BY Shadrack Muyesu
Given a choice between family and stranger, the average man, no matter how sophisticated, is likely to choose family. It’s a natural survival instinct; creatures gravitate towards their own kind, for that is where they find sanctuary. In sociology, relationships expand outwards. We move from the nuclear family, constitutionally recognised as ‘the natural and fundamental unit of society and necessary basis of natural order’, towards the extended family. Extended family units coalesce to form a clan several of which come together to form a tribe and ideally, the nation.
Essentially, political preferences are choices between families. When we elect a representative to the town council meeting – or nyumba kumi – we inadvertently settle on a member of the most prominent family in the area. In ward elections, the largest clans dictate affairs while the largest tribes play the role on county and national scene. This is the crux of Benedict Anderson’s treatise, ‘Emerging Societies’, and one need look no further than the tribal affiliations of the presidents the Republic has had to appreciate its truth.
Reflecting on socio-politics worldwide, Prof Francis Fukuyama’s conclusion in ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ agrees with Anderson to the effect that the strongest democracies are those with fewest social differences (read, the fewest tribes). There are always going to be biases, but where they are harder to identify, politics becomes a little bit more sophisticated. It’s no longer a choice between “our people and their people” but rather, a question of “who amongst our people is better”. It is the reason western and Arab nations manifest a stronger sense of nationalism compared to say, sub-Saharan Africa.
The richer the people are, the less time they have for pettiness. Economically empowered people are less concerned with whoever is president. Local politics takes centre stage, if at all, because people are more concerned with the effect policies have on production at a personal level. You may limit their political rights without getting a reaction unless you touch their money. It is the reason benevolent autocracies survive.
Kenyans neither have the money nor the means of production. Land is gold where a majority of the population is rural and farming is the main economic activity. Even for the urban elite who rely on white collar employment, land remains scared, first because it is an ancestral gem and secondly, because it represents the only reliable back-up plan to the fickle world of employment. As the famous Kenyan adage goes, you can never go wrong with land.
Everyone wants land which, because of past injustices and high demand, is a scarce commodity. With every tribe fighting for this most precious resource, the need to have “one of our own at the top to protect our interests” becomes a primary concern.
Social and economic re-engineering
This rot traces its origin to the first few years of independence when, with the aid of British funds, Kenyatta transferred the former white highlands to a cabal of cronies and other small holders on a first-come-first-served basis, leaving many Kenyans, and more so the original land owners, landless. The result is a modern Kenya where the Kikuyu permeate the Rift Valley, the Coast, Western and so on, as landlords, while the Kalenjin, the Maa, the people of Western Kenya and Mijikenda wallow in poverty. It’s our version of the Palestine-Israeli crisis with elections seen as a crusade against “the invaders”.
The land issue is to blame for the fallout between the Kenyatta and the Kapenguria Six, and Oginga Odinga. It’s the reason Bildad Kaggia “disappeared” and the fiery J. M. Kariuki died. In fact, it is the main reason behind the post-election violence that has haunted this country since. With the biggest politicians sitting at the centre, no commission of inquiry has dared touch it. The Ndung’u Commission simply skirted around it and now its borderline criminal to even mention it.
The Kikuyu are ahead today not because of their enterprising nature as is often told, but because of a dark past when, starting with Jomo, successive governments made it their mission to neglect “enemy” territory and fill government with members of the Community. Other tribes might be lazy, as often stereotyped, or foolish in the case of the Maa, but it certainly helps when the winner has a 32-year head start. The situation is not unique to Kenya. Thanks to similar colonial engineering, the Yoruba are ahead in Nigeria while the Tutsi occupy similar privileged position in Rwanda. Examples are legion.
On one hand, we have a people who have a pecuniary interest to protect, which cause is aided by people in the right places; on the other is the overwhelming majority with nothing but the voice and frustration. Elections must always be interpreted in this context.
The Building Bridges Proposals
It’s with this background that Kenyans need to ask asses the solutions offered by, inter alia, the Building Bridges Initiative and the Punguza Mizigo campaign. In so doing, we must remember that the requisite antidote can never emerge from a misdiagnosis. For 56 years, we have tried and failed to find a treatment because we are treating the wrong disease. As it is, we are on the verge of perpetuating the error. Being compromises, we must also remember that perfect constitutions do not exist. What we must not do is steer wide off the mark.
In forming the Technical Committee, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga identified several issues that needed addressing. Among others, they included: ethnic antagonism and competition, lack of national ethos, inclusivity, divisive elections, corruption and shared prosperity. In summary, the main point of the nine issues was that when we end tribalism, corruption, impunity and electoral theft, nepotism and politically motivated development and employment, then the glass ceiling will be broken for all Kenyans to realise their fullest potential. The assessment is fair.
Ethnic antagonism and competition
On the first issue of ethnic antagonism and competition, the team identified the sources of the vice to include the scramble for resources; the winner-takes-all electoral system; historical injustices; stereotyping and ethnic profiling and willing seller-willing buyer land transfer policies. Again, it is a fair assessment.
For solutions, the team suggested a parliamentary system of government which, in its view, would make the competition for leadership a contest of ideas through political platforms as opposed to ethnic warfare. It also suggested proportional representation or mixed member proportional representation and full implementation of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission and Waki Reports.
Specifically, they went back to the government system offered by the Harmonised Draft Constitution – which MPs had ensured never saw the light of the day. In their view, the Constitution should be amended to accommodate a ceremonial president, and Prime Minister who would be the leader of the largest political faction in the National Assembly and the head of government. This is where they dropped the ball.
While it is true that the winner-takes-all election format has caused it fair share of problems, it mustn’t be forgotten that that the amendments, as proposed, merely entrench the dominance of the largest tribes rather than address historical injustices and marginalisation. It will remain a priority for the dominant players to retain the position of most influence.
On this issue, the team recommends changes in law to guarantee that the two thirds rule applies to every cadre of public service. It also recommends that appointments to all cadres of public service be proportionate to the communities’ share of the national population. Finally the team advices that at least 30 percent of all public appointments be reserved for marginalised communities. As long as the positions of most influence are equally shared out, if implemented, the changes would come as a relief.
The law will also be changed to bring back regional governments as they were in the Harmonized Draft Constitution. 45 percent of national revenue will also go to devolution, 13.5 percent of which will go the regional governments.
The team recommends certain changes to address the perennial problem of electoral fraud. First is the adoption of a parliamentary system that will shift focus from the Presidency; secondly, that the President serve a single term of seven years; and thirdly, that the IEBC be devolved, with commissioners being nominated by political parties. The team also recommends the full implementation of the Kriegler Report, as well as the adoption of electronic voting.
The IEBC is supposed to be independent. Commissioners were never meant to be guided by external influence as will certainly be the case if the recommendations are adopted. Ultimately, the recommendations spell doom for smaller politicians and the small parties and ideas they represent.
As the late Prof Mwangi Kimenyi explains in ‘Tribalism as a Minimax-Regret Strategy’, the reason the presidency is such a prize for Kenyans is because having a fellow tribesman at the helm means proximity to resources. Being so scarce, it is the collective duty of tribe to ensure that the prize is home or at the very worst, that the enemy doesn’t win. The ‘Economic Voter Theory’ of Prof Kimenyi explains the longstanding suspicion between the Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin tribes.
The introduction of a powerful Prime Minister simply shifts focus to the premiership. In other words, the voter biases identified by Prof Kimenyi will remain, only that this time they will campaign vigorously for the party to ensure that the favourable leader it offers rises to the top. In line with the late Professor’s findings, once there, the party will work hard to remain at the top. Vote buying in parliament will be rampant.
What the Republic needs is for Kenyans to feel that they have an equal shot at the Presidency (or premiership). Whilst it is an improvement from the current presidential system, the changes would be much more welcome if there was a rotational presidency to anchor the seven-year, single-term limit. Albeit informally, rotation has worked so well in countries such as Nigeria, with whom we share problems and a socio-economic dynamic. Alternatively, the Executive could be expanded to a council of members representing all regions who will execute presidential functions as a unit. This way, the process of decision-making will be more rigorous and inclusive. At the very best, it minimises biases while spreading the “rewards” of proliferation to seven tribes at worst.
The attempt here is to have a system of government that mirrors our socio-economic and political realities. When so many authorities on the subject have decried the fallibility of Liberal Democracy in a society as differentiated as ours, it is extremely foolish to keep insisting on the system with the hope that Kenyans will come out the better for it.
The parliamentary system is still built on a liberal democratic constitution. Of all its beauties, it won’t stop Kenyans from voting with the tribe in mind or politicians from practicing divisive politics in order to feed this lust. Tribalism will never die in an environment of free adult universal suffrage. No matter how you clothe it, the big tribes will always win. Kenyans must simply be allowed to practice their tribal voting with the guarantee that everyone will get a chance at some point. To sum up on this issue, while the changes proposed by the Building Bridges Team and the Punguza Mizigo campaign are largely good, they fail on the critical aspect of homegrowness. In other words, they do not mirror Kenya’s socio-economic dynamic. They treat a misdiagnosis and as such can never hope to become the permanent solution we all crave.
Money in the pockets
Earlier, I stated that economically empowered citizens are least concerned with petty politics. It is imperative that future governments undertake a fiscal planning module that will put money in the pockets of Kenyans. That means reducing expenditure and abandoning costly projects for those that offer yield in the short and medium term.
Currently, too much money is wasted in sustaining a bloated government. What if we saved the money and invested in creating capacity instead? The country has turned to the domestic market to feed its appetite for debt denying Kenyans access to cheap loans in the process. Loans are increasingly expensive which in turn drives the cost of land upwards. On one hand we have the majority of Kenyans who have to work harder to obtain and maintain land and on the other we have those who, desperate and short of choices are forced to sell ancestral land. What we have at the end is even more emotion invested in this already controversial issue of land. The urge to have “one of our own” becomes even stronger.
Spending power creates investment opportunities. Investment means an upturn in economic fortunes. People will no longer rely on land as the only means to economic emancipation. With time, they won’t be as concerned with who is president as they will be with the ideas the candidate brings. While the struggling subsistence farmer in Nandi Hills bothers about the next president, a business owner in Nairobi is more keen on what a candidate has to say about import tariffs. It’s a day we must all look forward to.
Commendably, while the BBI remains unbothered, the Punguza Mizigo campaign has taken this issue into perspective. While BBI compounds the problem with its talk of expanding an already large government, Punguza Mizigo guarantees Kenyans savings of up to Sh32 Billion. This money will go into creating capacity and setting Kenyans on the path of economic liberalisation. Spent wisely, slowly but surely, Punguza Mizigo will lead us to that day when Kenyans will not be moved by divisive rhetoric but rather by principle and policy. Whilst imperfect, given a choice between the two, I am not in doubt what I would choose. (