Integrity test must be set at the ballot

Integrity test must be set at the ballot

The silly season is here with us once again. Next month, Kenyans head to the polls to elect their political leaders for the next five years. It is the season that common sense takes leave from us. We shall conduct the periodic ritual of sending all manner of characters to represent us in the august houses, both in the counties and at the national level. As is the norm, Kenyans will pick their worst sons and daughters, and then cry until the next cycle. It is the season for murderers, con artists, money launderers, rapists, wife barterers, and the looting elite to shine at the ballot. 

Someone lied to us that democracy is an end in itself. Is it? For democracy has turned Africa into the laughing stock of the world.

Democratic chaos 

The challenges of transposing Western models of governance to African countries are there for all to see. Wherever you look, democracy is breeding chaos and suffering. While liberalism and democracy have brought individual freedoms vital for human agency, liberty has come at a considerable cost to the general welfare of society. 

Some thinkers are beginning to question the value of liberal ideas such as equality of vote. Dambisa Moyo, the internationally acclaimed economist from Zambia, for instance, has suggested a system of weighted voting that provides a reward to voters who are more engaged and those who have an understanding of the political process. The average voter, she argues, is swayed by things as mundane as the colour of the pantsuit an electoral candidate is wearing. And this is the tragedy of democracy. Dambisa’s proposal to turn this truism around is to ensure voters are informed about the democratic process. She suggests a system that will ensure eligible voters must understand the basics of governance and how the political process works. Those with more education and a better understanding of the political and civic process should have a vote with more weight than the less woke. A civics exam should be the bare minimum for anyone intending to participate in electoral processes.

These are crazy ideas that are antithetical to the very spirit of democracy and equality. But democracy needs reform and innovation to survive a renewed onslaught from benevolent dictatorships. Leaders like Paul Kagame and Xi Jing Ping are fast becoming the envy of the world. The increasing traction of the Chinese model is a gradual challenge to the post-war liberal order. The disciplined and orderly society that Kagame has cultivated in Rwanda today is a dream for many African countries. 

Kenyan situation

In Kenya, the constitution and the people are at cross-purposes. Many Kenyans are out of sync with the requirements of a liberal constitution. Where the constitution asks for integrity, Kenyans give deceit; where it asks for transparency, Kenyans go opaque; where the Constitution calls for morality, Kenyans give perversion; rule of law is replaced with rule of man; public servants become masters; the honorable becomes the deplorable; and the entire system has become one big mess. 

A key highlight of the Constitution is its lofty normative prescriptions in relation to leadership and integrity. While the constitution has imposed a high threshold on the calibre of leadership for public office, Kenyans don’t share in these lofty ambitions of the Constitution. A decade later, we seem not to understand our sacred duty under the Constitution. We have an abnormal yearning for leaders of dubious moral character. We adore the looting elites and scramble for the crumbs they throw our way every election cycle.  We are a really exceptional people in the manner we exercise our popular franchise. And the elites have internalized our vulnerabilities.

Kenyans loathe leaders who don’t like cutting corners. You must show “street credibility” to cut teeth in Kenyan politics. You must be the “bad boy” or the “bad girl”. And this explains the rush for “river road” university degrees.

Leadership and integrity

The vision of the 2010 Constitution is to have a public sector leadership that is like Caesar’s wife – beyond reproach. I like to think of Chapter Six as the heart and the soul of the Constitution. It calls for leaders who respect the Constitution and the people; bring honour to the nation and dignity to the office; leaders who are servants rather than rulers. It calls for leaders who are objective and impartial; selfless, honest, accountable, and committed. Chapter Six also envisions leaders who don’t use public office for personal gain, who don’t demean the offices they occupy. It calls for the dismissal of those in conflict with its spirit and purpose. And those dismissed are debarred from holding any other state office. The situation on the ground is a far cry from the clear intentions of the constitution. Chapter Six sounds like one that was plucked from an academic thesis. Yet, it should serve as our grund norm. 

Kenyans should not blame institutions such as the Judiciary, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), and others for failure to enforce Chapter Six. Voting remains the best mechanism for achieving the lofty principles and ideals of the Constitution. In fact, citizens lack the moral authority to point fingers at other institutions. 

Of course, the Judiciary takes the blame for its failure to set a clear standard for integrity under chapter six. IEBC is equally culpable for turning itself into a clearing house for all manner of discredited aspirants. But it is voters who must lead the way. When voters flood legislative chambers with societal misfits, the judiciary cannot help. Judges cannot choose leaders for us. It is as simple as that. 

The true test for integrity must be set at the ballot.  (

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