Rebooting democracy

Rebooting democracy

By Prof John Harbeson

As Kenyans went to the polls on August 9, in at least one important respect, they appeared to have already issued a verdict on their democracy even before the actual results of the voting had begun to be tallied. The percentage of eligible Kenyan voters who voted appeared to be the second lowest of the seven in the country’s democratic era, possibly no higher than 60 percent when all votes were counted. 

The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democratic Electoral Assistance (I.D.E.A) maintains a database of election turnout and other measures of democracy among the world’s countries. For Kenya, the following table exhibits IDEA’s turnout estimates for presidential and parliamentary elections for Kenya’s six previous democratic elections of its post-Cold War era. For both the presidential and parliamentary elections, turnout in 2022 appears likely to be below all but the 2002 tallies, though there has been considerable variation in turnouts over the last three decades.

Year Presidential Parliamentary
2017 70.49 77.39
2013 85.69 85.65
2007 69.09 69.06
2002 57.18 57.18
1997 83.86 65.45
1992 66.81 55.84

No one number adequately summarizes turnout percentages when multiple elections take place on the same day, as in Kenya, where six different elections have taken place simultaneously, including not just presidential and parliamentary ones but 47 county executive and legislative elections as well and 47 seats reserved for women, making possible quite different turnout tallies for different elections. 

Moreover, the significance of a turnout percentage can often be influenced by widely varied perceived and actual quality of electoral processes and underlying political, socioeconomic, and cultural circumstances. For example, disenchantment with the 2022 Kenya election processes on the part of youth, who have remained chronically unemployed, was widely noted in the run-up to election day. 

These turnout statistics, however important, must not obscure deeper issues of the greatest significance that have increasingly threatened democracy across the continent and in Kenya – a middle-range sub-Saharan African state, among neither the most viable and democratic nor among the least democratic, weakest, and most fragile. It is a partially free democracy to borrow Freedom House terminology. At the same time, and more fundamentally, Kenya is still a partially viable, at least somewhat fragile state, as Kenyans are well aware, not least from their own experience in the 2007-8 elections. As such, it is a state which retains a residual capacity to effectively pursue a sustainable democratic state even as it retains disabling weaknesses that render realization of that objective perhaps increasingly distant and elusive.

Democracy to the Rescue?

For a partially democratic state like Kenya, a fundamental question is to what extent have democratization processes have established a capacity not only to survive contestation with residual authoritarian governing tendencies but ultimately to prevail by transforming partially democratic states into fully democratic ones. For that objective to be within reach requires redefining the meaning of the state itself as it is conventionally understood.

An unspoken but, I would argue, nearly universal premise of academic and practitioner advocates of democracy is that democracy is not only an undeniable end in itself but also a necessary means of reforming and strengthening weak, fragile, post-colonial states, as well as dispatching autocratic rulers who predominated in the continent’s Cold War pre-democratic era, and beforehand in colonial times. 

For democratic practice to advance, that objective entails surfacing the rarely extensively examined questions of how to define what a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous political community in 21st Century Africa would look like, as well as to what extent prevalent understandings of the state may need revision to meet that requirement. 

In normal parlance, in both the academy and political practice, the state has been routinely tacitly assumed to be synonymous with legitimate bureaucratic power to compel and coerce. So doing has tacitly normalized reductionist expressions of the state derived from its conception by early 20th Century German philosopher Max Weber as an entity that legitimately monopolizes coercive power within a territorially defined compulsory political community. 

A besetting problem with the Weberian conception, however, has been that it has proven insufficiently open-ended to allow room for the introduction of core democratic principles of consent and accountability, even as its presumptively compulsory communities and questionably legitimate monopolized coercive power have proven pervasively weak and in much of sub-Saharan Africa. 

One of the best efforts in this area was a 1991 book by political scientist Samuel Huntington who sketched alternative scenarios for transitions from authoritarian rule that, in essence, embraced compromises between democratic and residual autocratic practices rather than ongoing initiatives to increasingly strengthen democracy and diminish authoritarian practices. At the same time, post-Cold War democratization has receded in the face of these infirmities rather than reforming and strengthening these states, gradually but clearly declining in Africa as well as worldwide since about 2005 after a preceding 15 years of steady progress.

A Cup Half Full or Half Empty?

Given the foregoing conceptual challenges to realizing fully democratic states, how does the contest to do so stand in practice in Kenya and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa? On the one hand, the apparent relatively low turnout in these Kenya elections has been interpreted by at least some as an indication of what one commentator observed as “disengagement and disillusionment” with democratic elections. 

To those of this persuasion, the continuing weakness and fragility of most sub-Saharan African states are belied by the seeming imperviousness of obstacles to genuine democratic reform. To many, elections have appeared to result in neither reform of governmental corruption nor improvement in the lives of citizens in this relatively stronger economy by continental standards. Meanwhile, as many as one-third of the population currently may be food insecure or worse, and at least similar percentages of youth are unable to secure gainful employment. 

On the other hand, the high-water mark for turnout in both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Kenya occurred in 2013, the first since the passage of its long-sought democratically approved 2010 Constitution. This election clearly bespoke popular optimism concerning Kenya’s future as an effectively and sustainably governed democratic state. That subsequent turnout numbers have suggested noticeable cooling of that optimism does not necessarily foreclose its restoration, given quality political and societal leadership capable of mobilizing restoration of transparent and accountable democratic momentum. 

Clearly, even certifiably free and fair elections for governmental leadership alone are not necessarily sufficient to the larger end of establishing a sustainable, vibrant democratic state. Some measures of deeper consent and accountability must pervade society and the economy as a whole if these principles are to prevail, allowing civil society groups to check and counter-balance those serving in government. In other words, the objective is to establish terms on which individuals and groups can consent to shared membership in the state itself as citizens and not only as subjects of compulsory associational membership and governmental coercion.

Democracy in Practice

The 2022 Freedom House surveys and the recently completed eighth round of surveys of Afrobarometer of African citizens’ thoughts about the merits of democracy, as practiced in now over thirty countries, including Kenya, facilitate assessments of where Kenya and other African countries stand as between the foregoing more pessimistic and more residually optimistic perspectives on the African democratic state. Freedom House assessments are based on the views of experts resident in each country, while Afrobarometer surveys gauge the views of random samples of individual citizens.

Perhaps the most encouraging Freedom House finding is that after over the thirty years of sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic era, even after the last fifteen years of democratic decline, overall, the continent is still more democratic in 2022 than it was in 1990. Since its inception in 1972, Freedom House has used a seven-point scale, 1 to 7, where 1 is high, to assess (1) the status of rights to political participation and to accountable, transparent governance and (2) freedom of political expression and association secured by the rule of law. Scores of 1 and 2 indicate a country that is free and democratic. Scores of 6 and 7 have indicated countries that are unfree and undemocratic. Scores of 3 to 5 indicate a country that is partially free and democratic.  

In 1990, the beginning of democracy’s “third wave” in Africa, collectively its countries averaged 5.62 on political rights and 5.11 on expression and associational rights, or teetering on the line between partially free and unfree. Fifteen years later, in 2005, those scores were 3.31 and 3.99, respectively, well into the partially free and democratic range. For Kenya, they were 6 and 6 in 1990 and 3 and 3, respectively, in 2005, a movement from definitely unfree and undemocratic in the middle of the presidency of Daniel arap Moi to the top of the partially free range during the presidency of Mwai Kibaki. Sixteen years later, in 2021, the continental averages have declined to 4.80 and 4.45, and for Kenya 4 and 4, still above the 1990 scores but heading downward toward the 1990 base year.

Since 2006, Freedom House has released numerical scores of 0 to 100 based on scores of 0 to 4 on each of 25 questions, on which the foregoing summary 1 to 7 scores are, in turn, based. Scores of 70 or above indicate a free and democratic country, those below 30 undemocratic, authoritarian rule, and those in between are considered partially free and democratic. These scores highlight the aforementioned democratic decline of the last fifteen years. For African countries as a group, overall scores have declined from 49 to 42 between 2006 and 2021. 

Kenya’s democratic decline from 66 to 48 over this period is the sharpest in the continent. Kenya dropped six points in 2008 alone as a result of the violently disputed election that required the services of a former U.N. Secretary-General to bring to an end. The country’s otherwise more gradual democratic decline can be attributed at least in part to endemic corruption and the failure to fully implement provisions of its model 2010 Constitution in ways that combat that corruption and promote greater socioeconomic equity.

Toward the Democratic States?: Citizen Perspectives

Given this expert opinion describing democratic decline over the past fifteen years, including particularly sharply in Kenya, how do citizens themselves in Kenya and across the continent assess their democratic experience over this period? To what extent do they concur with expert opinion that democracy has been in decline in this century so far? To the extent they do, to what extent do they retain optimism that democracy is preferable to alternative systems of government? How do their assessments of democratization to date bear on the larger question of its impact on the democratic transformation of the state itself? Where do Kenya’s citizens stand on these questions?

Afrobarometer has conducted eight rounds of surveys of African opinion about democracy and their socioeconomic and cultural circumstances in now over thirty countries over the last two decades. Of particular interest are the findings of its surveys of citizens in twenty-nine countries in 2021 compared to those of a decade ago in 2013. Overall, Kenyans appear to join those of other nations across the continent in retaining a fairly strong belief in democracy as their preferred form of government, even as their skepticism about its merits in practice has significant potentially adverse consequences for prospects of ultimately fully democratizing their states. 

The most encouraging finding of the 2021 surveys is that citizens’ support for democracy as their preferred form of government has declined only slightly from what it was in 2013. 68.7  percent of respondents continued to uphold democracy as their preference in 2021, down from only 71.7  percent in 2013. Kenyans expressed greater than average support at 73 percent in 2013, actually increasing to 75.3 percent in 2021. 

Juxtaposing continued citizen support for democracy with the evidence of its decline in recent years, especially in the case of Kenya, poses the query of what it might take to activate civil society pressure on governmental bodies to reverse democratic decline. Civil society groups were vitally important in pressing for democratic reform in the 1990s, albeit with strong international support, again notably in Kenya. International support has continued but less single-mindedly given a profoundly changed 21st Century international order.

When it comes to specific democratic practices, Kenyans and citizens of African countries in the Afrobarometer surveys have presented a mixed picture on the exercise of basic democratic liberties and a corresponding only moderate inclination to demand more democracy than they presently enjoy. Less than a majority, 48.8 percent, felt it safe to say out loud what they actually think on given issues, decreasing to 41.2 percent in 2021.  54.9 percent of Kenyans believed they could do so in 2013, slipping to 48.0 percent in 2021. While 66.5 percent of Africans believed they enjoyed unrestricted freedom to join any organization they chose in 2021, up from 65.0 percent a decade earlier, only 47.7 percent of Kenyans believed they enjoyed that right in 2021, up from 46.1 percent in 2013. However, moderately strong majorities increased their support for media freedom from 56.0 percent to 62.6 percent over this decade, while smaller majorities of Kenyans shared that belief, declining slightly from 59.4 percent in 2013 to 58.2 percent in 2021. 

Against a history of generally unsuccessful efforts in the first decades of independence to establish single-party democratic regimes, comfortable majorities across the continent have established a preference for competitive multi-party regimes, by 65.8 percent in 2013, slipping only to 64.0  percent a decade later. Over the same period, Kenyans have actually significantly increased their support for multi-party democracy by 60.6  percent to 71.0 percent, notable given significant state-weakening conflict in all but one of the country’s first democratic elections and potentially the current one as well. But the very disturbing underpinning of these assessments of democratic elections in the 2021 Afrobarometer surveys is that majorities in only ten of the countries in the 2021 surveys have believed elections to be effective in retiring failed leaders, amounting to an average of only 44.6 percent, and only 42.6 percent for Kenya.

Partial Democracy and State Institutions. A mixed democratic record in sub-Saharan ‘Africa, including Kenya, in the opinions of both experts and citizens, including Kenya, has suggested that not only has democratization in practice not advanced realization of fully democratic states, but it may actually have contributed to their weakening. In combination with citizen perceptions across the continent that nearly 60 percent believe corruption increasing (Kenyans 64 percent), 64 percent find the government ineffective in addressing it (Kenyans 63 percent). 75.5 percent think it unsafe to report corruption for fear of reprisals (Kenyans 69 percent). 

Thus, it is plausible to hypothesize that weakened support for democratic institutions has resulted as they currently exist. In fact, only 41.6 percent of those in the Afrobarometer surveys expressed trust in presidential institutions as distinct from their actual performance in 2021, down from 53.8 percent in 2013, although Kenyans actually recorded increased trust, from 60.7 percent to 66 percent. Kenyans also retained trust in their parliament at 49 percent over the decade, while across the continent parliamentary trust declined significantly, from 53.8 percent to 41.6 percent.

Perhaps most worrisome, the percentage of Africans who have moved away from complete or predominant identification with their residual ethnic communities to total or predominant identification with their nation-states has actually declined over the last decade, from 47.8 percent to 39.8 percent, and for Kenyans, the decline was even greater, from 55.8 percent to only a minority at 38.1 percent. 

In short, rebooting democratization is essential if state decline is to be reversed and a quest for fully democratic states is resumed. (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign Up