The problem with David Ndii’s marriage analogy

I first learnt of David Ndii during his feisty debate with Bitange Ndemo in 2014. In alternate articles carried out on the large pages of the Daily Nation over a number of weeks, both men defended their views on what constitutes true national development.

They laid their positions well, and defended them with painstaking research, patience, perseverance, nobility, great wit, utmost respect for one another and none of the acrimony that sours most debates in our times.

In my humble opinion, the duration of that debate was the closest the Daily Nation has ever come to being truly scholarly. I actually looked forward to reading the paper in those days, something most people who know me will tell you I hardly ever do.

Partly because I found his argument better articulated, and partly because I was of the same persuasion, I thought Dr Ndii won that debate. That was no mean feat, for Ndemo was just as able a persuader. Therefore, I greatly respect Dr Ndii, as should any Kenyan who doesn’t use his head, in the parlance of an old friend of mine, to decorate his neck.

Dr Ndii is a master theorist, schooled in both knowledge and the means to convey it. Even if he retires today, his place in Kenya’s intellectual pantheon will long stand unchallenged.

That I, who am young and barely weaned in the art of scholarly discourse, should presume to criticise him, is therefore not a surprise, for I strongly believe that it is to admirers, more than avowed enemies, that the task of criticism primarily belongs.

In one of his most controversial and well-known articles yet, in which he masterfully argued for the secession of various parts of the country, Dr Ndii compared Kenya to an abusive marriage that ought to be ended.

His thesis has since launched a movement that may yet determine this country’s fate. He continues to be the movement’s intellectual engine, furnishing well-argued thought-pieces for its legitimacy.

The merits of, and my sympathies with, the movement notwithstanding, I find fault with the marriage analogy Dr Ndii uses to underpin it. It is not that the analogy, as he constructs it, does not suit his purpose and serve to strengthen his argument (although this is a line of thought that I will equally pursue), but rather that the reality from which the analogy is derived suffers in the use to which he puts it.

It is true that marriage is a delicate institution, whose beauty and utility derives much from the love and care couples put into it. However, impermanence is not a feature that is meant to define it. By nature, only the death of one of the spouses constitutes its legitimate end.

Language and law beautifully capture this in stipulating, for marriage vows, the statement by the contracting spouses that they will stay married “till death do them part.” It follows that, if applied properly, an analogy based on marriage would not support the movement for secession.

It would instead support the opposite argument, the proposition that, despite all the wrongs and abuse the persistence of a state might enable, the peoples who constitute it should resolve to stick it out forever. Since only they can precipitate death, which is akin to murder or suicide, it would never come by itself to part them.

Sure, Dr Ndii does not compare Kenya to a healthy marriage, but rather to an abusive one. However, the permanence of a marriage does not depend on whether it is healthy or abusive, but rather on the fact that is a marriage. It is precisely this latter idea that breaks the analogy Dr Ndii uses marriage for. A state cannot be compared to marriage in this respect.

It may also be argued that analogies do not need to strictly correspond to the realities they are used to describe. This I grant, for I too often make use of analogies, perhaps more than a man should in a lifetime, and I am aware of this fact.

But in using an analogy, I submit that one ought not to think only of the reality he seeks to describe with the analogy, but rather also of the reality from which the analogy is derived. One should not only endeavour to aptly capture the former, but also to not harm the latter.

By using the analogy of an abusive marriage, Dr Ndii convincingly makes the case for the breakup of a country with institutionalised abuse. But he also inadvertently caricatures marriage. He gives the picture that abuse justifies the ending of marriage, hence attributing to it the feature of impermanence while the spouses live.

It is this matter, as I have said earlier, that I take issue with. In the case of an abusive marriage, it is the abuse that should be ended, not the marriage itself. In the case of a state, either or both can be indifferently ended. Marriage does not admit of intentional termination, even if abuse in it is so much that the spouses have to take some time apart from each other.

Such a parting ought to be for the purpose of the preservation of the marriage, the intention being to eventually reunite rather than to contract a new union or maintain singleness. In the case of a state, such a parting of ways may be intentionally final.

I think Dr Ndii could and should have made use of another analogy. A business contract, for example, may be entered into and sundered in a manner analogous to the constitution and dissolution of states. It would permit Dr Ndii to drive his point without doing harm to an institution as important to the good of mankind as marriage.

Finally, I must state that I understand the deficiency of the worldview that might have allowed Dr Ndii to make use of the analogy, for in modern times few will agree with the position I lay here that marriage is by nature permanent till death.

However, for now I can only say that this is matter for another article, or perhaps many others, for there are already enough words in this one.

Feature image: The Wedding Guys.

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