Contemplating the Building Bridges Initiative

Contemplating the Building Bridges Initiative

By Professor John Harbeson

In my columns for the Nairobi Law Monthly, I try to write in ways relevant to Kenya politics while avoiding the fact and appearance of taking sides in its ongoing controversies of the day.  Accordingly, I have not written about the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to date because it has been and remains a profoundly controversial political exercise. Moreover, it has manifestly been an exercise conducted by and for Kenyans alone. And yet, I think the BBI exercise has considerable significance in a way that transcends the circumstances that led to its birth and will attend to its ultimate disposition.  

Growing out of the handshake between President Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first president and vice president, respectively, I suggest that the BBI report comprehensively and thoroughly attempts to take stock of what Kenya has become politically, socially and culturally to a degree undertaken by very few countries elsewhere in Africa, or even beyond. 

Of course, there are numerous respected and insightful multi-country global comparative analyses of country performance on aspects of country performance, including on civil and political rights by Freedom House and Afrobarometer, on governance by the World Bank and Polity, on measures of state fragility by the Fund for Peace, and on the quality of socioeconomic performance by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the UN primer, Sustainable Development Goals project, and many others. 

But the very comparative breadth of these measuring instruments is by definition achieved at the cost of comparable in-depth forensic inquiries into the circumstances of individual countries. Yet, in-depth inquiries like the BBI have the potential not only to unearth foundational factors that underlie what a country’s citizens perceive as a country’s failing but to assemble a full range of pertinent remedial measures needed to overcome them that Global multi-country surveys don’t even attempt.

Indeed, there is a good case to be made that in-depth individual country self-assessments of their political, socioeconomic, and cultural circumstances should be de rigueur at intervals of perhaps decade or more, at least for countries that have undertaken to democratise since the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s. 

One important cost-benefit test of the utility of such assessments would be to what extent they help formulate in-depth remediation measures for stalled and receding democratization across Africa and elsewhere since about 2005, after fifteen years of fifteen years of noteworthy improvement in many countries. 

For Kenya, notwithstanding intense controversy over the BBI Report itself and any referendum on its implementation that may occur, the BBI Report has potential value in and of itself as a diagnostic instrument as Kenya approaches six decades of independence and nearly three decades as a post-Cold War new democracy. More specifically, a key question is, to what extent, amidst the Report’s wealth of findings and recommendations, are there clues to why, having approved a model constitution in 2010 after two decades of struggle, Kenya’s democratization has, at best, stalled in the ensuing decade?  

To what extent, amidst the Report’s wealth of findings and recommendations, are there clues to why, having approved a model constitution in 2010 after two decades of struggle, Kenya’s democratization has, at best, stalled in the ensuing decade?

On the one hand, the Constitution upheld and addressed a range of deeply and broadly harboured yearnings for long unrealised social justice, greater multi-ethnic cohesion and inclusiveness, curbed corruption and impunity, and ushered an era of true political accountability and transparency that were copiously written into the country’s hard-won 2010 Constitution.

On the other hand, the BBI presents a sobering widely subscribed appraisal of the extent of Kenya’s failure to fully implement the Constitution’s terms, leaving those aspirations substantially unrealised, devolution being perhaps the major exception to that finding.

Nonetheless, the BBI report tacitly urges belief that, with its vast assembled array of recommendations and available human and institutional resources and energies for renewal, significant realisation of these aspirations remains achievable. A recently issued Afrobarometer survey does warn, however, that support for democratic elections in Kenya over the period 2011-2020 has declined by six percent.  

The BBI presents a sobering widely subscribed appraisal of the extent of Kenya’s failure to fully implement the Constitution’s terms, leaving those aspirations substantially unrealised, devolution being perhaps the major exception to that finding. 

Rather than concentrate single-mindedly on recommitment to full implementation of the Constitution’s terms, the BBI Report shifts the responsibility to the citizens of the country themselves to evolve what it terms a “national ethos,” perhaps reminiscent of the independence era calls for collective civic responsibility in pursuit of African socialism.   

Implicitly, the BBI Report appears to envision collective societal pursuit of this objective as the foundation for realising its other principal pursuits; overcoming ethnic antagonism, divisive elections, pervasive corruption, and achieving shared prosperity and enhanced civic security.

Notwithstanding that, another current Afrobarometer report has found that 96 percent of Kenyans say they must be very careful in trusting other people. More encouragingly, it implicitly also finds support for pursuit of BBI objectives in that Kenyans, overwhelmingly, are tolerant of neighbours of different ethnicities, religions and political parties. 64 percent believe Kenya unites them more than it divides them.

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