Kenya’s democracy after ten years

Kenya’s democracy after ten years

By Prof John Harbeson

Kenya’s democratic Constitution reached its tenth birthday a year ago, the outcome of more than three decades of arduous effort by civil society, with strong international encouragement and support. It was widely regarded at the time and since as a model constitution, notably for the comprehensive array of personal liberties it enshrined. As Kenyans well know, the Constitution has remained aspirational to a significant extent since, ten years on, it has remained incompletely implemented, while aspirations to enact refining amendments have also been numerous.

Democracy promoting and measuring institutions led by Freedom House have decried a fifteen-year erosion of democratic progress worldwide and Africa. Freedom House derives its scores from specialist observers in each country based on 25 separate indicators.

Over that decade and a half, Freedom has found that average scores for all countries worldwide have declined from 62 (on a 0 to 100 scale) in 2005 to 56 in 2020 and for sub-Saharan Africa from 49 to 41. It has been found that Kenya’s scores have declined from 66 in 2005 to 56 in 2010 to 48 in 2020.

But how do African citizens evaluate the status of democracy in their respective countries? After all, they are the intended beneficiaries of democratic advances. Fortunately, we have the benefit of eight rounds of in-depth sample surveys of African citizens’ opinions of their political and economic circumstances conducted by Afrobarometer over twenty years in over thirty-five countries.

Kenyans have participated in each of these eight rounds. These surveys have produced great amounts of useful data, far more than can be summarized in one or even several short essays. Afrobarometer is a nonprofit corporation headquartered in Ghana that directs a nonpolitical research network conducting public attitude surveys. 

Thus, Afrobarometer surveys enable us to trace changes in Kenya citizens’ assessments of democracy over almost a decade, between 2010, the year of the Constitution, and the end of 2019. A major finding from this comparison is that, while Kenyans have plenty to complain about regarding the implementation of their constitution, by and large, they remain, if anything, more satisfied with and committed to democratization than in 2010. They reject one-party rule more emphatically (79% in 2019 to 69% in 2010), similarly opposing military rule (89% to 82%), albeit only barely ruled by the president alone (88% to 87%). Kenyans prefer democracy to all of these alternative political systems (75% to 73%).

Turning to the actual workings of democracy, Kenyans continue to support presidential term limits, albeit by a diminished majority (77.5% 2019, down from 83% in 2010.  Asked to choose between a preference for elected governments just to get things done, even at the expense of electoral accountability and insistence on full accountability, Kenyans chose the latter by a greatly increased majority (76% in 2019 to 54.5% in 2010). 

A major finding from this comparison is that, while Kenyans have plenty to complain about regarding the implementation of their constitution, by and large, they remain, if anything, more satisfied with and committed to democratization than in 2010

Asked to evaluate the quality of their democracy, a slightly increased percentage found Kenya to be a full democracy (11.5 up from 9.2%). In comparison, a very increased majority (57% up from 33%) now find Kenya to be a democracy despite relatively minor problems.

In contrast, a shrinking percentage believed Kenya democracy to be saddled with major problems (22%, down from 39%.), one of which, in other surveys, Kenyans believe to be rampant corruption. Asked to assess their level of satisfaction with the current state of their democracy, the percentage of very satisfied citizens stayed essentially constant at just under 10 percent. Still, the percentage finding themselves fairly satisfied jumped from 37 percent to 50percent.

A bedrock of sustained and sustainable democracy in Kenya and elsewhere is the status of individual freedoms so notable by their breadth in the 2010 Constitution. Here, the Afrobarometer surveys appear to reveal a continuing tentativeness and uncertainty on the part of citizens. Fewer Kenyans feel completely free to say what they think (48% down from 55%, and a significantly increased percentage (64% up from 44%) think one always has to be careful about what one says about politics.

Moreover, a significantly decreased percentage of Kenyans think themselves completely free to join any organization they choose to (58%, down from 66%). Support for media freedom has declined slightly, 59% to 56%, while support for associational freedom has remained essentially constant at just over 48 percent.

Finally, while an increased majority believe the president is bound by the law and court decisions (82%, up from 74.5%), only 44 percent (up from 30 %) believe the president never transgresses this requirement, and, more generally, 39 percent believe illegal official behavior always goes unpunished (up from 27%).

Overall, these data may suggest that Kenyans might concur with Freedom House that while the country remains only partially free and democratic, critically important is their continuing commitment to overcoming obstacles to becoming fully free and democratic.

— Author is a professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.

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