Across the globe, there are countless ways to show concern and care for each other as countries, nations and communities, and maybe Kenyans and Americans have had particular reasons for doing so this past few months. But in what would, on the surface, appear different ways—an election crisis in Kenya, and an election, too, in America that, along with other things, won’t go away anytime soon either.
But there is another deeper dimension to all this that, as far as I am aware, rarely seems to get much attention. Inaugurations, party conferences, state of the union addresses, Queens’ speeches to Parliament at opening of the legislative year, the sponsored retreats for the two parties each January in my country, and, of course, similar formalities in Kenya, and everywhere are necessary occasions for quests for renewal, refocusing of energies toward perhaps refashioned objective. They are categorically better than elections for that purpose. And they are necessary.
The point is obvious and understood at some level by most. But what may have become less understood for some these important exercises is that they have become overlain with what in the end are technically non-essentials. A TV columnist brought this to my attention in a humorous way. If you know Washington DC, you know there’s a very long open, beautiful mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument and the White House. The TV pundit only semi-playfully suggested that our State-of-the Union address had come to have no more significance than a parade down that mall. Whoa!! What is this? A well- known, obvious, fundamental requirement of state management, reduced to nothing but pageantry?
Reflecting, I think this may be stark evidence that aspiring, may be even mature, democratic states are beyond necessary repair. Democratic states as we want to know and experience them, may truly be beyond reconstruction in many very important ways. The democratic state as a very old person, creaking along, a faint ghost of its once imagined, former inspiring self, now well beyond rejuvenation. I speak of Kenya because it’s the state I know best after 50 years of observation, other than my own. I suspect it is true far wider to still varying extents.
Not a new subject by any means. There are whole libraries on the subject. But true today in a whole different way. In general, quibbles aside, I respect the work of democracy measuring agencies, especially Freedom House, for which I was a consultant in the past, and indeed, they seem to me to get it right at some level much of the time. The problem is the level has become the wrong one! The Kenyan state has never been reconstructed from the ashes of its colonial moorings, notwithstanding it’s model 2010 format. That is because the land reforms of the 50’s, well-intended though they may have been, did nothing to reconstruct the colonial state. The idea of one market in land appears to me never to have been accepted, and has been responsible for violence in every election at least since 1992. And, in my view, it could NOT have been accepted as an economic foundation for a democratic Kenya state without an affirming vote of the peoples of Kenya themselves. Now, think of all that would have had to be in place to make today’s well-crafted model election safe guards intelligible then!
The bitter consequence, as others have observed, has been that Kenyans do not have a meaningful vote, because they don’t have real choices. Instead, they are locked into alliances from which they have no meaningful escape. These alliances have grown disparate, mighty, authoritarian and complex over the years, and, if my pinhole perspective on this huge problem is accurate, its lineage goes directly back to a necessary democratic exercise tragically not performed more than a half-century ago.
Aspiring democratic states seem to have no master crafters, at best only hopefully lastingly good and influential ones, and there have been some. But only authoritarian states have master crafters, it seems.
To come back to new beginnings, I would like to think that it might still be possible, through these and similar measures for there to be established to really think through these things, and may be find some maneuver room to actually rebuild the democratic state in genuine, valid, democratically validated ways.
But I really don’t know. The first and hardest thing is to let go of the past, in order to see non- and anti-democratic barnacles around one for what they are. As I write, from afar, at least, I don’t see many signs of any such courageous, hopeful initiatives.
We can only hope. ^
Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies