First published by ISS Today
Will Kenya change for the better if citizens adopt proposed solutions to the country’s political governance problems in attempts to steer it clear of ethnic strife and destruction? These proposals are contained in a report crafted to peacefully introduce reforms for the first time in Kenya, less than a decade after the promulgation of a constitution hailed as the most progressive in the region.
The Building Bridge Initiative (BBI) report is one of many attempts by Kenyans to change the structure of government with hopes that this will extricate the country from negative ethnicity. The trouble with Kenya is the dominant political culture that has tended to reduce each reform attempt to the banal exercise of dividing the national cake, further complicating political, social and economic dynamics.
In the past, similar initiatives have come with feverish political agitation and bloodshed. They have also been hijacked by politicians who use ethnicity to divide Kenyans while looking after their own interests, at the expense of wider societal interest.
Launched on 26 November by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, his main presidential challenger, the report is packaged as a quest to make Kenya more inclusive. The two unexpectedly shook hands in March 2018 to end post-election unrest following disputed presidential elections in 2017. The handshake epitomised both political wisdom and personal ambition at great and complex political risk: Kenyatta stepped out of his presidential comfort zone while Odinga stepped down from his elusive search of an allegedly stolen presidential victory.
It took most Kenyans by surprise. From a historical perspective, it symbolised the regrouping of political dynasties to serve mutual political interests. From a strategic perspective, political survival necessitated the handshake: Kenyatta needed peace to rule and deliver his legacy while Odinga needed to save face following a sterile self-declaration as people’s president.
Nonetheless, it ended months of political protests, averting further violence and death, a common feature of Kenya’s elections. But it didn’t solve the deep-rooted problems that always send Kenyans back to the drawing board of political reforms. Time and again over the past three decades, every election ushers in a cycle of economic paralysis as politicians compete to outdo each other in brinksmanship, fanning fears of electoral crisis and driving the country to the edge of the political abyss.
Due to polarising politics, every five years the country’s economic situation worsens as the business climate deteriorates, foreign investment declines and tourism earnings dip. With donor funding decreasing following the attainment of middle-income-country status, the government relies on expensive foreign loans to fund infrastructure projects. The debt burden now threatens to choke the economy and soaring inflation is making life for ordinary Kenyans difficult.
The launch of the BBI report comes after two major reform processes. The first, spanning two decades, culminated in a new constitution promulgated in 2010. It was characterised by violent protests and fatalities as Kenyans agitated for change. Its main highlights were an imperial presidential system, devolved county governments and two-tier representation that came with a heavy national wage burden.
The second reform process was triggered by mediation of the 2007-8 post-election violence that identified specific areas to target for reform in order to avert further election-related violence. Against popular expectations, vested political interests have put on hold the discussion and possible implementation of recommendations from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, just as many others before it. This has dashed hopes of such reports providing the antidote for Kenya’s deadly election cycles and enduring problems of trapping ethnicity.
The BBI report has rallied unity in the country and gained politicians’ endorsement, instantly becoming the blue-eyed baby of all political camps. However, while any constructive debate it triggers may be welcome and timely to politicians, Kenya doesn’t need another report to save it.
What Kenya needs to clear its murky political landscape characterised by tribal, political, religious and economic animosity is honesty and courage by the political leadership. This leadership must govern the country according to constitutional principles and free the nation from the shackles of blinding ethnicity, poverty, corruption and mismanagement from national to county level.
The measures the BBI report proposes would merely treat the symptoms rather than what really troubles an otherwise promising nation. Streamlining legislative representation and granting county governments more powers and funds, curbing negative ethnicity, fighting corruption, fostering patriotism and empowering the youth and women can be dealt with without amending the constitution.
A hybrid presidential and parliamentary system, a president and a prime minister who share power, an official opposition leader in parliament and politicians in the cabinet will only gratify the elite, and won’t address fundamental issues in a far-reaching way.
Debate on the BBI report has immediately shifted to the next steps rather than the issues it raises. The spotlight of the debate is on political bigwigs and tribal chiefs whose views remain dominant. This points to a bumpy road ahead for the proposed reforms even before the ink dries on the report. The debate gravitates around Kenyatta, Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto. The president’s interest is the legacy he’ll leave while the other two are keen to maintain their head start ahead of the 2022 presidential election.
Past constitutional amendments have solved little. Debate around the distribution of resources and ending election violence are more important. Political parties and not individual candidates ought to contest legislative positions and then appoint legislators to strengthen democracy and minimise the need for poll rigging and fraud.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, inclusivity, unity and an end to corruption and ethnic antagonism remain at the centre of Kenyans’ concerns. If resources and power aren’t distributed equally and horizontally in future, peace and tranquillity are unlikely to be guaranteed in Kenya. No matter how well-meaning, inclusion politics without genuine national interests at heart will only have a placebo effect on Kenya’s terminal illness. DM
Dr Roba Sharamo is Regional Director and Representative to the AU, Horn and East Africa, Duncan E Omondi Gumba, Regional Co-ordinator for East and Horn of Africa and Mohamed Daghar, researcher, Regional Organised Crime Observatory for East and Horn of Africa, ENACT project, ISS
The US constitution document is lowered into a bomb-proof bunker every night.