Teetering on the edge of an authoritarian era

Teetering on the edge of an authoritarian era

TNLM Writer

The last two years have been trying times for our fledgling democracy. It has been a period of “democratic recession”. President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto have no known record of supporting democratic reforms towards open, free society. The past regimes they have been members, strong supporters and defenders of are known for their authoritarianism, deep-seated corruption and patronage politics.

It is no surprise that today both are accused of undermining democratic values, overstepping their constitutional mandates, upsetting the independence of the press and civil society, and viciously attacking the independence of democratic state institutions such as the Judiciary.  To obscure their intentions and actions, both leaders and their government have perfected the art of victimhood.

The latest evidence of this is demonstrated through a statement by the Central Kenya Parliamentary Caucus, President Kenyatta stronghold, of April 22, 2015, which claimed, “There is deliberate move to undermine Government and portray Kenya as failed state. The goal is to de-legitimise this government”. This is straight script from former totalitarian leader Daniel arap Moi, who politically fished, mentored and marionetted both Uhuru and Ruto.

Today, nobody in Kenya can claim to be unaware of the adverse effects of exclusion and inequalities, violence and impunity, institutional weaknesses and democratic deficits. The case for constitutional democracy is as strong as ever. The progressive democratic Constitution that Kenya promulgated in August 2010 has created a strong empowered citizenry. This has made the old kleptocracy, to which Kenyatta and Ruto belong, very uncomfortable. The faithful and full implementation of the Constitution is facing serious obstacles from President Kenyatta’s regime though projecting an image of support. 

Kenya is a post-authoritarian conflict society far from reaching irreversibility. The country and nascent institutions are starting to drop the ball. For economic development to be realised, the country needs to develop strong institutions that facilitate inclusive business and commerce, protect individual rights, enforce government’s responsibility to its people, legitimise the society in which they live and maintain democratic rule of law order.

Consequently, it is imperative to continue in the path of democratic growth and its sustained defence. Such a crucial action underpins the development of a peaceful, rules-based country that advances knowledge and prosperity by encouraging a spirit of freedom and innovation. People are sovereign and should not be forced to live under the dominion of unjust and unaccountable government power.

Kenyatta and Ruto represent a new rising phenomenon of authoritarianism. New authoritarianism works through appropriating, projecting and communicating democracy language. It is highly defective modern day autocracy. While mimicking many of the procedures and institutions found in genuine democratic societies, the Uhuru regime is structured in a way that forecloses the possibility of democratic progression.

Anti-democracy ideas

This Uhuru-type form of authoritarianism is reconfigured for the era of globalisation and digital communications. It has developed new techniques of control and new justifications for monopolising power that enables it to undercut democratic change without huge public outrage. This is dangerous. Kenya is now confronted with a powerful authoritarian backlash that is reversing critical democratic reforms and gains, and encouraging a resurgence of anti-democracy ideas

In order to succeed and win support, this new authoritarian regime does not to control every aspect of human life like the totalitarian regimes of the past. It only attempts to suppress constitutional political and civil rights to the extent necessary to maintain control of people at any given point. Freedom of expression is allowed, but with caveats. The ruling clique relies on the abuse of public resources, bureaucratic manipulation and a biased media to deliver the result it wants. If these techniques do not work, harsher forms of repression will emerge.

The economically endowed and educated middle class is content with this new status. It thus forms a form crucial vanguard for this emerging form of totalitarianism. This is because a status anxiety and economic self-interest often tie the middle class to autocratic regimes.

Speaking in an African Union forum, President Kenyatta dismissed the West as “declining imperialist powers”. This is a common feature of emerging tyrants. Sovereignty is conflated with the right to reject democratic standards. One writer made a succinct observation: “Unable to justify themselves in their own terms, this new crop of authoritarians is  increasingly resorting to  arguments based on cultural exceptionalism and anti-imperialism  to rationalise their monopoly of power and brand their domestic opponents as agents of foreign  influence”.

This has been the political rhetoric of President Kenyatta for the last two years. Ironically, however, he has been appealing to the same “declining West” for financial assistance and security matters. 

One other characteristic of the Uhuru regime is creating a coalition of new and old tyrants. This is a protective mechanism. The members of this coalition will always come out to defend each other. China and Russia are their key allies in this coalition. They will speak ‘development’ and scorn democracy.

President Uhuru Kenyatta recent purge and appointments in cabinet and military signalled his determination to stamp his authority, reconfigure his political strategy and consolidate power base. He is further using his parliamentary super-majority to reconfigure state institutions in such a way that would significantly undermine constitutional checks and balances and ultimately imperil Kenya nascent democracy. The country is witnessing the first throttle of new-age authoritarianism. The purge had little to do with graft. Corruption rhetoric is attractive. It would provide any public endorsement necessary for political mischief. Nobody is being fooled by “war against corruption. It is hoax. It is manipulative political deception.

New-age imperialism

What should deeply disturb Kenyans even most is his irrational attempt to capture, control and manipulate crucial independent constitutional institutions. His authoritarian tendencies, disdain for the constitution and for rule of law, militarising of civilian institutions and disregard of institutions autonomy are signs of imperial presidency in making; they confirm a clear trend towards authoritarianism.

The reported conduct of his top aides in cajoling and arm-twisting anti-corruption commissioners to resign rather than follow the correct legal procedure tells a different story on his (Kenyatta) anti-graft rhetoric intention. He is using anti-corruption crusade to not just consolidate power by routing out influential people inside the government but also whittle down political influence of those he considers  future political potential competitors.  

President Barrack Obama, set to visit Kenya in July, said the following when he visited Ghana in 2009: “Governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, they are more stable and more successful than governments that do not. Democracy is more than holding elections. It’s also about what happens between elections. Nations with strong institutions that respect independent judiciaries, police forces and press are key to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives”.

President Uhuru Kenyatta was never part of the constitutional reform movement. In fact, he has little understanding of reasons behind clamour for constitutional reforms. Strong, healthy and cohesive societies are built on three pillars – peace and security; development; the rule of law and respect for human rights.  Unfortunately, stability and economic growth have for too long been the principal responses to national and global problems.  

Kenya must not fall into this trap. No society can long remain prosperous or secure without respecting the rule of law and human rights. It must embrace and give equal weight to each of the above three pillars. A country with weak state institutions, floundering rule of law, and lacklustre human rights culture will forever be sitting on its edges. This underlines how important it is for Kenya to entrench democratic principles and norms, adopt inclusive policies to build and sustain trust, increase inclusion and reduce insecurity. Strong credible, impartial, legitimate and democratic institutions make it relatively well placed to deal with these challenges.

In a column on September 2013 in this publication, Ndung’u Wainaina, a contributor in this magazine wrote: “I believe a new Kenya will be defined by a new, more profound, enforcement of the sanctity and dignity of every human being. This is only possible if the country is able to build legitimate democratic institutions that guarantee citizens justice, security and improved livelihoods. This is the vision of the constitution.”

He continued: “Kenyans have to understand the critical role that these institutions should and must play in ensuring that they are not only stronger but that they withstand political interference. I repeat. Individuals and political parties come and go, and they often have selfish, narrow-minded and short-term agenda. By contrast, strong institutions, if they function as intended, have long-term agenda that are informed by constitutional values, transparency and accountability”.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken the wrong direction in the 21st century. He is emerging as new strongman, determined, by whatever means, to shred the core values and principles of constitutionalism, rule of law and human rights. ^

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