Democracy, the tin pot dictator and same old stories

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BY Shadrack Muyesu

It’s almost a decade since we ushered in the new constitutional order and its perhaps time we examined whether the Republic is better served by this system of government we chose for ourselves. How do we score in terms of minimum conflict, sustainable development, the rule of law, market liberalization, equality and equity; have we fed off these fruits of Liberal Democracy or have we regressed? It’s an important question that everyone seems to ignore.  

Government is the foundation of socio-economic development. It goes beyond the minor problem of whether a country should have a presidential or a parliamentary system. We lose focus when centralise debate around these two, which are simply forms of democracy, instead of concentrating on the actual elephant in the room, democracy itself. Is our democracy a good thing? The centrality of issue is obvious to anyone examining the impact various government systems have had on the socio- economic wellbeing of the countries they serve. 

In the land of democracy

Liberal Democracy has an edge over its peers because it is built on consensus. Unlike classical democracy which was simply a tyranny of the majority, it accommodates the minority even while accepting that the majority must always have their way. The system is the reason why social “deviants” such as homosexuals and atheists, just like the pious man down the street, enjoy the protections of the State.

Free market ensures that businesses continue to thrive absent government interference. Applied correctly, everyone wins: entrepreneurs work hard knowing that industry pays; consumers are treated to quality and competitive prices which are the obvious results of competition; the good business environment attracts outside capital and the Republic reaps reward in overall economic development. 

And finally, there is a Diceian Rule of Law to prop up the system. Everyone is comfortable knowing that there is a neutral arbiter to settle all disputes fairly and in good time. Entrepreneurs sleep easy guaranteed that the State won’t arbitrarily storm their premises and make away with their tools of trade. Criminals tremble. The leaders meanwhile keep the law and their electoral promises aware that their actions are closely monitored by a vigilant civic minded citizenry. 

There are many more beauties to Liberal Democracy but the sum of everything is that at its best, no other system outclasses it in terms of effectiveness and sustainability. It answers the eternal human desire to be recognised and hence its acceptance in the most economically developed States of the world. With all these beauties it’s easy to see why the Committee of Experts selected it for our style.

Sadly, Liberal Democracy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. History is unanimous that the nature of the society is critical to its success. In a bad environment, its fate is that of the proverbial seeds that landed on rock. We examine our own performance in light of the 10th Chapter of Francis Fukuyama’s acclaimed treatise, The End of History and the Last Man

President Uhuru Kenyatta

An oligarchy passed as a democracy

It is no secret that Kenyan politics became more polarised with the advent of multi-party democracy. Elections since the birth of its more modern form haven’t been any better. While Kenyatta and his lieutenants search for answers in the Building Bridges Initiative, Fukuyama scoffs at their efforts aware that, a democracy’s ability to peacefully resolve conflicts is greatest when those conflicts arise between so called “interest groups” that share a larger, pre-existing consensus on the basic values or rules of the game, and when the conflicts are primarily economic in nature. But there are other kinds of non-economic conflicts that are far more intractable, having to do with issues like inherited social status and nationality, that democracy is not particularly good at resolving.

In our case, politics of patronage, ethnic mistrust and the notion that power brings good tidings to the tribe of the ruler have reduced elections into an ethnic census. Knowingly or inadvertently, people vote for their own, even the most learned among us: and they will allocate blame and criminal culpability depending on the tribe of the alleged perpetrator. 

As Martin Merredith details in The State of Africa, the uncomfortable truth is that the Kikuyu continue to live off an advantage gained during the elder Kenyatta’s presidency. The Kikuyu inheritance of the white highlands relinquished by the exiting colonial masters was shared out to a tiny cabal of Kenyatta cronies leaving the larger tribe to fend for themselves in the domain of another. Aided by the Kenyatta government, the displaced Kikuyu would find a home in Kalenjin, Maa, Mijikenda and Kisii lands at the expense of the local communities. A conflict of ownership has raged ever since with the former convinced that a non-Kikuyu government will lead to their displacement. 

For the powerful families from Central who made their money at the expense of other stalwarts of the freedom struggle, it is inconceivable that a vengeful outsider will ascend to power. Their proximity to power ensures that they maintain an advantage which they will go at any lengths to protect. The end result is a clash of two forces, those keen on maintaining the status quo drunk with the benefits they draw from it and the alternative voice who, desirous of their own share of the loot yet frustrated with their inability to effect change at the ballot, flirt with the idea of secession. As Fukuyama explains, it is problem that Liberal Democracy can never hope to solve unless it grants the latter wish to divide the Republic. 

Society is dominated by a traditional elite, most often of large landowners, who are neither tolerant of other classes nor efficient entrepreneurs. The establishment of formal democracy in such a country masks enormous disparities in wealth, prestige, status, and power, which these elites can use to control the democratic process. A familiar social pathology ensues: the dominance of old social classes generates an equally intransigent leftist opposition that believes that the democratic system itself is corrupt and needs to be smashed, along with the social groups protected by it. A democracy that protects the interests of a class of inefficient, leisured landowners and engenders a social civil war cannot be said to be “functional” in economic term Democracy is also not particularly good at resolving disputes between different ethnic or national groups…when different groups come into conflict there is seldom a way of splitting the difference through peaceful democratic compromise, as there is in the case of economic disputes. Democracy would only emerge on the basis of the country’s breakup into smaller national entities. American democracy has done surprisingly well dealing with ethnic diversity, but that diversity has been contained within certain bounds: none of America’s ethnic groups constitutes historical communities living on their traditional lands and speaking their own language, with a memory of past nationhood and sovereignty.

From the foregoing, underlining Uhuru’s push for the BBI is no doubt the subtle intention to maintain a stranglehold over the system. 

Liberal democracy may be more functional for a society that has already achieved a high degree of social equality and consensus concerning certain basic values. 

Think about it. He cannot be an architect of land reform when his family own illegally acquired lands the size of the Coast province. Neither can he be for economic and social reform when he is the richest of the rich. Indeed his policies thus far and legislative agenda betray a man only keen on self-preservation. Among others, he uses state machinery to go after dissenters and business competitors; he manufactures loopholes for his businesses to evade tax while parlaying as a crusader against wastage and tax evasion; the only obvious result of his diplomatic forays within the Region has been the expansion of his dairy empire; he has seconded milk laws that have extinguished his largest competitor in the small scale producer; he has set about to aggressively acquire the competition; as if that is not enough, he uses State platforms to push his private business agenda, his unveiling of a beer plant in Kisumu for a company in which he owns stock is a classic example. He is increasingly authoritarian. Not only has he backed laws that intrude privacy, he has also supported legislation that eats into the right to picket and demonstrate; made a habit of slating the Judiciary and under his watch seen budgetary allocation to the critical institution fall to all time low. To crown his nefarious intent, he has appointed malleable prefects to oversee the system.

In fact you cannot expect Uhuru to be an environmentalist when Merredith incriminates Mama Ngina Kenyatta in the illicit ivory trade that has seen the death of over 100,000 elephants. Lest it be forgotten, the same Uhuru had no qualms letting the controversial Standard Gauge Railway pass through the world famous Nairobi National Park. 

Expecting reform from Uhuru Muigai and his friends would be like the Filipino expecting reform under Corazon Aquino who Fukuyama speaks of in the following terms:

The fall of the Marcos dictatorship and his replacement by Corazon Aquino in 1986 did nothing to remedy either the problem of land distribution or the insurgency, not least because Mrs. Aquino’s family was among the largest landowners in the Philippines. Since her election, efforts to implement a serious land reform program have foundered on the opposition of a legislature largely controlled by the very people who would be its targets. Democracy in this instance is constrained in bringing about the kind of egalitarian social order that would be necessary either as the ground for capitalist growth or for the long-term stability of democracy itself

Same old same

The right thinking Kenyan should be disturbed that there hasn’t been any improvement in the Republic’s socio- economic health since we adopted our liberal democratic constitution. If anything, things are worse. Although the economy has been growing at an average rate of 5% for the past nine years, our debt to GDP ratio has also increased steadily within the period and now stands at 60%. The growth masks a growing inequality by which only the elite of the elite benefit. Less than 1 percent of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 99.9%. Our imports are more than a third of what we exports in value – which exports themselves have been decreasing. Ironically, the economy is expanding yet Kenyans are finding it harder to get by the day. But it is not so ironical when you consider that ours is an expenditure driven economy. In other words, we live on credit: we judge our wealth based on what we spend forgetting that close to two thirds of it is financed by expensive debt.

To compound the problem, we remain tribal. As a collective we are not any less corrupt either. If anything, the amounts lost in the regimes past pale in comparison to what has slipped through the system in the last couple of years. Meanwhile, the culprits walk scot free, some even enjoying bigger political offices as a result. It begs the question, why do Kenyans keep on electing bad leaders? As a citizenry, why are we not repulsed by corruption and impunity as citizens in other jurisdictions are? Why haven’t we embraced the Constitution and taken advantage of the vast powers it accords citizens, even at individual basis, to deal with the vice? Why, for instance, have we not taken advantage of the internet platforms to quickly collect signatures and kick out those we do not want or force the hand of government? What is so different in our reactions to Chileans who tired of inequality in spite of economic growth have taken to the streets to demand a change? Mind you they too are a liberal democracy. Even more pressing, why is it that we have lost our development leader status in the region to countries with more regressive constitutions?

In Fukuyama’s terms, while Liberal democracy may be more functional for a society that has already achieved a high degree of social equality and consensus concerning certain basic values, for societies that are highly polarized along lines of social class, nationality, or religion, democracy can be a formula for stalemate and stagnation…It is hard to imagine democracy working properly in a largely illiterate society where the people cannot take advantage of information about the choices open to them.

Literacy here doesn’t just mean appreciating the complexities of the periodic table. It has more to do with exposure. As more people move to the cities and make their own investments, their self-interest becomes clear to them- they think for themselves instead of relying on the herd mentality of a community. Such a people, Fukuyama says are impossible to rally on emotion. 

Education makes people demand more of themselves and for themselves; in other words, they acquire a certain sense of dignity which they want to have respected by their fellow citizens and by the state. In a traditional peasant society, it is possible for a local landlord (or, for that matter, a communist commissar) to recruit peasants to kill other peasants and dispossess them of their land. They do so not because it is in their interest, but because they are used to obeying authority. Urban professionals in developedcountries, on the other hand, can be recruited to a lot of nutty causes like liquid diets and marathon running, but they tend not to volunteer for private armies or death squads simply because someone in a uniform tells them to do so.

For those who constantly refer to the West as an example of good government and wonder why Kenyans can’t simply rise from their inactivity and whip government into action, he says elsewhere

The success of American democracy at resolving conflicts between the various interest groups within its heterogeneous and dynamic population does not imply that democracy will similarly be able to resolve the conflicts that arise in other societies. The American experience is quite unique insofar as Americans were, in Tocqueville’s phrase, “born equal.” Despite the diversity of backgrounds, lands, and races to which Americans traced their ancestry, on coming to America they abandoned those identities by and large and assimilated into a new society without sharply defined social classes or long-standing ethnic and national divisions. America’s social and ethnic structure has been sufficiently fluid to prevent the emergence of rigid social classes, significant subnationalisms, or linguistic minorities. American democracy has therefore rarely faced some of the more intractable social conflicts of other, older societies. 

Liberal democracy may be more functional for a society that has already achieved a high degree of social equality and consensus concerning certain basic values. But for societies that are highly polarized along lines of social class, nationality, or religion, democracy can be a formula for stalemate and stagnation.

American democracy has done surprisingly well dealing with ethnic diversity, but that diversity has been contained within certain bounds: none of America’s ethnic groups constitutes historical communities living on their traditional lands and speaking their own language, with a memory of past nationhood and sovereignty

A lot more can be said to demonstrate that ours is a lost cause. The simple message is that we are not ready to operate as a liberal democracy. A more illiberal form as practiced in Tanzania and Rwanda would suffice as opposed to insisting on garment that doesn’t fit us. But again such sentiments can only be carried by studious people, which status we remain far from claiming. Its historical, we are averse to book ideas, however true the home truths. Let’s forget the complexities and just hope the presidential thing or the parliamentary thing works.
But it won’t. (

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