A Kenyan Democratic State?

A Kenyan Democratic State?
Kenyans continue to prefer democracy, and over the last decade, a fully democratic Kenyan state has appeared to become more visible over the horizon, albeit still elusive.

By Prof John Harbeson

Last month, I reviewed the recently released 2019-20 Afrobarometer survey of citizen opinion on Kenya’s democratic progress. I compared opinion on this subject currently to what it was in an earlier 2011 Afrobarometer survey when Kenya had just passed its model 2010 constitution, the outcome of more than twenty years of determined civil society advocacy.

Today, the question is to what degree Kenya’s democratic experience has democratized the Kenya state over the last decade, drawing again on the same two rounds of Afrobarometer survey data. In my experience, this question is routinely and tacitly glossed over by my academic colleagues and in everyday parlance when, in fact, it is a fundamental, complex, and profound question. The pervasive reality of many fragile states is well understood and carefully examined worldwide annually by the Washington-based Fund for Peace. But, curiously, the question of to what extent democratic practice has resulted in a less fragile, stronger state is rarely addressed. Indeed, there seems to be a common tacit assumption that the more a country’s government is structured according to its democratically designed Constitution, ipso facto, the less fragile its state. 

The Fund for Peace has found that assumption to be, in fact, valid for Kenya. The Fund gauges state fragility by twelve indicators using a ten-point scale. The higher the score on each indicator, the greater the fragility, a total score of 120 indicating maximum fragility. In 2020, Kenya today remained the 29th most fragile state worldwide and the 20th most fragile of 49 sub-Saharan states with a total score of 90.3, but this reflected a 10.3% improvement from its 100.7 score in 2010.

Kenya’s 2020 score reflected at least minimal improvement on all 12 indicators, led by lower scores of at least one whole point in the areas of human rights and the rule of law (1.5), state legitimacy (1.4), uneven economic development (1.4), refugees and internally displaced persons (1.3), and external intervention (1.2). At an improved score of 0.9 for stronger economic development and reduced poverty levels, just misses this list. The human rights and the rule of law score suggests a definitional link between a core dimension of democracy and reduced state fragility, while the others suggest possibly important correlations, if not causal connections.

The connection between democratization and state legitimacy suggested by the Fund’s findings is more problematic, fundamental, and routinely obscured. Self-evidently, to be legitimate, a structurally democratic and reasonably strong state must also enjoy the approbation of its citizens. The problem is, on the one hand, how to disaggregate the state from the ruling regime that presides over it and, on the other hand, constitutionally structured democracy from what citizens think of that democratic structure. In addition, it is necessary to disaggregate citizen assessments of political performance from the more fundamental matter of the extent to which citizens retain a belief in the appropriateness of the democratic structure erected in their name and with their approval. Simply stated, those three necessary disaggregation exercises are routinely collapsed in academic and everyday political parlance and thus escape systematic inquiry.

The problem is, on the one hand, how to disaggregate the state from the ruling regime that presides over it and, on the other hand, constitutionally structured democracy from what citizens think of that democratic structure.

The Afrobarometer surveys are among the very few that contemplate disaggregating the status of the state from the performance of the ruling regime presiding over it, its strength as estimated by the Fund for Peace, from citizen continued belief in the appropriateness of democratic structures constructed in citizens’ name and for which they presumably voted. The surveys at least approximate this by gauging the extent to which citizens proclaim trust in the offices created by their constitutional structures. 

On balance, the Afrobarometer surveys suggest noticeably increased but yet mixed Kenyan citizen trust in their constitutional structures over the decade since passage of the 2010 Constitution. Thus, 67.2% of respondents expressed “some” or “lots” of trust in the office of the presidency versus 31.9% who reported “none” or only “a little” trust in the office, up from 2010 figures of 60.7% and 37.2%, respectively.

By contrast, citizens expressed only a one percent change concerning members of Parliament. They trust the new decentralized County legislative assemblies created by the 2010 Constitution more than the preceding local government structures (42% “lots” or “some” v. 37.3%), albeit still well short of majority approbation. They trust police under the new Constitution more than before (39 % to 31.9%), notwithstanding widespread complaints about their behavior.

Most Kenyans continue to trust the courts (56.7% to 61.2%), but less so after a decade under the new Constitution than before, especially noteworthy given the high court’s unprecedented order of a re-run of the 2017 national elections due to irregularities in the first run.

Overall, Kenyans continue to prefer democracy, and over the last decade, a fully democratic Kenyan state has appeared to become more visible over the horizon, albeit still elusive.

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

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