in turn, better informs the proposals they formulate to ensure they speak to the public’s needs.
Worth-noting is an attempt by Busia Senator in 2018 when he sponsored a Public Participation Bill that compelled authorities to publish and distribute documents in a language and form that can be used by the public, in this case Kiswahili. The Bill further proposed that authorities provide an interpreter for those participants who wish to make their remarks in their local language. If enacted the Bill could set the stage for transformative public participation by Kenyans.
President Samia’s excellent delivery in the national language proved that it is in fact possible to discuss, in detail, governance issues in Kiswahili. Many would attest that the ongoing conversation on a potential referendum has locked out a significant portion of the population that would have benefitted from the legal expertise, had it been delivered in Swahili. Given its national stature, coupled with the fact that majority of Kenyans understand it, embracing Kiswahili by Parliament in legislative processes would conceivably open up Parliament further to a wider public. It would likely excite public’s engagement with parliamentary processes to the benefit of public participation. It (public participation) remains a missing link in governance processes generally, and parliamentary engagements in particular, given its sub-optimal implementation.
Parliamentarians should also push for the enactment of policies/laws that would compel public offices and state organs to use Kiswahili in their decision-making responsibilities. The civil society, such as the Civil Society Parliamentary Engagement Network (CSPEN), should continue to double their efforts it ensuring that this becomes a reality.