Paradox of Kenyan democracy


“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity” ― Frantz Fanon

“We live in a country where our young ladies who have recently attained the age of puberty cannot afford sanitary pads, but our men and women in public offices have ipads which they do not even know how to use” ― P. L.O. Lumumba

By its nature and substance democracy in contemporary Kenya is self-falsifying. Critically, I posit, it is democratic in being undemocratic in the very essence. The “rose” of Kenyan democracy blooms and engulfs the nation joyfully, while, at some bleak moments, it withers and drains hope from the souls of the people. Like a toddler, the Kenyan democracy at some moments is amazing and walks with long and fast strides, and at moments, it falls and stagnates at one point. The Kenyan nation has oscillated between these two contrasting polars – hope and failure/one step forward, two steps backward – since its independence.

Kenya, with all its potentialities and prospects, failed to prosper and deliver to its subjects. Democracy failed to take roots both in the fertile soils of the ruling elites and the masses. The nation was compartmentalised along tribal and regional lines. Rampant corruption and ineffective liberal policies, coupled with crony politicians, condemned the nation to be dull and sluggish socio-economically and democratically.

“Project Kenya”, a term coined and used as a rallying call to the ruling elites and politicians by the Kenyan Historian Prof Bethwell Ogot was unheeded and viewed as a dangerous Marxist radical project. Ogot’s project called for instilling a sense of nationhood to the masses to transcend tribalism. It was a Kenya for all Kenyans, a democratic nation with social justice as its foundational principal. However “Project Kenya” never culminated into actions and policies; it dwelt in the Platonic realm of idea and failed to gain any substantial Form. After all, the ruling elites needed their tribes to run the nation and the state to run the affairs and development of the ruling tribes.

French philosopher and social contract theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau delineates the paradox of democracy and its shortcomings – that what we call democracy can be an illusion at some moments and hinder the common good of all, in Rousseau’s term, the ‘General will’. His sublime objection to democracy was that the general will (majority will) cannot be the common good for all at many instances, and that minority will, votes and voices, can, at some critical moments, represent the common good of all. Rousseau foresaw the limits of democracy in our contemporary global political situation – the elections of Donald Trump, African dictators and Brexit to mention a few.

Kenya, like many African nation-states, suffers from this democratic paradox. Kenyan-style democracy surrendered the affairs of the nation to a callous ruling elites who have the majority’s votes (and to be clear, this majority consists of the ruling elite’s tribes who will follow them “blindfolded” to the gates of hell itself). The Kenyan electorate, using İvory Coast’s writer Ahmadou Kourouma’s phrase, is like “a wild beast waiting to vote”. There is no consciousness or wisdom behind who they are voting for, except his or her tribe.

Kenya is a beautiful nation blessed with diversity and almost 44 languages, spoken within its sovereign boundaries by the numerous ethnic groups. Like all post-colonial African nation-states, its boundaries were curved up by the colonialists, and when the nation was conceived officially there was an apparent antagonism and struggle among the various elites, since running the nation was at stake. Consolidating power by those who ruled at the time, coup plots by those who felt outsiders to the state and even secession wars – consider the 1963-67 secession war in Northern Kenya – occupied and contested the political arena and hence imprinted tribalism into the nexus of the nation.

At the formative stages of the nation-state the ruling elites consolidated power by rallying their respective tribes behind them. The State engaged itself with politics of misrecognition and ‘othering’. The ruling elites filled their coffers with state funds and preached to their tribes of “an enemy” looming in the horizons, who wanted to de-centre the sons and daughters of the tribe (elites). Radical and progressive voices within/outside the tribe, and even the nation, were brutally silenced (Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, Robert Ouko, JJ Kariuki to mention few), or exiled (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Willy Mutunga, Yussuf Hassan Abdi, Makau Mutua) and hence the conscience of the nation was putted off.

In this East African nation, democracy is a fallacy, an illusion and more so a vehicle to rob the nation with no flinch of morality or humanity. The Kenyan demos is exhausted and recumbent. With successive tribalistic regimes, economic failure, underdevelopment, exclusion and corruption scandals they surrendered their affairs and will to their respective manipulative political kingpins.

Two or three apathetic politicians forge a short-time deal, and with their respective tribes backing them, they hold the nation “hostage” and rob the nation with impunity. Even the unfortunate son/daughter of the tribe (politician) caught red-handed screams for help from his tribe/community and with a moment he/she is free and continues the robbing. And this being the trend throughout the political spectrum, the nation’s subconscious seems to see it as a normal and rational way of real politik. This is Kenya, the product of tribal democracy.

“Tyranny of numbers” is a common and familiar term in the lexicon of Kenyan politics. It underlines a justification for the most populous tribes to plunder the country. A keen observer will realise that five or six communities or tribes out of the 43 communities dominate the political arena. Tribe A and B will form an alliance, and “swallow” into their bellies other few tribes that they share geography or cultural similarity and win the national elections. Those in the opposition (Tribes C, D, E or F) will stay in the opposition, and salivate as they wait and hope their turn to plunder the nation come. Democracy in Kenya has only form and no substance. Politicians form and dismantle political alliances based on their chances to plunder the nation and not on ideology or any given objective agenda for the whole nation.

Kenya has enormous potentials of being a prosperous nation, become a regional economic super power and a vibrant global economics participant. It seems that the Herbamasian deliberative democratic model failed in Kenya, because since independence, the process of continual consensus and inclusivity of the demos and procedural actions and policies failed.

Kenya needs to engage radical agonistic model of democracy (Chantal Mouffe, 1992) with social justice, supremacy of the rule of law and universal human rights as its foundation.
The Kenyan nation should engage and empower democratic institutions and there praxis, address historical injustices, reform the ever brutal police service, clean-up the higher education system that’s marred by corruption, and tackle issues of extremism and terrorism without dehumanising communities and regions of the nation (NEP and the Coast) and revive professor Bethwell Ogot’s idea of “Project Kenya”. It is only by implanting a sense of nationhood (and not tribalism) that a nation can stay harmonious, diverse and prosper to the benefit of its demos – citizens.
Vote peacefully.  ^

Writer works in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey.


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