Rotating power: idle banter or a shot at fair chance?

Rotating power: idle banter or a shot at fair chance?

By NLM Writer

There is an unending debate on the merits and demerits of rotating the presidency amongst different tribes, as one way of addressing feelings of political discontent in Kenya. On the other hand, the advocates of “meritocracy” argue that to do so is to defeat the very meaning of a constitutional democracy. The neutrals maintain that we must do a bit of both – make sure no single community hogs the presidency and the power that comes with it, and restructure our politics to reflect Kenya’s diversity. The question is, how do we do it best?

Kenya’s political structure entrenches a historical power imbalance in which two ethnic groups dominate the rest, a scenario that is incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of fairness characteristic of democratic societies. The latest cacophony of noises against that dominance is a manifestation of our sustained struggle and conversations on ‘getting it right’.

Kenya’s constitutional democracy, which finds expression in the 2010 Constitution, is often hailed as an exemplar of what modern democracy should look like. But soon after its inauguration, we resorted to mutilating it with no regard for the people who fought so hard, with some losing their lives, to see it come to fruition. 

In place of openness, accountability and responsiveness, we have adopted and resorted to shadiness, corruption and disregard for the basic tenets of law. The politicians who wield power have become supreme laws unto themselves, ruling as they please and governing in a manner inconsistent with the constitution. And the citizenry, bogged down by economic misfortune and divided along class lines, trundles along.

The Executive arm of government spits on the principle of separation of powers, scoffs at and bullies its way out of checks and balances that seeks to regulate its exercise of political authority, and the so-called fourth branch of government in the form of Chapter 15 Commissions has been whittled down to an appendage of the Executive arm they are supposed to check. Our courts, once impartial bastions of democracy and justice, have gradually lost their mojo. 

10 years after our so-called new dawn, we are being asked to sanction a premature constitutional amendment by way of the Building Bridges Initiative, our imaginations transfixed by the audacity of a political elite that cannot fathom life outside of power. We are living in the era of the phenomena that we have come to call State Capture.

For these reasons and others, it has become fashionable and desirable for the ‘rest of Kenya’ – Kenyans who don’t belong to the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes that have produced Kenya’s four presidents since independence – to want to occupy State House, and the trappings of power – good and bad, desirable and undesirable – it offers. 

The oft-repeated mantra – and one of the biggest arguments against ‘gifting’ regions or communities power – is that leadership is about individuals, not tribes. Sadly, this rings true only in amassing ill-gotten power, for, often, the race is about which individual can amass the highest fortune. Very little about our politics speaks to the idea of individuals putting the interests of the country above their own, and those of their communities.

I’m a believer in meritocracy. I subscribe to Cicero’s rule that “those who govern a country should be the best and the brightest of the land.” I share Socrates’ view in Plato’s The Republic that for a political community to be governed well, “those with the most intelligence should rule it”. And I agree with Plato that the philosopher-king must have specialised form of knowledge (gnosis). But, let’s face it, how often and well has Kenyan political leadership created an environment nation where those with the qualities described by Cicero, Plato and Socrates can emerge as a leader? How easily does that bright, idealistic student leader go from student politics to legislator to president – for that is what meritocracy looks like? The answer is never! 

The closest story to meritocracy we have is that of Deputy President William Ruto who rose from a small businessman to a youth political activist to a minister and now deputy president. In between, he leveraged his community’s massive numbers to bargain a powerful position for himself. Or Raila Odinga who pivoted his reform credentials to charm his way into the position of a political god that swore himself as president and ended up sharing power in a government he didn’t form. Or Uhuru Kenyatta who was handpicked from oblivion by a former president who felt he owed Uhuru’s father a political debt. What about the so-called meritocracy? 

Well, the political structure of this country is so skewed in favour those already in power to perpetuate political hegemony. Think about it: to become president, a candidate only needs to have the highest number of votes cast in a general election. But before that he must come from one of the two biggest voting blocs, and have the blessing of those who own the instruments of power – the so-called state. And the only way to have both is to already belong in that calibre! A third way is to have so much money – in amounts impossible to make legitimately – as to buy out your competition, and everybody else who can make acquiring the prize possible.

In a scenario where the rest of the country is forced to choose between different people from the same communities, structural imbalances are inevitable. In Kenya’s case, that structural imbalance entrenches the Kikuyu-Kalenjin political dominance, which is incompatible with the meritocratic values and engenders political instability. And with a winner-take-all political system and an-all powerful presidency, which has enormous power of patronage that is often used to favour narrow group interests, Kenya, a multi-ethnic country, is crisis-prone, with recurrent inter-ethnic conflict over power and resources. 

Current conversations say one solution is to share power amongst different tribes. The problem with that is that at some point, strong regional and ethnic identities could also turn hostile. The enduring solution is to restructure our politics. This is what devolution sought to do. But before it could take root, the Jubilee government not only conspired to retain the old provincial administration in a new form but it also regularly employs different tactics to subjugate governors and county governments.

Kenya doesn’t need the all-powerful national government that the Building Bridges Initiative proposes, whose officers, as it has demonstrated, can snub parliamentary summons. It needs a lean accountable structure and head checked by regional political and economic powerhouses. 

With honest conversations and proper, structured and rebalanced access to national power and resources, power-sharing or even rotating the head of state and government won’t be necessary. But until we achieve that, it is what we have to do. (

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