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Good riddance to BBI? Worry about how it damaged politics

By Andrew Kipkemboi | August 23rd 2021
Raila Odinga during the launch of BBI signatures collection exercise at KICC, Nairobi. [Courtesy]

Milkah Singh nicknamed the “Flying Sikh” had led for the first 200m of the 400m race in the 1960 Rome Olympics then turned and took a glance at his competitors.

That slowed him down, three runners whizzed by. He didn’t regain his speed. He finished fourth. Heartbroken. Singh had won gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, India’s first medal.

The Court of Appeal ruling on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pet project Building Bridges Initiative capped a second term that risks being marked by a deep sense of lack of accomplishment and seen by many as error-prone. Yet that is half the picture.

Travel around the country and you will notice huge infrastructural outlay in roads, ports, wind and solar projects, geothermal rigs, dams, hospitals, TVETS, electricity and water connection and of course, the controversial SGR. Add to this list the intangible investment in basic and secondary education. These are quite impressive investments with tangible multiplier effects on the sociopolitical and economic ecosystem.

But BBI proved that the failure to manage the politics will be Uhuru’s Achilles heel. BBI was characterised by great fear and much loathing; fear manifested itself in the day while loathing was expressed undercover, behind walls.

This could explain why seasoned and experienced legal minds in the president’s court chose to play along never seeing or hearing any evil with the BBI proposals. Quite ominously, the sponsors of the initiative did not clearly communicate their vision or paint how success would look like or dared invite criticism. But they chose to talk down on those who challenged or did not see their worldview. And because of that, BBI didn’t attract the critical mass necessary to push it up the hill of cynicism and suspicion.

Instead, it attracted the uncritical, the joyriders keen to ride on the gravy train to the referendum: Those who believed they could just make some noise and “the walls of Jericho would fall down.”

Last year, I wrote that “in 2018, BBI offered the country a chance to break clean from a dark past of organised political gangsterism fashioned as democracy…and the realisation that elections were pointless rigmaroles conducted to fulfil constitutional obligations.”

Foster unity

Hopefully, its monumental fall will elicit moments of who-dunnit?

Just like Singh, by mismanaging the politics around BBI, it would seem as though the President had turned back and looked at his competitors when focus on a powerful finish of his 10-year reign would have worked.

He should now worry about his legacy.

For the rest of us, we ought to worry about the damage to democracy. For a moment forget about the legal handicaps of BBI and focus on its inherent objective; peace and unity. Does rallying one divide of the country against another divide foster unity and peace? Yet that is the abiding memory of BBI.

“For a democracy to thrive,” wrote The Economist’s columnist Bello recently, “it needs democrats.” “When large parts of opposing political camps start to see each other as enemies to be crushed, rather than mere adversaries with whom to compete peacefully, then democracy comes under grave threat.”

Politics should not be reduced to an existential battle between good (us) versus evil (them). “In such an environment,” warns Peter Ditto, professor of Psychology Science at the University of California “almost any lie can be believed, almost any transgression excused as long as it helps your side.”

A fractured ruling party has led to shambolic and dreadful execution of government policy and programmes. The grave lapses in addressing the deadly Covid-19 pandemic especially a slowing, economy is one example. Meanwhile, co-opted into government, the Opposition is rudderless unable to provide a better alternative. Worst of all, cronyism, patronage and deferential respect to the king is fashionable.

The good thing about hindsight is that it offers clarity that is usually absent in the heat of the moment. Uhuru could yet use the benefit of hindsight and recalibrate his plans and message and also repudiate those who caused him embarrassment.

As for our democracy, political scientists Susan D Hyde and Elizabeth N Sanders argue that although all democracies are imperfect, one of their central virtues is that they are built to be resilient “to bend without breaking” even when subjected to blows from the political class. But caution that resilience is not finite… “it needs replenishing.”

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group

Download the BBI Judgement by all seven Judges - Civil Appeal No. E291 of 2021
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