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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. 

Monday, May 01, 2017

Development Is About People Not Economies

Last week I was invited to what was described as a “Global Think In” event, basically a series of conversations between academics on Columbia University’s New York campus and scholars and participants in nine Columbia Global Centers in cities around the world. The question we were asked to ponder was: What issue relating to the changing world do you find most urgently pressing in your region?

Now the world is changing in many, quite drastic ways which pose serious challenges to people in Kenya and on the African continent. These include the perils of climate change as evidenced by the current drought ravaging the continent. The twin march of globalization and technology is both creating and decimating opportunities, jobs and wealth, and enabling small groups of disenchanted folks to terrorize entire nations. At the same time we must fight both newly emerging and more familiar diseases as a consequence of changing lifestyles, and figure out how to prepare our kids to deal with an uncertain future.

To do any of this effectively, we will need governments that are focused on and responsive to the welfare of their citizens as well as able to cooperate to address the wider, global issues.
Yet across the world, we are witnessing a retreat from these very values. While some may point to the rising tide of populism and xenophobic nationalism with the preference for “strong” leaders as represented by the election of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of far right in Europe, I think something more insidious is at play.

“My personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism,” Friedrich Hayek once remarked on a visit to Pinochet's Chile. Today many seem to lean simply towards economically astute dictatorship in the belief that democracy, especially of the liberal kind, has not only not worked, but actually militates against the ability to solve problems. The role models for this are regimes in China, Rwanda and Ethiopia, which foster high rates of economic growth while curtailing political freedoms and human rights.

Yet this privileging of economic numbers above people only produces chronically fragile states. Ethiopia, which has been growing at double digits for well over a decade, has been under a state of emergency since October sparked by protests over repression. Many here forget that the 2008 post-election violence which pushed Kenya to the brink of anarchy, came after the longest period of sustained economic growth in twenty years.

Economic growth is no panacea. It is no substitute for the real work of ensuring governments are rooted in and accountable to the people they rule over. And as the recent party nominations across the country demonstrate, Kenya has done little to ensure that political processes are an unambiguous reflection of the will of the citizenry.

Another thing to consider is that since the end of the Cold War, the international community has served as a critical check on governmental excesses in Kenya and the region and has been an important ally of those fighting for greater respect for human and democratic rights as well as better governance. The International Criminal Court, for example, was a big factor in tempering politicians’ appetites for violence and why we did not have a repeat the 2008 violence in 2013.

As Kenya gears up for another round of elections, the ICC’s stature has been badly damaged the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto cases and is now seen as little more than a paper tiger. Further, the rise of inward looking populists such as Trump means our governing elites will also be less concerned about international reactions to human rights violations and stolen elections. The fragmentation of the global liberal order and the growing international power and prestige of illiberal states such as China as well as the preference for transactional foreign policies that elide human rights and governance concerns means brutal and corrupt regimes here have little fear of international delegitimization and ostracism.

Given all this, there is thus a pressing challenge to recreate the coalitions of both citizens and international allies necessary to hold the political class in check during the elections and to deliver real reform in the post-election phase. We also need to build new development models, ones that recognize development is about people, not economies.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Uhuru Should Stop Getting High On American Supply

Much has been made about the alleged flooding of the Kenyan coast with illegal drugs. President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to stop them and to prosecute all involved in the trade. But like his “war” on alcohol, his stance against illicit drugs is informed less by reasoning and evidence but rather by hysteria.

Kenya is not on the brink of a drugs epidemic. As Kalundi Serumaga puts it in an article in The Elephant’s edition on drugs, “ordinary Africans simply do not have enough numerical strength to make up the necessary aggregated monetary demand, and rich Africans are simply too few to consume the volumes necessary to make fixed supply lines to them worthwhile.”

In fact, across the world, the criminalization of drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana has had little to do with public health concerns. Heroin was created at the close of the 19th Century by the German company Bayer, and marketed alongside aspirin as a remedy for coughs, colds and ‘irritation’ in children. Its criminalization in the US, along with opium from which it is manufactured, grew from resentment of Chinese workers and racist hysteria over accounts of white women being lured into opium dens. Cocaine, first isolated in 1859 and marketed as remedy for toothaches in children and as an ingredient in Coca-Cola, was similarly criminalized for due to US whites’ fear of economic competition from freed slaves. The banning of marijuana was a reaction to the influx of low-wage Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, sparked in part by the Mexican revolution.

The rest of the world has blindly followed the US lead with disastrous results. Not only has the drugs war failed to stop, or even significantly slow, their production, trafficking and consumption, it has destroyed countries and communities and made some of the most unscrupulous and ruthless people on the planet fabulously wealthy and immensely powerful.

The specific aim of the war was to destroy and inhibit the international drug trade — making drugs scarcer and costlier, and thus unaffordable. That has only been partially achieved.

Prohibition has prevented some drug abuse by making forbidden substances less readily accessible and vastly more expensive than similar agricultural-based stimulants like coffee or tea but, despite this, the price of most illegal drugs has actually plummeted. The cocaine sold on the streets may be more expensive than coffee but it is much less expensive and much more potent than it was two decades ago.

A small part of this can be attributed to stagnating demand in the West. The 2016 UN World Drugs Report cautiously concluded that “the global cocaine market has … been shrinking,” and attributed this changing consumption patterns. Yet, perversely, it is on the producer and transit countries such as Kenya, that the war on drugs is focused. In fact, it amounts to a transfer of the economic, political, social and environmental costs of prohibition from rich consumer countries to them. 

To paraphrase a thought experiment related by Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo in their essay, Why Is Strict Prohibition Collapsing?: “Suppose all cocaine consumption in the US goes to Canada. Would the US authorities be willing to confront drug trafficking networks at the cost of seeing the homicide rate in cities such as Seattle go up by 3000% in order to prevent cocaine shipments from reaching Vancouver? If your answer to this question is ‘perhaps not,’ well… this is exactly what Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries have been doing over the past 20 years.”

As their coffers swell up, narco-traffickers are able to corrupt governments and law-enforcement agencies and purchase political power across the global south. In Kenya, at least two County Governors, a Senator as well as members of the National Assembly have been implicated in the drug trade. Further, drug traffickers launder approximately $100 million a year through the country’s financial system, much of which ends up in the country’s real estate, inflating prices and making decent and safe housing unaffordable for the vast majority of the urban population.

By regurgitating the tough talk from the West’s failed war on drugs, President Kenyatta is essentially selling the country down the river. He would be better advised to adopt an approach more informed by the evidence of what has happened in the last century as well as by the interests of the people of Kenya. 

A version of this article was first published in The Elephant

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Why The Doctors' Strike Is A Missed Opportunity

It is now nearly three months since Kenya’s doctors went on strike. The dispute centers on the Comprehensive Bargaining Agreement the national government and the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union signed in June 2013 and which the latter is insisting must be implemented.

The Executive has been at pains to disavow the very agreement it signed and the doctors have had to defend the legality of their strike. The quarrel has caused untold misery in hospitals and drawn in the other arms of government as well as the Central Organisation of Trade Unions and the Kenya National Human Rights Commission. However, for all the sound, fury and chest-thumping, the sick and dying in Kenyan hospitals have little explanation for their calamity. Both sides have privileged spin over substance and confusion over clarity.

The government first claimed the CBA would be too expensive to implement, then argued that the document was not a legitimate agreement anyway since it had not been registered, then that the doctors were not its employees but those of the county governments and it was only playing a “facilitation” role; and finally that the CBA was illegally signed by an illegitimate official on behalf of a Ministry that did not exist.

On its part, the KMPDU has ignored court rulings and orders regarding the legitimacy of the CBA and the legality of the strike it has called; and courted public sympathy by seeking to portray the CBA as the solution to Kenya’s health problems and themselves as warriors for the common good not just for improvements in doctors’ welfare.

These mental gymnastics merit some attention. It is not the first time the government is making offers to its workers to avert industrial action that it later claims are too expensive to implement. Far from it. In fact, it is a tactic the state has developed into something of an art. The same ruse was pulled on teachers in 1997 and again in 2015. The country’s university lecturers are today on strike claiming the government has reneged on a similar promise for a 300 per cent pay rise.

Further, it is strange, to say the least, that the government was unaware that the doctors were not its employees when it signed an agreement with them. The CBA many times refers to the Ministry of Health as the employer, not the county governments. Further, in interviews with this writer, doctors themselves have claimed that their contracts, despite the devolution of health, are still with the Public Service Commission, not with county governments, to whom they say they are seconded. That when, in January, President Uhuru Kenyatta tried his hand at brokering a deal, he left the county governments out of the talks is an indicator of the government’s attempted sleight of hand, as is the idea that it took nearly 4 years to realize the document it had signed and that has been the subject of a dispute in the courts, was fraudulent. In any case, the courts have already declared the signature on the document, if not the document itself, is valid.

Some of the claims advanced by the KMPDU are similarly disingenuous. That the legitimacy of the CBA is problematic cannot be gainsaid. The Labour Court last October ruled that it must be negotiated afresh. A judge has already declared“there is no CBA.” While one can sympathize with the doctors as victims of a government confidence trick, that still does not render it a legally enforceable document. 

If anything, by calling the strike, the KMPDU spurned an opportunity offered by the courts to apply to get the CBA registered in January if talks with government had failed to generate an agreement. In so doing, they put themselves in their current predicament, where their officials have a one-month jail sentence hanging over their heads. Further, even a cursory reading of the CBA will reveal that, contrary to the spin being put out by the union, it is primarily about enhancing the welfare of doctors, not that of their patients. In an interview with Citizen TV in December last year, Secretary General Ouma Oluga stated “categorically” that the strike was about doctors’ suffering, not that of patients.

It is of course obvious that improving the welfare and training of medics as demanded by the CBA will have beneficial effects for Kenyans in general, including in helping to stem the hemorrhage of skilled workers out of the public health system. However, the KMPDU has blown these benefits out of al proportion, with claims such as that implementation of the CBA would end shortages personnel in the hospitals. By Oluga's own numbers, the country has about 8,000 doctors and trains just 600 annually against a requirement of 83,000. That means, even if each and every doctor, including those currently in private hospitals, were employed in the public service, it would still take over a century just to cater for the needs of our current population. The CBA thus does not even begin to scratch the surface.

More than anything, the lies and distortions by both the doctors’ union and the government have denied Kenyans an opportunity to deal the failures in the health system. The problems therein stretch beyond the welfare of doctors and encompass the motives behind the decisions that policymakers in the government have taken. Only by moving beyond the empty spin and honestly addressing the real issues can Kenyans begin to craft a system that works for both our long-suffering doctors and their even more traumatized patients.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What Somalia Can Teach Kenya On Elections And Power Transitions

Incumbents losing an election and graciously conceding is not what most associate with the continent, let alone Somalia. By contrast, the Kenyan experience is rather typical. Here, no incumbent President has ever lost an election. Whether by hook but more often by crook, they manage to cling onto either the end of their terms or their lives, whichever came first.

But a graceful concession from a losing incumbent is exactly what the world witnessed in the Somali capital on Wednesday. The election of former Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo as the country’s ninth President upheld a rather curious, perhaps unique tradition: Somalia has never re-elected an incumbent as President.

It’s a tradition that goes back to the founding days of the Somalia republic. In its first election following independence and unification in 1960, the popular Aden Abdullah Osman Daar was elected President. Seven years later, he would become the first African head of state to peacefully hand over power to a democratically elected successor -his former Prime Minister, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke.

Now this week’s election in Mogadishu was not, by any stretch of the imagination, one to be emulated. Due to the ongoing terrorist insurgency perpetrated by the Al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab, universal suffrage was out of the question. Instead 135 elders picked 14,000 delegates who elected 275 MPs and 54 Senators who elected the President. The process was marred by allegations of corruption, vote buying and intimidation, which is perhaps not surprising for a country that ranks at the very bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The head of the country’s police publicly supporting the incumbent and security concerns led to both the shut down oftransportation across the Somali capital and the moving of the election to the airport, which is secured by troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia.

Much of this would be familiar to Kenyans as our own general election looms. Though not as dire as that of our neighbor, our system is not without it controversies. There are credible suspicions of attempts to steal it right from the voter registration stage, with public officials, especially chiefs, illegally co-opted into an effort to help boost registration numbers in areas perceived as supporting the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee party. Further, our global corruption ranking is not that much higher (relatively speaking) than Somalia’s and the expected deployment of thousands of police and security agents to safeguard the election speaks not just to the legitimate security concerns in the wake of our invasion of Somalia, but also to the government’s fear of its own people.

President Kenyatta has recently said he is willing to peacefully hand over power if he loses and to his credit, he has already delivered a historical first: in 2002, he became the only losing Presidential candidate from a major party in Kenya’s electoral history to deliver a concession speech. Whether he will remain true to his word remains to be seen, but, as Somalia illustrates, the fact of a chaotic and problematic electoral process need not preclude it.

Somalia also provides an object lesson in the dangers of the ethnic mobilization and military takeover of civilian affairs. Despite being one of only two largely ethnically homogenous sub-Saharan African states, fragmentation along clan affiliation is one of the main reasons the civil war has persisted for so long. Kenya itself had a taste of it in the violence that followed the disputed elections of a decade ago.

Another factor in Somalia’s disintegration was the military takeover that followed the assassination of President Sharmake in 1969. The Siad Barre dictatorship that followed set the country on the path to destruction. Kenyans should therefore be wary of occurrences that diminish civilian control over the military of give it a taste for civilian responsibilities. Thus the decision by President Kenyatta to appoint Gen Chief of Defense Forces Samson Mwathethe to chair a committee overseeing the implementation of government projects should be of concern as should the seeming inability of civilian authorities to hold the military to account following the debacles at Westgate, El Adde and most recently, Kulbiyow.

Somalis are a fiercely independent-minded lot, not as reticent in expressing their opinions as Kenyans are generally perceived to be. “Every man is his own Sultan” is how one 19th century visitor described them. Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, in 2011 recounted an incident in which a waiter publicly berates a government minister in a restaurant in Hargeisa, capital of the northern breakaway -and far more peaceful- Somaliland republic. Such a scene would be unlikely to be repeated here (except perhaps on our famously noisy online platforms). But maybe we could learn from that waiter the value of confronting, rather than accommodating, our lying and thieving politicians.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Death, Lies and Videotape - Why KDF Must Tell TheTruth About Casualties In Somalia

In the wake of last week’s sacking of a Kenya Defense Forces base in Somalia by the al Shabaab terror group, the Kenyan government’s communications effort have once again come under a spotlight.

The country had just marked the first anniversary of a similar attack on another KDF camp in the Somali town of El Adde in which close to two hundred Kenyan soldiers were estimated to have been killed. Estimated because the government has never released an official tally of dead, injured and captured. Instead, after initially issuing a few statements offering a chronology of events and promising to answer queries later, it has subsequently maintained a studious silence.

This time, after news of the Kulbiyow attack broke on Friday, the KDF initially put out a statement stating categorically that the attack had been repulsed and that the camp had not been overrun. A second statement later in the day asserted that nine soldiers, including two officers, had lost their lives and another 15 had been injured. It also claimed that at least 70 al Shabaab militants had been killed.




However, subsequent news reports, some of which claimed to have interviewed survivors of the attack, have raised serious doubts about the veracity of the KDF account. The al Shabaab, who run a pretty sophisticated propaganda machine, initially claimed to have killed over 50 soldiers and subsequently revised that figure upwards. Earlier this week, the group released gruesome pictures purportedly taken after the attack to back up their claims. The Standard newspaper, citing sources within the KDF, also reported that at least 68 Kenyan troops had died. A more detailed account in the Daily Nation also painted a grim picture of the camp being overrun and “pandemonium” as soldiers fled into the bush.

Following these revelations, the KDF and government communications appear to have retreated into silence. No further statements have been issued and, unlike El Adde, there has been no public comment from either their Commander-in-Chief, President Uhuru Kenyatta, or the Chief of Defence Forces, General Samson Mwathethe.

In both attacks, government communications have sought to minimize the scale of defeat specifically by either distorting or keeping mum about casualty figures, details of the incidents and the outcome of any investigations.

But does that matter? Not if you ask the pro-government online army on Twitter. Any attempt to seek clarification is met with accusations of propagandizing for the al Shabaab and having a morbid interest in death counts, as well as patently false claims that militaries across the world never reveal the true extent of their battlefield losses. It is not important to know how many died, so the argument goes, since even one is too many. Telling the truth about casualties, it is claimed, is demoralizing to our soldiers and gifts the terrorists a propaganda coup.

Yet the trouble that the government and the KDF go to to hide them itself demonstrates that the numbers do matter. The fact is, they are not being hidden from al Shabaab but from Kenyans and it is the official silences and mendacity, not the truth, that allow the terrorists’ propaganda to rule the airwaves unchallenged. 

Similarly, the tendency to spin rather than provide accurate information means that KDF accounts of incidents lack credibility. For example, in the aftermath of the El Adde attack, Gen Mwathethe briefed the press on the battle and response. Many of the details he gave, including claims of three suicide trucks, each with the explosive force of the 1998 US Embassy truck bomb as well as "truckloads of suicide bombers", have proven to be either gross exaggerations or outright falsehoods. The same pattern can be seen in the statements issued on Kulbiyow.

Further, as an article by Nyambega Gisesa to be published this weekend in the Daily Nation states, "since Kenya first went to Somalia in October 2011, no single commander has ever been suspended or fired". At the end of his press briefing on El Adde, Gen Mwathethe promised to provide further details once a Board of Inquiry had completed its work. Nothing has been heard from him since.

Into the void created by the KDF's unwillingness to give forthright and credible information steps the al Shabaab propaganda machine, inundating the media and internet with impeccably timed press releases, interviews, caches of (often graphic) photos and slickly produced video footage of incidents. For a while now, it has been clear that Kenya's official communications on its actions in Somalia have been no match for al Shabaab's. And there is a very good reason for this. KDF and government communicators have been preoccupied with the wrong "enemy"- the Kenyan people.

The overriding objective of government communications ever since the debacle at Westgate has been to keep Kenyans from asking uncomfortable questions. Rather than protecting soldiers’ morale or debunking al Shabaab falsehoods as is sometimes claimed, government propaganda has been focused on protecting senior officials' and officers' backsides. Revealing the real extent of deaths risks rousing public anger, stoking uncomfortable questions and demands for people to held to account. 

Yet, questions should and must be asked. Why did the KDF succumb to an attack that was a carbon copy of the El Adde incident, where it had suffered its biggest ever military loss? Why were lessons seemingly not learnt? What are the systemic failures that led to this and who should be held to account? As the Standard editorialized, “losing more than 250 soldiers in 54 weeks in two identical attacks speaks not to the consequence of going to war but the utter incompetence of the high command.”

The numbers matter. They may not tell the whole story, but they do tell an important part of it. The truth matters. The constitution subordinates the KDF to civilian authority and, in the end, its commanders and civilian overlords are ultimately answerable to the Kenyan people. There is an implicit bargain we have with the troops. They will follow orders and risk their lives to defend us and accomplish the mission they are given but we will hold their bosses to account to ensure that those orders and missions are reasonable and that they are properly equipped and facilitated to achieve them. That requires us to have an accurate understanding of the realities they face and the consequences these have. The silence over the needless waste of lives violates that bargain.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Yahya Jammeh's Ouster Was Not A Triumph For Democracy

In an article published on Aljazeera, Solomon Ayele Dersso, a senior legal scholar and an analyst on Africa and African Union affairs, avers that the lesson from Gambia for African countries is that “not only should [the opposition and citizenry] forge unity during elections, but also prepare to work with regional and international bodies for a negotiated exit guaranteeing peaceful transfer of power”. This may be true but the ouster of Yahya Jammeh also has another lesson for the continent’s despots:  accountability is dead.

The facts speak for themselves. Jammeh lost an election and, after initially accepting his defeat, subsequently chose to contest it. This was a first. In all other cases of disputed elections on the continent, the incumbent has from the very beginning declared himself winner. The Kenyan experience following the 2007 elections as well as that of the Ivory Coast four years later amply illustrates this.

In the respective cases, both Mwai Kibaki and Laurent Gbagbo refused to acknowledge defeat. What ensued was violence, international intervention (military in the case of Gbagbo) and ICC prosecutions. In Jammeh’s case, the avoidance of accountability is now presented as a win for the country.

The deal offered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and the United Nations assured the former dictator of “the kind of dignity befitting a citizen, former president and party leader”-shorthand for immunity from prosecution- and allowed him to keep the loot from his 22 years in power (presumably including the $11 million withdrawn from state coffers in his last two weeks in power).

This is the problem with the Gambia transition. It is not a case of the incumbent losing power and gracefully handing over power. Rather, it is the legitimization of the idea that heads of state who lose power can use their incumbency, and the implicit threat of violence, as a bargaining chip to escape accountability for crimes committed during their tenure.

This runs counter to the tenets of democracy. Giving up power once an election is lost should not be perceived as a particularly heroic act. It should rather be an inevitable consequence of the withdrawal of popular consent. There should be no requirement for quid pro quos, negotiations or international interventions.

Transfer of power in a democracy, as former Czech President and playwright, Vaclav Havel noted, should be mundane in a democracy. However, in the case of African countries, it is portrayed as an act of benevolence. When then Kenyan strongman Daniel arap Moi accepted the loss of his chosen successor or “project” (current President Uhuru Kenyatta), he was hailed as a statesman. Yet he should have never had a choice in the matter. Similarly, Yahya Jammeh should not have been allowed to think he somehow “deserved” a dignified exit. That was up to the Gambian people.

As a Kenyan who lived through the 2008 post-election violence and the pain it wrought, I can appreciate the imperative to avoid such eventualities. However, it is incumbent on all of us to consider the lessons that the folks in power draw. If, in fact, power transitions are to be negotiated between incumbents and the international community with immunity from prosecution offered as an incentive to peacefully vacate office, then that is a dilution of democratic norms, not a reinforcement of them.

International interventions in support of democratic norms should not seek to perpetuate the idea that incumbents can negotiate exits from power. Rather, they should simply seek to enforce the choice of the people. Unfortunately, the African Union, which has already committed itself to the profoundly undemocratic ideal of Head of State immunity as evidenced by its stance in the Kenyan cases at the ICC, sees things differently. Incumbency is still perceived as an implicit guarantee of impunity.

With support for Jammeh collapsing, and even his army chief saying he was not willing to fight to defend him from the ECOWAS forces at his doorstep, there was no imperative to cut a deal. By choosing that option, the international community did not secure democracy. Rather it validated the idea that losing despots can use their hapless populations as hostages to barter for a guilt-free departure. As Solomon Dersso puts it, “they can get a dignified exit, if they allow free and fair election.”

During last year’s US election campaigns, Donald Trump was heavily criticized for refusing to state categorically that he would accept the outcome of the election if he did not win. Four years hence, he will be up for re-election. If he loses and rejects the results (not as farfetched as one would think given his continued lying about voter fraud), does anyone imagine he would be offered a cushy retirement package to facilitate a peaceful handover of power?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why Kenyans Should Keep An Eye On The Trump Presidency


Despite the major changes inaugurated by the 2010 Constitution, the Kenyan Presidency still sits comfortably and unchallenged at the pinnacle of our politics. It is propped up by many of the norms that developed in the last half-century, especially during the dictatorships of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. Over the period, many looked to the United States for a model of how a powerful Presidency could be constrained. However, since last year, goings on over there have had a distinctly familiar ring.

During his unorthodox campaign, Donald Trump, who is to be inaugurated as President of the United States this Friday, violated with almost total impunity many of the norms, if not laws, that have served to keep American politicians in check for decades and centuries. "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," he memorably described it.

“The American presidency has never been at the whims of an authoritarian personality like Donald Trump,” John Dean, White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, told McKay Coppins of The Atlantic. “He is going to test our democracy as it has never been tested.”

Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Research Professor in the University of Hertfordshire, defines institutions as “systems of established and prevalent social rules that structure social interactions. Language, money, law, systems of weights and measures, table manners, and firms (and other organizations) are thus all institutions.” In their insightful book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, describe institutions as simply the rules, written and unwritten, that influence how systems work.

While the language may be slightly different, the intent is essentially the same. Institutions are about the way things work rather than merely a set of formal organizations or even formalized rules.

The United States system is a case in point. Americans love to hold up their constitution as the ultimate defense against tyranny. But while the formal rules regarding governance it proposes are an important bulwark, arguably American democracy is built on a foundation of social norms and expectations much more so than formal rules.

For example, the two-term limit for presidents was not part of the Constitution. Rather, it sprang from George Washington’s decision not to run for a third term and held for the better part of a century and a half until Franklyn Roosevelt violated it in 1940. In fact, it was not until 1951 that the US constitution via the Twenty-Second Amendment finally imposed term limits. Similarly, the fundamental role the Supreme Court plays in assessing the constitutionality of legislation is not expressly provided for in the Constitution either.

It is for this reason that Trump poses such a big threat to American democracy. His refusal to release his tax returns, for example, bucks a near-5 decade old practice observed by all major party candidates which is designed as a measure to enhance transparency. The multiple conflicts of interest he carries into the White House and his statements about similarly flash the finger at years So does his post-election lack of moderation and disdain for “political correctness”. Yet the latter has been crucial in helping to keep the ugliness of overt racism, xenophobia and bullying out of mainstream American politics. Trump’s demeanor during and after the election have however legitimized conduct previously considered beyond the pale.

Donald Trump already has changed America, and not necessarily for the better. In the next four years, he will continue to affect not just the US, but also attitudes towards it in countries across the globe. The question is whether he will fashion it in his own rather grotesque image or whether the country’s institution will prove resilient and tough enough to contain him. In either case, there will be valuable lessons to be learnt from the continuing American "experiment in democracy". For Kenyans, struggling to implement our own democratic system of governance and to develop the social norms and attitudes that will underpin it, it would be wise to pay close attention.