One of the defining attributes of human civilisation is the power of speech, together with the ability to put down thoughts and ideas in written form.
This power to communicate is what, anthropologists say, distinguishes the human being and makes it superior to other living creatures.
It follows that the ability to speak to one another, to dialogue, to negotiate, to exchange viewpoints is what has driven advances in human civilisation over millenniums
When there are problems and disagreements, therefore, the logical prescription will first be found in talking, listening, and understanding one another as part of the effort towards seeking and agreeing on solutions.
This is the spirit in which the calls for a national dialogue must be received. The opposition Cord alliance says the country is plagued by festering national sores that can only be healed through a national conference.
The governing Jubilee coalition of President Uhuru Kenyatta, after initially welcoming the call for dialogue, has reversed its stand and instead rubbished the proposal. It now says that dialogue can be conducted through existing institutions, such as Parliament.
That, obviously, is not the sort of forum the opposition seeks. Calls anywhere to a national dialogue are usually premised in the belief that a nation faces critical problems that cannot be solved through the existing legislative, judicial, and executive institutions of governance.
A national dialogue such as that envisaged seeks not just to tinker with the nuts and bolts, but to secure an overhaul of the entire edifice.
There is no doubt that Kenya faces pressing problems. All are affected by the insecurity posed by the terrorism menace.
Unemployment and poverty remain ticking time bombs. The gap between the rich and the poor is one of the widest in the world.
Unequal development is also notable between different regions. The evil of ethnicity remains a sore on the national psyche.
Anyone who would deny that these are problems serious enough to undermine our nationhood and pose a serious threat to peace, stability, and security must be living in a fool’s paradise.
If we can resolve these problems by talking to one another and finding common ground on the solutions, then talk we must.
However, we must also agree on how such talks will be managed, convened, the agenda, the participation, and the mandate of any forum to be established.
To start with, we must accept that no meaningful dialogue can be convened by threats and intimidation.
Kenya went through a long period of agitation in the struggle against the dictatorial one-party system in the early 1990s and onwards to the proclamation of the progressive new Constitution in 2010.
The language of street protests and mass action that was necessary and justifiable in the struggle for the second liberation might not necessarily be applicable in the Kenya of today.
It is, therefore, imperative that the opposition’s case for a national dialogue be canvassed with humility and respect and that the government’s response be equally humble in acknowledgement of the fact that might cannot triumph over reason.