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Friday, September 01, 2017

Why Kenyans Must Keep Their Feet Firmly On The Ground

Kenyans are given to bouts of euphoria. Once ranked as the most optimistic people in the world, it is a society almost congenitally programmed to look on the bright side of life and to seek out silver linings on even the darkest of clouds. It is famously the land of “Hakuna Matata”, which for anyone who’s watched Disney’s The Lion King can recite, is “a problem-free philosophy”.

Our irrational exuberance is once again bubbling up to surface in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict that annulled President Uhuru Kenyatta’s barely three-week old re-election. In a sense, it is understandable. It has been a tense time, filled with trepidation, after yet another rapturous voting day, invested with all the hope for better days the country could muster. This is despite the knowledge that although the country has held regular elections throughout its 50 years of independence, they have never resulted in truly meaningful, lasting change.

Even the 2002 election – perhaps the most ecstatic of them all, given it was bringing the curtain down on the 24-year despotic and kleptocratic reign of Daniel arap Moi – only inaugurated Mwai Kibaki’s turn to eat. Pretty soon, the Kenyans who had been going around effecting citizen arrests on corrupt cops in the belief all had changed, were treated to a rude shock when reports of grand corruption at the highest level began to surface with increasing regularity. So much so, that the President’s own anti-graft czar had to flee the country. Corrupt ministers are "eating like gluttons" and "vomiting on the shoes" of donors, declared the British High Commissioner, Edward Clay.

Anyway, back to the Supreme Court ruling. Similarly to the 2002 poll, the election that the court has just voided was manifestly full of irregularities. However, 15 years ago it did not much matter. The vote against Moi’s handpicked successor – ironically the current incumbent – was so overwhelming that the regime had little choice other than to concede. In any case, electoral reform at the time had mainly consisted of a “gentleman’s agreement” that allowed the opposition to nominate some of the members of the electoral commission.

The integrity of the process today matters much more than it did a decade and a half ago. Elections are much more closely fought and the electoral infrastructure is much more elaborate. Methods for stealing them have also become more intricate and difficult to detect.

After a dispute over the 2007 presidential election led to violence that killed over 1300 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, a commission led by South African judge Johann Kriegler proposed a raft of reforms to the electoral system, including the electronic transmission of results from polling stations.

Five years later, despite a new constitution, few of those reforms had actually been implemented. During the election, a hastily and dubiously procured system for biometrically identifying voters and electronically transmitting results failed (or was made to fail) across the country. Further, there were allegations that the election had been hacked. If that sounds familiar, it’s because pretty much the same thing happened this year.

However, by the time Kenyans went to the polls nearly a month ago, laws governing the electoral process had been passed and largely clarified by the courts. On voting day, the biometric systems seemed to have worked but not the electronic transmission. As counting proceeded, figures started scrolling across our TV screens courtesy of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) headquarters. Figures seemed to show a constant and consistent lead by President Kenyatta over his closest rival, Raila Odinga. 

The figures, which the IEBC would disown as mere "statistics" when their validity was questioned, were the first sign that something had gone seriously wrong. Thereafter, despite the verdicts of international observers, led by former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, when the IEBC could not produce the scanned forms on which the results were based, it became clear that the election was far from credible.

The appeal to the Supreme Court in 2013 had been dismissed in its entirety, with the court establishing an impossibly high standard of proof which seemed to ensure a presidential election would never be reversed. Four of the six judges who issued the widely-rubbished, unanimous judgment, are still on the court. Perhaps this is why the opposition initially said that although it wasn't accepting the results, it would not be taking its case to the court. Following a change of heart, they did file a petition, which to everyone's surprise, was upheld.

The annulment is a very big deal and definitely worth celebrating. Along with overturning an injustice and reinforcing Kenya’s democratic credentials, by cementing the Supreme Court’s credibility, it has made future 2008-type post-presidential-poll violence much less likely. For once, Kenya the state has stood up for Kenyans, and that is huge. But we should be careful not to get carried away.

First, there were problems with the court declaration itself. One of the allegations that had been put forward by the petitioners was that the incumbent had abused his office by using public resources and officials to campaign. The judges seemed to gloss over this when they found no evidence of wrongdoing despite glaring proof.

Further, the pronouncements of Kenya’s accession to the league of mature democracies were not only premature when the now disgraced Chair of the IEBC made them as he declared Kenyatta the president-elect; they are premature today. The judgement is a giant leap forward but one decision does not a democracy make. It just creates possibilities for a better, more accountable electoral system. However, Kenyans have a tendency to want to persist in these giddy moments of possibility rather than to do the hard work of translating them into reality.  Sadly, as we have seen with the 2003 election of Kibaki, can, if not seized, also inaugurate a much less desirable state of affairs.
  
Of immediate concern is the potential for a backlash from an Executive stung by what it considers to be a judicial uprising. "If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it," the late authoritarian Cabinet Minister, John Michuki, warned us, after the government raided the country’s second-largest media group in 2006. Kenyans cannot afford to be complacent. President Kenyatta has just been rattled and he is threatening to bite. Already, he has taken to calling the Supreme Court judges "wakora" or bandits and his lawyer has described the ruling as a judicial coup. "[Chief Justice David] Maraga and his thugs have decided to cancel the election. Now I am no longer the president-elect. I am the serving president... Maraga should know that he is now dealing with the serving president," he reportedly threatened on Friday. “We have a problem with our judiciary but regardless we respect [their decision]. But we shall revisit,” he declared ominously a day later.

Whether it’s Kenyatta or Odinga who gets elected in two-months’ time, the independent judiciary will probably itself be the target of an Executive branch used to getting its way. However, with his Jubilee party in control of both houses of Parliament, Kenyatta will pose a particularly grave threat. History has taught us that great gains can be quickly reversed. Kenya still has a long way to go before it can get rid of its entrenched culture of impunity and become a society that truly caters for the needs of all its people, not the desires of a few at the very top.

Finally, another election has to be held within two months. Kenya is only the third country in the world, after the Ukraine and Austria, to have the courts annul a presidential election. In the other two repeat elections, the incumbent won. Now, that itself is not a problem. The Supreme Court has rightly said, who wins matters less than how that win is secured. There is little time to make significant changes to the electoral infrastructure which means there are few guarantees that the same illegalities and irregularities that led to the annulment won't crop up again. Ensuring that Kenya does not end up where it started will require vigilance from all players, including any egg-faced internationals returning to observe and report on the election. The media should set up independent tallying centres and be prepared to call the election, rather than simply regurgitate the numbers and "statistics" coming from the IEBC.

Kenya is not out of the woods yet. The passions and terror that have been on display over the last few months have not gone away. They continue to simmer away just below the surface. While the Supreme Court has reduced the risk of a violent explosion, it has not completely eliminated it. That can only be accomplished through honestly addressing the the problems of our past and finishing the task of implementing the constitution. 

The judgement shows what that constitution makes possible but it would be grossly unfair to heap the burden of actuating it on the shoulders of seven judges. Kenyans must demand that the other independent state agencies, from the National Police Service to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, start to behave and conduct themselves in the manner envisaged by the constitution, not as lackeys of the Executive. Kenyans must realize that the people are the ultimate custodians of the supreme law and even as they celebrate, they should be rolling up their sleeves.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why Kenyan Supreme Court Judges Should Avoid Sausages

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” is a quip regularly and mistakenly attributed to Otto von Bismarck, the famous Prussian statesman and architect of German unification. However, the Iron Chancellor, who died in 1898, was not associated with the quote until the 1930s. In fact it was the American lawyer-poet, John Godfrey Saxe, otherwise famous for publicizing the ancient Indian parable about Blind Men of Hindustan and The Elephant, who more inelegantly said: "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."

As I write this, oral judgements have been completed at the Supreme Court hearing of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka’s petition against the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta. It has been 4 days of riveting presentation, argument and often, comedy, as one side prosecuted its case and the other tried to rubbish it. The main bone of contention appears to be about means and ends: whether the way the election was carried out matters or we should only concern ourselves with whether the results declared matched how the electors had voted.

In a sense, it could be said that President Kenyatta and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) appear to prefer the Bismarckian formulation that it is better to focus on the final product and not peer too closely at the inner workings of the electoral system. After all, they argue, the whole point of an election is to express the sovereign will of the voters. So, a simple check of the forms prepared at the polling stations (where all the voting and counting happened) should suffice.

The petitioners on the other hand, are more in line with Saxe. They say that the more we actually learn about how the election was run, the less reason we will have to respect the result. They point out numerous irregularities and outright illegalities in the conduct of the poll which they hold undermine any confidence, not only in the veracity of the announced result, but also in the authenticity of whatever documents the IEBC might produce to support it.

I have been somewhat mystified by the way in which these arguments were framed. Throughout, voters have been portrayed as passive actors upon whom elections are visited. The lawyers in the room, including the Attorney-General, behaved very like the blind men of Hindustan trying to define the elephant that is the people’s sovereignty. There seemed little recognition that sovereignty does not start and end with the casting of ballots and determining of who becomes President. Citizens do not become sovereign when they transmogrify into voters. They are always sovereign in a democracy.

Further, as I have written before, voting in an election is not – as one of the lawyers unfortunately declared – the foundation of democracy. How much ordinary citizens can contribute to everyday political decision-making and their ability to hold public officials to account are the true measures of democracy. Thus, if elections are about the sovereignty of the voter, as another averred, then constitutions are about the citizen. And the entire corpus of law, the foundation of which should be the constitution and citizen participation in governance, is an exercise in sovereignty.

Protecting the expression of sovereignty therefore entails more than singularly ensuring the correct result was announced. It also means ensuring that the process prescribed by the law was adhered to. It is not a choice between respecting one or the other.

Now, after dominating TV screens for nearly a week, the process of adjudicating the petition moves into the shadows as the judges retire to consider their verdict. Four years ago, after a similar week of TV drama, they reappeared with a sausage of a judgement, with only a short summary of the decisions delivered in open court but eventually revealed to consist of a messy and unhealthy cocktail of poorly-reasoned arguments.

It is proper that the judges should concern themselves with burdens and standards of proof and with the attendant requirements of who should prove what to which degree of satisfaction. In exercising its delegated sovereignty, the court is subject to the constraints of evidence. What is true and what can be proven not necessarily being the same thing, courts only concern themselves with the latter.

The upshot of this is that the court cannot tell us whether the election was stolen, just whether Raila and Kalonzo can prove it. That means, regardless of what the courts rule, it will still be up to each citizen to decide for himself or herself whether they believe the election was credible and whether the IEBC and other arms of government have properly carried out the mandates given to them.


Still, this does not mean the Supreme Court’s judgement is irrelevant or unimportant. It will decide the legal validity, if not exactly the legitimacy, of the poll and the government it births. It is hoped that the judges will each prepare individual judgements, clearly detailing the reasons for the conclusions they have come to and that each will get to read his or her judgement in open court. The truth is, elections and court judgments should be nothing like sausages. The more one knows how they were made, the more they should command respect and be savored.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Marital State: Why Divorce Won't Solve Kenya's Problems

David Ndii is at it again. In the aftermath of the election, he has revived talk of his incendiary proposal for divorce. Basically, he postulates that Kenyan ethnic communities are in “an abusive marriage” and if they cannot come to an accommodation, they need to consider going their separate ways. Despite being one of Kenya’s foremost public intellectuals, he is demonized by many in the ruling establishment and among their rabid supporters.
Although the proposal far preceded the elections, Ndii’s most recent comments were made and will be understood in the context of the election and especially the contested presidential poll, which is now the subject of a Supreme Court petition. The root of his argument is the perceived domination of Kenyan political life, and the opportunity to “eat” the national cake, by a few large tribes.
The current focus of the griping is the Kikuyu-Kalenjin axis inaugurated by the alliance of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto. But the narratives of domination, by either a single community or an alliance of a few of them, and resistance to it are as old as the country itself.
The logic of oppression and extraction was built into the state by our founding fathers, the British colonialists. They created a structure of government that was meant to entrench their lordship over all they surveyed and to facilitate extraction from natives.
Local communities didn’t take too kindly to this and eventually ganged up to demand their independence. However, their inheritance from the departing and receding British was the colonial state, which they failed to fundamentally reform and instead fell into squabbling over who would control it. And always, behind this, was fear of domination, which is really fear of the state.
In the run up to Independence, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party was created, almost overnight, as the vehicle for what was largely seen as a Kikuyu-Luo alliance to take over the state. It was immediately opposed by the rest of the “small” tribes who majorly ganged up under the auspices of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU).
The deck was shuffled again after KADU was swallowed up by KANU and the Luo jettisoned soon after. Though Daniel arap Moi, with his Kalenjin bloc, was nominally the number two in the party and in government, it was clear that for all intents and purposes the state now belonged to the Kikuyu elite. This was to continue until shortly after the death of Jomo Kenyatta. Now it was the turn for the Kikuyu elite to be tossed out into the cold where they joined their Luo counterparts to oppose the Kalenjin (Moi’s) state.
This alliance eventually forced Moi’s retirement and the re-enactment of history as the Luo were once again double-crossed – this time by President Mwai Kibaki – and kicked out of what again became the Kikuyu state. The violence that followed the 2007 election gave rise to the first all-inclusive government where elites from all communities got in on the feeding frenzy. The 2013 elections again saw the Luo shut out by the current Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance. A partnership that is perhaps slightly more equitable than the version between the current President’s father and Moi.
What I’ve detailed above is a very simplified and simplistic model of Kenya’s history. However, it has the distinct advantage of helping us appreciate a fundamentally important fact that explains why Kenya is where it is today and why we go round in circles. The problem that we have been skirting for all these years is the state itself as a tool for domination rather than an expression of the people’s aspirations. We are fighting over who becomes the next oppressor, rather than trying to uproot oppression.
Which brings me back to Ndii’s argument. Last year, in response to his abusive marriage thesis, I wrote that Kenyans are actually in an abusive relationship with their elites, rather than with other tribes. The extraction that the state facilitates, and that is the real prize the elites are battling over, is from all Kenyans regardless of ethnicity – we all pay whoever gets to be the piper, some more than others, but that doesn’t mean we get to call the tune or avoid the rats.
In fact, the whole talk of ethnic domination is a device to hide state domination by the elite of all tribes, which has led to a situation where 8,000 individuals own 62% of everything. Dismembering the country will not fix this.
Clearly, as Ndii holds, there is in principle no reason why a discussion on secession or mutual separation cannot or should not happen. We should not fetishize Kenya since, as we have seen, it was not created for our benefit but rather as a tool for robbery. Think of that next time you feel compelled to sing its songs, salute its flag or declare its eternity. For most of the country’s existence, it has been little more than a mostly illegitimate political and administrative arrangement that we have been struggling to master. The 2010 constitution gave us a chance to begin to get to grips with that challenge and provides an agreed upon vision of how it can be made to work for us.
Part of that vision is decentralization as a cure to the overbearing central state. Since before independence, majimboism or its current iteration -devolution- has been at the crux of the struggle between those who were seen as domineering and the rest. It was one of the major issues that divided KADU and KANU. Although a pillar of the Independence constitution, which created 7 regional governments and assemblies, it was undone by KANU in the 60s which, among other things, simply starved the regional governments of revenue.
Today, devolution remains at risk. The fact that the vast bulk of the tax money is controlled and retained in Nairobi, where the elite congregates, rather than disbursed in the counties where the people are dispersed is in itself telling. There is a deep need to ponder the continuing centrality of the national Presidency in our politics (it was, after all, largely modelled on the colonial Governor-General) and the fact that it remains a potent symbol, not of unity as envisaged in the constitution, but of domination.
Simply put, the work of implementing the constitution is not done. It has only begun but the night is here and it is full of terrors. Only by doing the hard work of facing up to our history and rebuilding the state from the bottom up, not as a tool of oppression, but as a means to enable popular aspirations, can we hope to extricate ourselves of the vicious cycle.
We therefore must, as Ndii says, not shy away from scary discussions about the means we use to compel those in power to abide by the constitution, or even the possibility of separation if that fails. But we also must not be seduced by the easy, tribe-based formulations he offers, that only serve to mask the real nature of our state. However, the only way to truly appreciate what Ndii gets wrong, is to seriously engage with what he gets right.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Betrayal in the Kenyan Media

In Francis Imbuga’s 1976 play, Betrayal in the City, the Kenyan playwright and literature scholar describes life in the fictitious, dystopian, post-colonial state of Kafira. One of the characters, a university don jailed for speaking his mind: "We have killed our past and are busy killing our future".
As I write this, Kenya is busy killing its future. Once again, a disputed presidential election has put the country on edge. After a week of building tension and deserted streets and people stocking up on food, and water, protests have erupted in parts of Nairobi, sparked by the declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as winner. Gunshots and police choppers are being heard in Kibera, one of the capital’s largest slums and a bastion of support for his bitter rival, Raila Odinga, who claims he election has been stolen.
Many had already fled their homes in expectation of violence and in the capital city, Nairobi, many have not gone back to work since voting on Tuesday, leaving its normally bustling and noisy Central Business District feeling like a ghost town.
Small protests had been breaking out in several parts of the capital and in other urban centres, throughout the week, which had led to clashes with police and, regrettably, at least 5 deaths so far. Given the ongoing unrest, that figure is set to rise even further.
However, you wouldn’t know this watching most of Kenyan media -considered by some as one of the most vibrant on the continent. TV screens are full of pictures of celebrating Kenyatta supporters and political pundits analyzing the election outcome. Kenyans are having to turn to international media and to friends and family to get a sense of what is happening.
Throughout the week, while dutifully covering the complaints of election hacking and rigging raised by Odinga, as well as the responses from the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the media was in the main determined to avoid any mention of trouble. Instead, it has opted to regale the country with colorful stories of the Githeri Man, Kenya's new internet sensation.
On social media, the usually irrepressible collective that calls itself Kenyans On Twitter (#KOT) is similarly subdued. As they have been doing the whole week, gangs of twitterbots are trolling the online streets looking for any reports of protests, branding them either “fake news” or evidence of a nefarious plot by foreign correspondents to incite violence for the sake of boosting their career prospects or securing book deals. There have even been reports of police preventing journalists from covering the demonstrations, confiscating equipment and deleting footage and even threatening to shoot them.
Much of this is reminiscent of what happened in the 2013 election. Four years ago, as the country again hang on tenterhooks as politicians bickered over another presidential election, I wrote of a compact that had developed between the media and the public: “Kenya would have a credible election, no matter what.” Back then, it was thought that the way to avoid the sort of violence that had nearly torn the country apart in 2007, on the back of yet another disputed presidential election (hope you are noticing a trend here), was to not ask uncomfortable questions about it.
Today, the reasons for silence are considerably more sinister. In the run up to the election, there was great public resistance to “preaching peace” as a means of pre-empting violent protests in the event the election was disputed. So out went “peace journalism”. But in place of a compact with the people based on the mutual fear of anarchy, the media appears to have made a deal with the government based on a mutual interest in plundering the public.
By law, the government is forbidden from advertising its achievements in any media during the election period. However, this did not stop the Kenyan media houses pocketing millions in the weeks before the election for broadcasting blatantly illegal advertisements from the President’s Delivery Unit, some of which even bore the tagline “Jubilee Delivers” and “Uhuru 2017” (Jubilee is the political party of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking re-election).
In return, it seems the media has sold its soul. The first sign came very soon after the closing of the polls when one TV channel, KTN NEWS, gave the results of what it called an exit poll. The curious thing about that poll was it does not seem to have asked the voters how they voted, which one would assume is the point of an exit poll.
But worse was to come. Going to bed with government seems to have led to a wholesale abandonment of their journalistic duty to independently verify the results of the election announced by the IEBC. A Court of Appeal decision in June had made it clear that results of the presidential election declared at polling stations and constituency tallying centres were final and could not be altered by IEBC mandarins at the national tallying center in Nairobi. That opened the door for the media to run independent tallies and, despite largely empty government threats of having their licenses cancelled, even call the election. And indeed, many already had this capacity. In January, Samuel Macharia, the owner of Kenya’s largest TV and radio network, Royal Media Services, told the Senate that his network had independently tracked records at every presidential election since 1992.
Yet, it appears that this did not happen. Today, all the press is crowded at the national tallying centre at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi, hanging on every word that issues from the IEBC. They have been content to run its unofficial tallies rather than get the official counts and tallies from the lower levels. And worst of all, as the politicians and IEBC officials haggle in Nairobi over which numbers are correct, the media is happy to play along rather than spare us the drama by simply heading down to the 40,000 polling stations where, even now, the official and final results are posted outside for all to see.
Rather than preaching peace, the Kenyan media has been earning its 30 pieces of silver by ignoring and editing out citizen frustrations in order to maintain a façade of normality. But there’s nothing normal about this silencing, the delegitimization of those, however many or few they may be, who feel the need to express their discontent through peaceful marches, or by ignoring of those who have died at the hands of the police.
Imbuga’s play has an ignominious character who uses his closeness to the supreme leader to secure corrupt advantages and to sell out his countrymates. At the end of the play, Mulili’s duplicity is laid bare and he is executed, signifying the passing of the oppressive order and the birth of new hope. Similarly, Kenya’s media needs to get out of Kenyans’ way so they can get down to the business of saving their future.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Kenyans Are Deathly Afraid Of Presidential Elections

Another election. Another failure of systems. Another dispute, another anxiety laden wait. Another bout of violence. The routine has become depressingly familiar. Over the past week, Kenya has been at a standstill, holding her breath as votes were counted, announcements made and politicians bickered over the results, praying these would not summon the spectre of 2008.
Kenyan presidential elections have always been contentious - a legacy of our history dictatorship. Within a decade of independence from Britain in 1963, the country had been transformed into a de facto one party and as long as the centre was not challenged, other aspects of a competitive, democratic system were allowed to function.
This meant that for the first 30 years, while parliamentary races were fiercely competitive -with more than half of incumbent Members of Parliament regularly thrown out- at the presidential level, they remained a placid affair. Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, as heads of the party were “re-elected” unopposed at every turn.
A year to the 1992 elections, however, everything changed. Following a sustained two-year campaign of protests and international pressure, Moi was forced to reverse a decade-old change to the constitution which had formally banned political parties other than his own. This led to the first ever competitive race for President, which set the tone for all presidential contests to come -it was marred by large-scale, ethnic-based, violence, irregularity and outright theft.
The 1992 polls were preceded by government-instigated “tribal clashes”, in which 5,000 people were killed and another 75,000 displaced in the expansive Rift Valley. Just months before the 1997 elections, politically instigated violence killed over 100 people and displaced an estimated 100,000. While both 2002 and 2013 election campaigns were marked by several incidents of violence, with no incumbents running, the violence was somewhat limited.
At first glance, the violence of 2007/8 seems to sit pretty well within this picture. But, on closer inspection, there are fundamental differences. All previous large scale electoral violence was instigated controlled and perpetrated either by the government or with its acquiescence. The 2008 violence was the first time Kenyans confronted the prospect of a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, with the opposition also able to mount significant violence.
Kenya’s electoral violence had previously been controlled and limited in geography and scope. Though the 2007/8 was not the worst the country had suffered, it provided a glimpse of a possible and very scary future, where the threat of violence did not stem primarily from the state, but from one’s neighbours and friends.
Kenya has always been a violent country, one silently at war with itself. The colonial state is at the center of that conflict. The various communities and fractions of communities that make up the nation are constantly fighting to control the state which ironically was created to facilitate others preying on them. At independence, rather than reform it, the clique that inherited it, which includes both Uhuru’s and Raila’s fathers used it to enrich themselves and their friends and relatives at the expense of the rest of society.
Throughout it all, as Matt Carotenuto writes, the state has learned to weaponize the language of “peace” to avoid scrutiny of its actions and a discussion of the past. “From the days of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime to the Presidency of his son Uhuru, Kenya’s five decades of independence have been marked by wide ranging uses of “peace” to silence more messy notions of reconciliation and political change.”
As Kenyans settle down to the daily grind, there is a danger that they will once again be urged to as Kenyatta put it in 2002 “forget the past, however bitter we may be, and forge a common front to be able to overcome our emotions”. But that would be a mistake because, if there are any lessons to be learnt from Kenya’s history, it is that a true “common front” will not be forged through “forgetting he past” but by facing and dealing with it.
Kenya is thus has a choice. The country can either try to recreate the brutality that its colonial state wielded previously and attempt to force the genie back into the bottle, or it could actually attempt to confront and deal with its traumatic past and to begin to create a state that works for all.  Kenyatta appears to have settled for the former, judging by the viciousness with which post-election riots have been put down – at least 24 people have been shot dead and many more, including a six-month old baby, badly beaten.
What prevails in Kenya now, what has always prevailed, is not peace but rather, an uneasy calm -a ceasefire of sorts. But it won’t last, nor be translated into a deeper peace unless the country has the courage to fix its frayed national fabric.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Game of Thrones - Kenya Edition

I am a big fan of Game of Thrones, the American fantasy drama television series centering on the struggle by various political dynasties to succeed to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms in the fictional land of Westeros. Now in its seventh season, the various plot twists and turns, the rise and fall of the fortunes of characters keeps me glued to the TV whenever it’s on. Missing any of the weekly episodes, or even having to wait months for the next season to start is an anathema.
In a way, my angst is reflected in the reactions this week to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to skip the Presidential Debates. Politics is Kenya’s version of Westeros, complete with skullduggery, moral nudity, incestuous liaisons and, of course, a throne all covet, fear or manipulate.  We revel in the gladiatorial contests for power between scions of political dynasties, in the intrigues and betrayals, in the gore and mayhem. As I have written before, and as was reiterated by Dr Wandia Njoya and Dr Peter Kagwanja in this week’s edition of the Cheche show on Citizen TV, our politics is a show put on by politicians that has little to do with addressing the everyday struggles of ordinary folks. In fact, it is meant to distract attention from those very problems.
There is an implicit compact. We will be content to ignore the fundamental questions and issues facing our polity so long as our politicians do the dance. The rhetorical contests of election campaigns, manifestos and TV debates are the stuff of this performance which plays out on our TV screens and on political dais across the nation. It is this compact that President Kenyatta violated.
What was promised was a no-holds barred, blood-on-the-floor cage match with the media providing the stage and acting as both promoter and referee. After weeks of priming and waiting, we had taken our ringside seats, enjoyed the curtain raisers in the form of the debate between the three of the other six candidates and were waiting for the headline event which was to pit the President against his main challenger, Raila Odinga. Thus the disappointment and anger was palpable, even within supporters of his Jubilee Party, when the reigning champion failed to turn up.
What we instead got was a tepid performance of shadow boxing, where Raila, alone on stage, ducked, weaved and parried the moderator’s poor attempts to pin him down. In the end, we learnt little that was of value, that we didn’t already know. But that is not why we were there. Few in the audience were particularly interested in the intricacies of policy and in understanding how NASA or Jubilee would pay for the fantastical promises of brand-new stadia, roads and free everything. We wanted blood and gore and broken teeth and spilled guts.
This is show we had paid for with our stolen taxes and our enduring poverty and oppression. It is what we had sacrificed our pensions, health and children’s futures for. And we’d been had. We were left feeling short-changed and vented our rage in bars, meeting places, TV screens and on social media, always careful to couch it in the acceptable language of accountability.
We have, we will keep saying disingenuously, been denied the opportunity to question our leaders, to hold them to account, to understand the issues on which the election campaigns are supposedly being waged. But this is not true and we know it. The manifestos are online if we want to interrogate them. Nothing stops us debating the issues and demanding that the media reflect them in the questions they pose to candidates and politicians and not be fobbed off with non-answers. As Dr Kagwanja asked, "What are Kenyans lacking?" The truth is we had been denied a show, a performance.
What we should ponder is less whether the President should have turned up and more why we engage in this charade. Politics and political debates should be about much more than entertainment and should definitely be about finding real solutions to our very real problems. Not a distraction from them. We already have Game of Thrones for that.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why Kenyans Must Learn How To Talk About Elections And Violence

Last week, I wrote about our propensity as Kenyans to bury our heads in the sand when confronted with ugly realities. Many have thus continued to either defend or condemn David Ndii for his prediction that Kenya would burn if President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in a sham election but there has, sadly, been relatively little discussion of how the “burning” can be avoided.

If we were to lift up our heads, we would see that the situation may be dire, but, regardless of the election, violence, though entirely predictable, is nonetheless not inevitable.  We still have choices we can make.

Part of the dilemma is that we seem to have painted ourselves into a lexical corner. Today, the public discourse appears to conflate calls for non-violence with acquiescing to electoral disenfranchisement by the Uhuru regime on the one hand; and to see demands for a free and fair election as coded calls for Raila Odinga be installed as President, on the other. Simply put, we do not know how to talk about credible elections and non-violence.

For much of our independent history, we were described as "an island of peace in the sea of chaos" and that "peace" was undergirded by our silence over the ruling elites malfeasance including the manipulation of elections and especially, presidential elections. In 2008, the rallying call, as the country burned, was "no peace without justice".  By 2013, the pendulum had swung back to "peace"as we were asked to "accept and move on" and not ask too many difficult questions about the obvious failures that permeated the entire electoral system.

The pendulum is once again in motion. This was evident in the online reaction to the sentiments of yet another public figure, this time from the Jubilee neck of the woods. The melodramatics of her video and tenuous grasp of South African history aside, Julie Gichuru had made some valid points on Twitter about the merits of committing to non-violence and got pummeled for it. Partly, I suppose, this was a reaction to her as opposed to her message. She, after all, was one of the stalwarts of the 2013 “accept and move on” brigade and perhaps this was seen as a continuation of that campaign.

Yet, as she correctly says in one tweet, “This is not Justice v Peace. Seek justice through non violent means.” And in another, “It is key to reject the normalisation of violence to achieve ends. NonViolentAction is harder but protects the most vulnerable. It is just.”

And, it seems, it is not only Kenyans who are struggling with this. A report in the Daily Nation quotes former US Ambassador to Kenya, saying that though the Donald Trump administration wants to help prevent a repeat of the 2007-2008 election violence, it is not clear if they are “willing to do that at the expense of sanctifying what could be a seriously fraudulent election.”

However, it is possible to stop the pendulum, to preach non-violence while at the same time refusing to legitimize an illegitimate election. Despite the abandon with which some talk of the country burning, I doubt many Kenyans on either side of the political divide who lived through the violence of 2008, are anxious for a repeat. Even those, like me, who believed (and still believe) that Mwai Kibaki stole the election, did not consider that a justification for the violence that followed. In fact, up till the unfortunate politicizing of the cases at the International Criminal Court, there was massive support among ordinary Kenyans on the need to bring those responsible to book.

Ironically, we all seemingly want to avoid a 2008-style conflagration but appear to think we do that by avoiding a discussion about it. Yet it is crucial that we engage in a serious discussion about how we respond to the actions of the political class and of the government they control, especially in the case of a disputed poll. I propose three NOs: NO acceptance, NO violence, NO forgetting.

First, I am encouraged that many are explicitly rejecting the “accept and move on” message that permeated the 2013 election, which encouraged people to silence their doubts about the election for the sake of “peace”. A non-credible poll is what threatens the peace, not the querying of it. So there must be no acceptance of a fraudulent election. The insistence must be on the IEBC delivering the free, fair and credible election it is required to by the constitution. Kenyans must not be scared off making such demands by the fearmongering of those who assert that the August 8 date is set in stone. The country still has the options it did in the last election (remember, the election was held in March, not August) and better to delay the election if necessary, than to conduct a sham one on time.

Secondly, in the not unlikely case of a disputed poll, there must also be also commitment, by those who feel aggrieved, to exclusively non-violent means of resistance and to avoiding a repeat of the scenes of 2008. Concurrently, the government must also undertake to respect the rights of all Kenyans to peacefully express any dissatisfaction they may have with the conduct of the election, as it is required to do by the constitution. We must not forget that the government has historically demonstrated little tolerance for peaceful citizen action. There must be no blanket bans on public demonstrations or their violent disruption as has happened after nearly every election. There must be no resort to tear gas, water cannon, truncheons and bullets to meet peaceful protests.

Finally, there must be commitment to exorcise the ghosts of the past. Regardless of the outcome of the election and whether that outcome is disputed, there is to be no return to business-as-usual. Kenyans must collectively demand that the TJRC report is implemented and that we finally have the long overdue and uncomfortable conversations with the past that we have been avoiding for the last half century.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Kenya: There Is No Peace. There Will Be No Peace.

Let's get one thing straight. Whatever happens on or after August 8, Kenya will not have peace.

Regardless of whether either it is Uhuru Kenyatta or his main rival, Raila Odinga, who is declared the winner of the presidential election; whether the election is stolen or is free, fair and credible; whether people stay in the streets or go out to protest the result; the country will not know peace. We will not have peace because we have not earned it, because we do not deserve it.

"Peace is not simply about the absence of violence. It is defined by the presence of fundamental liberties and the prevalence of economic opportunities. We will not settle for a perfunctory peace that is disrupted every five years by an election cycle." So declared President Kenyatta in his inaugural address four years ago following yet another divisive election. Yet, as the all-pervasive fear shrouding us today reveals, we did settle for "a perfunctory peace" which is no peace at all.

We have done none of the hard work required for peace. We have not secured the fundamental liberties or economic opportunities that he spoke of. We have rather been only too willing to trade those freedoms in for an elusive safety from terrorists. We have been only too content to celebrate economic growth that does not produce jobs or create wealth except for a very few at the very top. We have refused to demand accountability for the many times our military and civilian security bosses have failed Kenyans in places like Westgate, Mpeketoni, Garissa, Mandera, El Adde, Kulbiyow and most recently, Pandanguo.

More importantly, we have failed to that which the President was careful not to mention: deal with the ghosts of our past. Over the last four years, we have been content to let the sleeping ogres lie. The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission has been allowed to gather dust in Parliament, the interrogation of the last hundred years of Kenyan history it was meant to spark, smothered. We have been afraid to clean our wounds, to take the bitter medicine, instead allowing them to fester and the infection to spread.

So today we will pray for peace but peace will no come. We will feverishly pray for healing for our diseased body politic, but healing will not come. The best we can hope for is "the absence of violence" and the extension of the fragile ceasefire.

Therefore, the current debate over whether we should prefer peace to the injustice of a sham election is somewhat misplaced -peace is not on the table. This is not to say the election is inconsequential. For many ordinary Kenyans, disputed elections imperil and already imperiled existence. Kenya is an incredibly violent place at the best of times. Wananchi have to endure the violence of poverty; of hunger; of state incompetence and oppression and murder and disappearing; of terrorism. The added violence elections bring exponentially increases their hardships and suffering while only slightly inconveniencing those in whose names the fighting is done. So, yes let' demand a credible election. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that this will preserve peace.

There is no peace to preserve. There is not even "absence of violence" for most. Let's not talk about peace unless we really mean it. Not unless we are serious about addressing, not just the potential injustice of a rigged poll, but all the injustices of the past whose bitter and painful consequences Kenyans are forced to live with every day. Let's not talk about peace unless we are ready to confront the injustice of inequality, of poverty, of hunger, of dependence on handouts, of the deprivation of rights, of the institutionalizing of ignorance through the public education system.

No, my friends. Let's not talk of peace. Let's say what we really mean. We want calm. We want life to go on pretty much as it has over the last four years and over the half-century before that. And that is not peace. This election cannot bring peace. Only our commitment to working hard every day, election or no, to confront and undo injustice, and to demand accountability, can. And there is precious little evidence of that.

So don't tell me about peace. There is no peace. There will be no peace.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Evil That Kenyans Will Not Name

Dr David Ndii is once again at the center of a public storm. On Sunday, the renowned and outspoken economist  tweeted a quote from his controversial March 2016 article titled Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talk divorce. In the piece, he correctly observes that every election in the multiparty era in which an incumbent President is defending his seat has been violent. He then warns that “if Uhuru Kenyatta is declared winner in another sham election, this country will burn”.
It this quote that has caused an uproar this week, just as it did 16 months ago. Many appear to have taken it as evidence of Dr Ndii, and by extension the National Super Alliance (NASA) -one of the political outfits contesting in the coming elections and where he has a policy advisory role-, calling for violence in the event of a disputed election.

However, as even a cursory reading of the full article would show, Dr Ndii was just articulating the likely consequence of a sham poll, one which most Kenyans, were they to be honest, would admit was more than a distinct possibility. Further, a multi-agency government security team in Nairobi has already identified most informal settlements as potential violence “hot spots”, and both the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and an observer team from the European Union have similarly warned of the possibility of violence. In fact, the visceral reaction to Dr Ndii’s quote says more about Kenyan’s propensity to bury our heads when confronted with uncomfortable realities.

Four years ago, in the aftermath of the 2013 election, I wrote about the “peace lobotomy”, the fear that had engulfed the country leading to a reluctance to question the shortcomings of that poll. At the time, just five years after the traumatic post-election violence of 2008, the possibility of violence seemed so very real and we had been inundated with calls to keep the peace and accept the results in order to avoid it. Yet, as I observed then, “the terror and the frantic attempts to mask it were a terrible indictment… [I]f we continue to lack the courage to exhume the bodies and clean out the foundations of our nationhood, we shouldn’t be surprised if in 2017 we are still terrified of the monsters under the house.”

Well, 2017 is here and once again many are afraid. Across the nation, as Dauti Kahura reports in The Elephant, people are quietly moving their families out of what they perceive risky areas and into ethnic enclaves where they feel safer. Others plan to vote then retreat to “ancestral homelands” and flights out of the country around election time are reportedly fully booked. Yet publicly, we carry on as if all is normal and no one expects any violence.

Today, just as in 2013, talk of violence is itself taboo. But, strangely enough, so is talk of peace. Most media houses have disavowed the “peace journalism” they practiced and were widely condemned for four years ago. “This time I will not preach peace”, veteran journalist and political commentator, Macharia Gaitho, declared on NTV’s Press Pass show. He writes in his column that “peace does not come from songs and processions and media campaigns. Peace does not exist in a vacuum. It comes from consciously addressing the violent environment.”

But therein lies the problem. How can we “consciously address a violent environment” that we are unwilling and afraid to consciously acknowledge?

“Fear can make people do strange things,” I wrote in 2013. And we are still doing strange things. Instead of dealing with the root cause of our terror -the divisions sown by the humiliation, dispossession, violence and trauma of the last 100 years- we have sought to bury it and to build our nation on top of it. But the ghosts of the past cannot be so easily ignored.

We are due for another haunting. And our terror is showing. The fervent hope that the spectres will not rise if only we do not speak their name is as desperate as it is forlorn. And they will not rest until we summon up the courage to face them and to dialogue with them.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Why Kenyans Are Sick Of Voting

Kenya is today truly in the grip of election fever. Political temperatures are rising, the economy is feeling lethargic, shenanigans at the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission are causing severe headaches and hateful political speeches are inducing nausea.

Why do we endure this? Every five years, we are harangued into registering for the vote and into casting our ballots on voting day. Many commentators go so far as to declare your vote to be your voice and that a failure to vote is an abdication of the right to complain about government policy. In fact, President Kenyatta was, earlier in his term, fond of telling opposition supporters to stop complaining about his government and to wait for elections where they could do something about it. 

“You had your chance to lead. Now it’s our turn,” his deputy, William Ruto, said in response to sustained criticism from opposition leader, Raila Odinga. “Let us do our jobs. Help us, but give us room to do what we were elected to do. In a few years there’ll be another election.” In this formulation, there is the idea that in order to “do what it was elected to do” the government must be spared criticism.

It is all hogwash. Voting is just one of the many mechanisms democracy should afford the people to partake in governance. In fact, it is not the casting of a ballot once every five years that is the crucial characteristic of democracy; many authoritarian systems feature elections. Rather, it is popular participation in everyday governance -in enforcing accountability and influencing the decisions government makes in between elections- that marks a system out as a democracy.

Elections only gain life and death importance when all other paths to accountability and participation are blocked. And given the way their rules have been fixed, electoral contests have become more about legitimizing elite ambitions rather than solving the people’s problems. The manifestos that have been unveiled this week illustrate this, focused as they are on highfalutin visions rather than fixing mundane, everyday problems.

This sets us up for a horrible cycle. Because there is no accountability and minimal participation of the voting public in governance after the election, politicians will promise anything knowing they do not need to deliver it. Voters, also knowing this, will prioritize what they can get during campaigns since there is no way of guaranteeing that you will get anything after. Thus voter bribery and improbable manifesto promises.

It also incentivizes corruption. Literally. Kenyan elections have become the most expensive in he world, judged on an expenditure-per-voter basis, largely because they are avenues of extraction by a thuggish elite. 

For the candidates, there are incentives to spend huge amounts of money getting elected because it opens the gates to a world of looting and self-enrichment through corrupt contracting. And the more one can steal, the more largess one has to bribe the public at the next election, and so on.


Regardless of the nature of the system, there is little recognition of the fact that not voting remains a legitimate choice. One may either not wish to legitimize the outcome of an obviously flawed process or may prefer to participate in other ways. Just as voting should not be construed as the end of democratic participation, not voting should not be seen as surrendering all rights to other forms of democratic participation including complaining about the way leaders elected by others govern.

Contrary to the prevailing notions, Kenyan history shows us that change does not come via the vote. It was not standing in line that forced the dictatorial regime of Daniel Arap Moi to loosen the reins on society. Rather, it was demands for accountability by the masses using other equally legitimate avenues of democratic participation such as the street, organized civil society and the media that ended the single-party state, reformed the electoral system and paved the way to regime change. 

Those old enough will recall that in the euphoria following the election of Mwai Kibaki, the church, media and civil society eased the pressure for reform thinking we now had allies in power. In short order, many of the bad habits of the Nyayo era resurfaced. We quickly went from citizens arresting policemen in the streets for demanding bribes to Kibaki sending the GSU into Bomas to stop the constitutional reform talks and to a proliferation of corruption scandals. The important lesson here is not that voting is unimportant, but rather that it is not the only, or even, the most effective form of citizen participation. The election of Kibaki did not bring democracy but rather was a product of the democratic space created by citizens prior to the vote.

Instead of a ballot box fetish, our focus should be on participation in between elections. We should examine the many ways our system makes it difficult for ordinary people to participate in lawmaking or express their opinions and easy for the government to ignore them when they do. We should be concerned when peaceful protesters are beaten down, or online activism is disparaged and when MPs, under the pretense of giving effect to the constitutional right of recall, pass a law that makes it well-nigh impossible for their constituents to recall them.

In what is perhaps the most memorable phrase in his famous address at Gettysburg in the aftermath of the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. A democratic system is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and always keeping government accountable to them.

If this were the case in Kenya, then elections would not make us sick.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

How To Spot Empty Campaign Promises

In the coming days, especially as we approach August, we will be inundated with politicians each seeking our endorsement and more importantly our vote. We will be encouraged, harangued and shamed into exercising our democratic right to wake up incredibly early, endure frustratingly long queues in order to mark a bunch of ballots and toss them into a bin.

But what exactly will we be voting for? What should we be looking for in this campaign period? Ideally it should be a choice between competing ideas about how Kenya should be run. However, our politics has not exactly been a crucible where clear thought is forged and many times it is reduced to something of a piñata breaking challenge as we blindly strike out hoping to break loose some promises of “goodies” to come.

To try and infuse some sanity into this charade, and to separate sophistry from sophistication, here’s a short list of six things we should remember when it comes to whacking that piñata.

Plans trump promises and manifestos are not plans
They are little more than public declarations of policies and aims. A manifesto may say -to pick a completely random example- that a political coalition will deliver laptops to every primary school within 100 days of candidates taking office. This is not a plan. A plan would say how said laptops would be procured, how much they would cost, where the money would come from, etc. Basically, a plan would prove that the candidate and his team have thought through what’s in their manifesto.

There are no silver bullets
Anyone who tells you they will pay for their election promises by stopping corruption or recovering previously stolen loot, and cannot tell you how they will stop said corruption or recover said stolen loot, or even how much they expect to raise by stopping corruption of recovering stolen loot within a specific time frame, does not have a plan. Ditto for tales about paying with money to be raised by  cancelling waivers of coffee debts and other similarly fanciful and vague policy notions. Demand specifics. Take anything they tell you with a healthy pinch of salt.

Integrity is not enough 
Similarly, anyone who tells you to vote for them simply because they have integrity but have no concrete plan for delivering on their visions is hoodwinking you. Integrity is important, but no substitute for thinking. Also remember the lessons of the 2002 election when we voted in the cream of civil society and religious leaders -people with proven records of integrity. It did not take long for them to turn. Integrity does not come with a guarantee.

Everybody has a record we can interrogate
Many Kenyan politicians like to pretend that they represent a clean break for the past. In doing so, they also like to disavow their own past and any responsibility for it. Do not be cheated that just because some candidates have never been MCAs or Senators or Governors or MPs or Presidents, they get a free pass. All their prior actions and statements in previous capacities, whether in public or private spheres, are relevant to assessing their suitability for the offices they are vying for.

The election is not just about what candidates want to do
Elected politicians like to think of themselves as “leaders”, but they are really representatives whose job is not to lord it over you but rather to speak on your behalf. Remember Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who during the French Revolution is said to have declared: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." Elections should be about what you want and what matters to you. So, what issues would you like to see the government address? How do you want your taxes put to work? What do you see as priorities for the next administration? Look for candidates who reflect that and who can give you solid plans not wooly promises.

It does not end on election day
There will be much hype about the need to vote and some will even suggest that if you do not vote, you should not complain. Pay them no heed. Voting is just one, and not even the most important, aspect of participation in a democracy. Elections matter most to politicians since that how they get their jobs and access power. What should matter most to the electorate is what the politicians do with that power in the period in-between elections. Your continued participation after the elections, the ability to hold winners to account as well as contribute to and shape the decisions that affect your life and the lives of your family -this is the stuff of democracy. Not merely standing in line and casting a ballot at election time. So, beware any candidate who has at some point suggested that if you were unhappy with the way office-holders behaved or with the policies they implemented, you must wait for the next elections to do anything about it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why Do Kenyan Politicians Dance?

Over the past few weeks, I've been obsessing with a single question. Why do our politicians dance? At every political function nowadays, it has become customary for them to do a jig before addressing the crowds. Where did that come from? When did it start? And, more importantly, why do they do it?

One thing's for sure. Boogieing politicians are a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that we danced for them. In the days of my youth, no political function would begin before a troupe of "traditional dancers" or some choir had performed for the big men -and they were almost always men. Of course, they would sometimes perfunctorily join in, doing their best to look dignified and restrained as all around them, the people let loose. However, it was always clear who was dancing for whom.

We danced for them.

Dancing for rulers' entertainment has a long and not too proud history around these parts. The colonials, in the era before late night radio jams and funk and discotheques enjoyed a little live performance by the firelight as they downed their evening drink. Further, parading the conquered folks has ancient roots. The Romans would do it at their triumphs. And our parading ourselves to our British conquerors was a demonstration of our subjugation; our "culture", our very lives, beliefs and existence, were now to be for the entertainment of our rulers, exoticised commodities and curiosities they could entice their friends to part with money to experience -and thus the tourism industry was born.

Following the charade that was independence, our newly minted black potentates adopted many of the old habits of the colonial society they had always secretly aspired to join. They moved into the colonial houses and neighbourhoods, became fellow members of their country clubs, took their kids to the same schools, and kept us dancing to the tune of oppression.

Wherever Jomo Kenyatta, and Daniel Arap Moi after him, went, the dancers had to be hastily assembled to offer welcome. The book Kenya: The Politics of Participation and Control
by Henry Bienen speaks of regular reports of Kenyatta regularly receiving traditional dancers at his home. In a system where power was seen as both a source of prestige and patronage, our dancing for our Presidents and politicians marked them as purveyors of such. Just like their regular enthronements (again in the same manner as their colonial forebears) as "elders" of the communities they have brutalized, our dancing was, and continues to be, designed to curry favor.

So we danced for them.

It was not until the late 1990s that the Presidents started to dance for us -in a manner of speaking. At the height of the Nyayo dictatorship, a trio of three brilliantly impudent comedians burst onto the national scene. The climax of Redykyulass' shows, always guaranteed to floor audiences, would depict the then President Moi, a rather sternly conservative old man, breaking into an almost lewd hip-thrusting dance routine -the Ndombolo. It was the first time any of us had seen the President, or in this case a parody of him, truly dance and the effect was electrifying.

As Prof Grace Musila recounts in her essay Violent Masculinities and the Phallocratic Aesthetics of Power in Kenya, "the very thought of the President dancing to Ndombolo was itself a powerful subversion of the carefully choreographed iconography of the dignified "father of the nation" who had hitherto been seen in local currency, on national television making speeches and staring out contemplatively in framed portrait photographs all over the country." Via their dancing, Redykyulass "removed President Moi from his revered position in framed portraits, legal tender, patriotic songs and various elevated podiums associated with political speeches on public holidays and, instead, represented him as an ordinary figure who Kenyans could laugh at."

Today, the dancing we see on political podiums across the country is similarly farcical. As we have seen, the state used to invest a great deal in "the carefully choreographed iconography" of power. So when we suddenly have State House releasing videos of President Uhuru Kenyatta doing the dab dance as his rivals try to out do each other in comical dance, something fundamental about our politics has changed. While the politicians doing the shakey-leggy are perhaps hoping their gyrations make them seem like one with the people, what stays in the mind is not the idea of common cause so much as that of comedy. It is the reverse of the Redykyulass skit. And this time, the joke is on us.

Politics has always had an element of performance, even farce. A good example is Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who during the French Revolution is said to have declared: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." During much of the post-independence era, Kenyan politics has been all show with and little substance, more about abetting elite plunder than fixing the people's problems. Still, there was felt a need to portray it as a game for serious people.

Not any more. Politics has become entertainment, our very own, home-grown reality soap opera. Making fun of a ponderous authoritarian in the 1990s was a way to undermine his grip on the people, to allow them to see him as someone they could hold to account. Comedic dancing today is a sign that both the politicians and the citizenry have abandoned even the pretense of seriousness. This is also reflected in the rise of farcical characters such as Mike Sonko, Ferdinand Waititu and even Miguna Miguna. You no longer need to be a serious person, or even to pretend to be a serious person, in order to participate. Entertainment is today's currency.

Compare our politics with soap operas. One study describes the features of a soap as 1) portraying personal life as the “core problematic”; 2) marked by melodramatic excess, necessary for their emotional impact; and 3) lacking narrative resolution, thereby maintaining their continuous existence. Our politics problematizes politicians personal political fortunes, appeal to ethnic sentiment via exaggerating ideas of threat as well as fantastical promises, and issues, be they scandals or questions about the proper role of the state, are never resolved. Like soaps, our politics is infested by outlandish characters and insane plot twists incestuous and ever changing relationships between the relatively small cast of players, and death, murder and betrayal are constant themes.

And like all soaps, the objective of our politics is not just entertainment, but distraction. Just as many seek respite from reality by watching trashy TV, so too they entertain trashy politics. But for the politicians, the pay off is much greater. To understand why, think back to Roman times. The first century Roman poet and satirist, Juvenal, referred to the provision of free wheat and entertainment as a means of achieving political power. He wrote:

"Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."

Kenyan politicians too have become adept at using their control of bread and circuses to maintain their grip on power. Aside from generating food crises -either deliberately or through sheer criminality, negligence and incompetence- and swooping in as saviors, they also provide the gladiatorial contests that keep the citizenry too distracted to concern themselves with the root causes of the country's problems. And like Juvenal's Romans, we too have abdicated our duties of citizenship.

But it would be a mistake to blame the citizenry, whether in Juvenal's Rome or in present-day Kenya for the state of affairs. The Roman Empire’s decline has been blamed by some, like 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, on the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizenry which allowed demagogues to gain power. And some have attempted the same explanation for Kenya's woes. However, this has it back to front. In both cases, the loss of public trust was a consequence, not the cause, of politicians misbehaviour.

As those in power concentrate on enriching themselves rather than on the interests of their subjects, corruption, incompetence and insincerity come to dominate mainstream politics. A disillusioned populace either switches off altogether or driven into the arms of populist demagogues promising easy solutions. The new rulers, unable or unwilling to deal with root causes, resort to distraction. Free wheat, circus games, and feeding Christians to lions in Rome; a political reality soap opera in Kenya. The sole purpose being to keep the commoners from focusing on the pillaging of society by the same politicians.

Berating ordinary Kenyans -or Romans- for their poor electoral choices thus misses the point. Why should they be invested in a game they seem destined to lose? Rather, we must seek to remove the wool that is pulled over their eyes and allow them to see the real roots of their immiseration; see how the game is rigged against them and the opportunities that exist to change it. This means learning, not ignoring, the history that politicians work so hard to hide. It also requires understanding that there are many different ways to approach problems and we do not need to be constrained by the frameworks and blinders they have imposed on us. In short, we must learn to look beyond the dance.