Saturday, July 24, 2010

An overhaul of democracy in Kenya?

I thought I’d experiment with this genre of writing, and there seemed no better time to start than when staying in a country buzzing excitedly and jittering nervously all at once about the potential of a history-making referendum. The referendum (to be held on 4 August) marks the most substantial overhaul of Kenya’s constitution since independence in 1963, and many Kenyans seem as concerned about whether the voting will pass off without substantial violence as with the result. The President (Mwai Kibaki) and the Prime Minister (Raila Odinga), who were at loggerheads during the 2007 election and the violent aftermath, are both pushing strongly in favour of the proposed changes. The most contentious issues in the proposed constitution are the language on abortion, the redrawing of constituencies and the increase in their numbers, and a proposed minimum and maximum acreage on landholding, aimed at righting historical injustices. Supporters say that the draft constitution does much for the recognition of the needs of women and minorities, whereas opponents say that the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and a supreme court will come at too high a cost to taxpayers.
I haven’t actually met anyone opposed to the constitutional revision (and the most recent opinion polls show the ‘yes’ campaign with a solid lead), but most of the country’s clergy, some cabinet ministers, and former-President Daniel Arap Moi (no great friend to democracy in Kenya) are leading the charge against reform, which they argue would open the door to easy access to abortions, the unfair confiscation of land, and the unfair redistribution of constituencies. Amongst those Kenyans I’ve spoken to who support the package, there exists a broad range of reasons for their backing. Some see the proposed constitution as a genuinely good one. Others think that it is something that simply needs to be done so that the country can move on (one law student said that things like the promised land reform and the establishment of a Supreme Court should have come immediately following independence, and that too many of the country’s institutions resemble the colonial edifice they were ostensibly replacing). Many Kenyans see the constitution as a starting point for a shake-up of the country’s political culture.
So far, there have been some instances of dirty-practise on the part of both the Greens and the Reds (the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns respectively). The government stands accused of throwing civil servants onto the campaign trail, and thereby compromising their impartiality, whereas the ‘no’ campaign has resorted to shameless scaremongering. President Kibaki is accused of promising new constituencies in exchange for a ‘Yes’ vote, and both sides are relying as much on local power bases as on cogent argument.
But the energy is palpable, with rallies being held daily, newspapers and television hosting count-downs, and a genuine effort on the part of the press and other organisations and institutions to get people informed (the National Archives, for example, has signs posted ‘round its corridors encouraging people to request one of its copies of the draft constitution). And unusually, the support of influential Americans—Obama, Biden (who recently visited the country) and the outspoken Ambassador Michael Ranneberger—is seen as a boost to the ‘Yes’ campaign.
If the draft becomes law after 4 August, the question of effective implantation moves centre stage, and it remains to be seen if the nods towards the rights of women and minorities will recharge civil society, whether the proposed land reform will right historical wrongs whilst not fostering a new era of resentment, and whether the structural overhaul of the presidency, parliament and courts will provide a foundation on which something more than the stalemate that emerged in the aftermath of the 2007 violence can be built.
Follow the run-up to the referendum at the site of the Daily Nation or the Standard. Internet access allowing, I’ll post more on any developments.


  1. Like the new blog. Interesting first post. Hope things are going well for you research wise. Reading this jogged my mind of something I had read about Kenyan Politician salaries,, wonder if you had seen it.
    Hope you find the posting rewarding, if nothing else it will give Kartikeya and I someplace to start a flame war :-)

  2. Thanks Jeff. I feel like I'm having an 'authentic' research experience: I was comprehensively routed by Tanzania's bureaucracy, I'm getting over some nasty bugs, and I've spent far more hours than I care to contemplate on buses of all varieties on roads of diverse quality. But the time in Kenya should be productive.
    The MPs salary raise was huge here...when I first was in Nairobi almost a month ago it was overshadowing even the draft constitution, but Kibaki (the president) has stopped it for the moment.

  3. Hey Jeff, sounds like a very exciting time to be in Kenya. I'm currently taking a class on democratization and we are covering some African countries, only they are from the west. One of the bigger issues is the lack of collaboration and inclusiveness in the making of a constitution following independence. Most countries that fail to be inclusive result in dictatorships and their regime falls at some point and the country finds itself starting over again. Another characteristic of countries that are susceptible to failure is the adoption or continuation of the system and institutions of the former colonizers. I believe that you mentioned in one of your subsequent posts that this had been the case in Kenya.
    Has Kenya had a smooth democratic transition since its independence?

  4. Hi Gilmer, it is indeed exciting to be here. I'd been planning to be elsewhere, but it' worked out nicely. Yes and no on the democratic transition. A lot of the institutions resemble democratic ones, but the use of power has been heavy-handed and was relatively uncontested in the days after independence, and there was one party rule with the torture and imprisonment of opposition leaders and other critics. I think that the divisions between political parties in Kenya haven't been so much ideological (the country as a whole, unlike Tanzania, opted to follow a market-oriented economy) as based on satisfying regional and often ethnic-based constituencies. So although a lot of books and articles might trumpet Kenya's democratic past, it's really been rather troubled. But it's a relative thing. Kenya is only on it's third President since independence.

  5. Sounds like a very interesting class by the way. Which case studies or themes are you covering, and which department is it through?