“Crisis in Kenya: What Lessons for Democracy?”

It is not accidental that the wealthiest Kenyans today have been or still are in some form of “public service” whether it is as politicians, as civil servants, or in public companies.

Maina Kiai, Kenyan human rights activist, addresses the fifth assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Kiev on April 6th, 2008.

Fellow democrats and friends:

I am indeed privileged to have been given this opportunity to share some thoughts with you on the question of democracy especially after the flawed elections in Kenya in December 2007. For the first 2 months of this year, Kenya grabbed headlines across the world, as the country descended into chaos and violence—with more than 1000 dead in less than a month and 300,000 others displaced from their homes–following the announcement of presidential election results. In much of that international coverage, one could discern the unspoken thoughts of “here we go again, yet another African country descending into tribal violence.”

But to many observers there was an element of shock and alarm that Kenya could go this “typical African way.” For years, Kenya had come to be regarded as perhaps that one African country that was “a little different.” After all, Kenya had avoided military coups and major conflicts and wars; Kenya was the hub for humanitarian and other interventions in the sub-region; it was the country that hosted refugees not one that generated them. It was the only country in the South hosting a headquarters of the United Nations!

It had a substantial tourism industry, and tourism can only thrive on stability. It was a major exporter of flowers to the west and what more powerful symbol of peace is there than a flower? Moreover, Kenya has a significant number of expatriates who have left stable countries and chosen to settle there. This was the land of amazing wildlife, contrasting landscapes and white beaches; the land of exotic people like the Maasai. It was the country of the award winning film, “Out of Africa.”

Yes, Kenya has had its share of massive grand corruption and kleptomaniacs in powerful positions and it has suffered occasional inter-ethnic conflicts. Yes, it had all-powerful presidents who made major public policy pronouncements in off-the-cuff speeches by the roadside. Yes, it had difficulties allowing freedom of expression and association.

But it was one of very few African countries that had managed to hold regular elections since independence, no matter that the outcome of many of these elections was pre-determined. It had the trappings of democracy with a functioning Parliament, complete with a wigged Speaker, bedecked in flowing red robes, just as they have in Britain. It had a judiciary with judges that always wore heavy white wigs, just as they do in Britain, (and don’t mind the heat in Kenya), and were addressed “Your Lordship.” It had a vibrant civil society that had muscled concessions from the state especially following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the base of foreign media always prepared to jump onto a plane and cover the incessant wars and conflicts across Africa.

With all that then, how could it have gone so wrong? How could the world fail to read and predict the inherent instability? How could a population, long used to pre-determined elections, now arise and reject them so violently?

Clearly one of the most important lessons is that we need to look beyond the forms and façades of democracy to the substance of it. Democracy must mean more than having legislatures that sit and simply endorse the wishes of the Executive, or when they differ, it is to perpetuate their personal interests. It must mean more than having judges sitting all decked up on a raised bench but afraid to make decisions that upset the Executive. And it must mean more than holding periodic elections.

A wise man once said that democracy is more about what happens between elections than elections themselves. And on this cardinal principle, Kenya—and many other countries such as Zimbabwe–falls flat. Also failing are the international support programs that look at elections as an event, rather than a process.

Kenya is a country with a constitution that provides for an imperial presidency where the holder of the office can run the country as a personal fiefdom. It is a country where the President gives out public land and forests to anyone he fancies. He decides who becomes a judge, alone. He forms the Election Commission, alone. He can create any public office and staff it with anyone he wants at whatever salary he wishes. He can fire almost anyone he wants to. He decides if Parliament will sit for 30 days in a year or 180 days. He decides which regions will have what development, and which ones will remain marginalized.

Between elections, it is the legislature’s job to hold the Executive accountable. And if it cannot, or will not, make the Executive change its decisions and policies–in line with public interest and views–it becomes irrelevant in making democracy work.

Legislatures must be responsive to their voters and geared to serving the public rather than themselves. In Kenya our legislature has been remarkably effective at serving itself. Sample some facts: $150,000 per year in mostly un-taxable income; interest-free mortgages; grants to buy cars of $50,000; generous life-time pensions of up to $4,000 a month after serving for 5 years; and a gratuity payment of $ 22,000 at the end of each 5 year term (perhaps to assist them in their campaigns for re-election).

The sum effect of these perks is that our MPs—among the highest paid in the world– are so comfortable that they lose touch with the voters and for the majority seeking elective office is about the money, not about serving the public. Let us not forget, ladies and gentlemen, that Kenya has a GNP of about $600 per person per year and is in the bottom 25 countries in the UNDP Development Index while these perks for MPs range in the top 5 countries in the world! More than 40% of all Kenyans live on less than a dollar a day!

Moreover, our parliament has been consistently undermined by the fact that it is from among them that the Cabinet is formed. And in Kenya, the status of Ministers is not only way higher than that of ordinary MPs, but they earn almost double, and as Ministers, they have the ability to dispense favors and contracts and influence—for an extra fee! It is therefore the rare person who enters Parliament without the desire of being appointed a Minister.

It is for these reasons that Kenya will soon have a Cabinet of 40 ministers and an additional 50 assistant ministers out of a parliament of 222: More than 42% of the parliament will be in the Executive! Clearly this is a lesson that the world should not learn from Kenya, unless the desire is to discredit democracy.

Adding to this façade of democracy, Kenya’s other major problem remains endemic, chronic corruption where public office is seen as a vehicle to loot coffers, with little risk of being held accountable. It has become a way of life for the political and civil service elite and is one of the reasons that Cabinet positions and high public service positions are in such high demand in Kenya. Despite the high official perks that come with these offices, what one can make from corruption is way more important and valuable!

It is not accidental that the wealthiest Kenyans today have been or still are in some form of “public service” whether it is as politicians, as civil servants, or in public companies.

Elected on a platform of zero-tolerance to corruption in 2002, President Kibaki’s handling of his first major test on a matter of grand corruption within his regime (the Anglo Leasing scandals) dashed the hopes of Kenyans and forced his Special Advisor on anti-corruption to flee into exile in 2005.

Finally, our inability to confront our deep-seated grievances, and historical injustices played a role in accentuating the crisis. Since independence there have been underlying issues of inequality on individual, regional and ethnic lines. There have been issues of perceived favoritism of communities that have had access to presidential power and its attendant patronage; issues of land ownership; and serious human rights violations by state agencies and powerful people that have been swept under the carpet for far too long.

The lesson here is that ignoring our problems by pretending that they don’t exist does not work. In 2004 a Presidential Task Force recommended the formation of a Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission to address past state-instigated and sponsored conflicts in the Rift Valley, among other major injustices. The President declined to implement the Task Force’s recommendations, on the basis that he needed the support of the region’s leaders to shore up his fledgling political alliance at the time. But the net effect is that the Rift Valley again, was at the epicenter of some of the worst violence in the present crisis—some with state support and some without– as it did not take much to re-activate the militia from the 1990s. Simply put, the message to perpetrators was clear: you can get away with murder if you are close enough to the government of the day.

And through all these, where have Kenya’s international “friends” been? Rather than confront the problem, Kenya’s international allies decided that they would accept the regime’s promises and continue business as usual. So even after the pathetic handling of grand corruption, World Bank lending to Kenya doubled from 2005. UNDP Kenya touted Kenya as a success story and championed partnership with the government on the basis of its rhetoric, as well as based on a perverse notion of increasing core budget support no matter the credibility of the regime, creating an intimacy between UNDP leadership and regime leadership that precluded objectivity when it was most needed.

Bi-lateral donors lined up to offer assistance for both development and recurrent expenditure. A significant part of our free primary education program is funded by the international community despite the fact that if we cut down our wastage in high, obscene and ostentatious public expenditures we would probably fund free primary education ourselves.

Of these bi-lateral programs the most absurd is the Governance, Justice, Law and Order Sectors Reform Program, whose theme was improved governance. This was a well intentioned program at its inception but even when it became clear that the central ingredient of political will to reform was absent—after the non-action on corruption; the sending of masked armed police led by strange mercenaries with official police accreditation to attack a private media station; and increased negative and hard-line rhetoric and action by the Minister of Justice against independent voices and critics—the program continued as normal, focusing on modernization, rather than reform. The current crisis in Kenya is a crisis of governance, ridiculing the program and its donors.

But what explains then the rejection by Kenyans—in a deeply violent and repugnant form of violence—of the flawed elections? Why now and not before since none of these issues are new?

I believe that the reaction to the flawed elections has deep roots in the fact that Kenya has been on a forward democratic trajectory since 1992 when multi-party politics was restored, and Kenyans have come to appreciate and guard jealously their hard won freedoms. Democratic space has been painstakingly and painfully expanded each year since, but exploded with the defeat of former President Moi’s KANU in the 2002 elections.

It is a space that many politicians—on all sides–would rather not have as it has led to more vocal criticisms, exposure of wrongdoing, and a citizenry prepared to challenge political leaders in ways never imagined before. The media can claim a significant role in the empowerment of Kenyans and it is not surprising that it is often the first target in efforts to retract this democratic space. Kenya’s broad and vibrant civil society—from NGOs to religious bodies–has been critical in the expansion and protection of this space, legitimizing a culture of protest from the 1990s; providing ideas and mobilization on issues such as constitutional reform and accountability; providing havens and alternatives; and for acting as the voice of the voiceless.

It is also important to note that Kenyan elections have been progressively better and fairer since 1992, culminating in the 2002 elections that were the best ever, and resulted in regime change, and the 2005 constitutional referendum that the government lost. The effect of these last two plebiscites was that Kenyans finally believed in the power of the vote as a way of peacefully resolving differences, and as a legitimate way to change leaders; a fact confirmed by the fact that the recent parliamentary elections saw almost 70% of incumbents lose their seats. When this sense of empowerment was subverted in the manipulated presidential elections—watched live on TV by voters–and peaceful legal spaces for protests were disallowed, it was not surprising that frustrations boiled over and violence ensued.

Let me emphasize that I do not support the violence that occurred. With most Kenyans, I mourn the lives of those killed whether through police shootings in western Kenya or through citizen and militia actions in the Rift Valley. There must be full accountability for this violence—no sacred cows–and it is for this reason that the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights together with local and international partners is documenting and gathering evidence which at present suggests complicity on both sides at very high levels.

In conclusion, I would suggest that if we are to make democracy work anywhere in the world, a paradigm shift is necessary. We must move from the forms of democracy to the substance of it. And it is here that structures such as competent independent Election bodies are indispensable. It is here that competent, non-partisan anti-corruption bodies—in structure and personnel–are vital. It is here that a functioning and effective parliament must be created. It is here that a proper justice system from policing to prisons and including the judiciary is critical. And it is here that legitimate spaces for independent media and civil society are necessary. All these structures depend on sustainable and sensible constitutional and legal frameworks that have the people they serve at their core, rather than leaders and political elites.

But while structures and systems are critical, we must never forget that democracy is about people. It is about shifting power from leaders to the people themselves especially in the periods between elections.

This is the time to invest in people, and in their empowerment. This is the time to invest in bottom-up strategies that give ordinary people the guts, ideas and power to hold their leaders accountable and to enable them to force their leaders to listen. This is the new challenge for the pro-democracy movement and one that we must adopt urgently, and as creatively as possible. There are many lessons to learn from across the world and more needs to be done in cross fertilizing what other societies have done and are doing in people empowerment.

As for Kenya, I believe that Kenyans will prevail in this continuing struggle for democracy, respect and development. There is a wind of change blowing through the Kenyan people who are demanding respect from the leadership on both sides, even though the leadership appears deaf. The people are ahead of their leaders.

It is the Kenyan people—irrespective of political or ethnic affiliation–who have championed and demanded a lean cabinet rather than a bloated one. And though it currently looks as though the political class has triumphed with one of the world’s most bloated cabinets, I am optimistic that this is not the end of this struggle and the Kenyan people—who will bear the cost of the bloated cabinet through their taxes, even as the regime seeks international assistance for recovery and reconstruction—will keep sending reminders to the political class.

And in these struggles, we expect support from our international friends for a pro-people approach to democracy assistance. This is not about meeting targets on how much has been dispensed and therefore supporting regimes based on their rhetoric. This is about focusing on the realities on the ground and ensuring that the actions of regimes are indeed focused on the people rather than on themselves. For why should a regime that pays its leaders more than the leaders of donor countries be supported financially? Why should a regime that refuses to reclaim funds from corruption stashed abroad be supported? Why should a regime that uses tax revenues to build mansions and buy limousines for its leaders turn around and beg for assistance to buy food for its hungry children?

This is the challenge of our times and we must be ready to meet it. The world deserves no less, and we here have a duty to succeed. We must and we will succeed.

Thank you.


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