In a region surrounded by fragile and openly autocratic states, where the bar is set as low as it can possibly be, we are the conspicuous desert oasis
NASA’s ‘oath’ may have been painfully anticlimactic, what with the missing principals and a 15-minute ‘swearing-in’, but it had the unintended consequence of exposing Kenya’s democratic struggle. Most commentators have decried Kenya’s return to the Kanu era, sending me into gruelling self-reflection.
Growing up in the 1990s, I was too young to appreciate the realities of authoritarian regime. Before I could consciously interact with that political environment, the regime was gone. I was grateful, though, to those who came before and made sure my generation and I would never know the pains of dictatorship.
The events of this week, however, have forced me to re-examine this situation and ask myself, is my country in the grip of a dictatorship yet again? I know the answer I will get from Jubilee: “No, it’s not. The Government acted accordingly to keep the people safe from an illegal and subversive event.” I can similarly anticipate the answer from NASA: “Yes, this is exactly the kind of authoritarianism we are fighting against.”
I suspect the answer is neither as simple nor as clear-cut as the two camps would have me believe. As a student of comparative politics, I am inclined to accept the more nuanced answer.
Clearly, the switching off of three mainstream television channels alongside their corresponding radio channels, the criminalisation of NASA’s National Resistance Movement, the threats to arrest journalists, and the Government’s justification of ‘preventing a massacre’ bear some of the hallmarks of an undemocratic state.
Certainly, a government that can shut down a few channels can easily find justification to shut down all of them, while outlawing one arm of the Opposition is not very far from arbitrarily arresting and imprisoning any Opposition leader. Nonetheless, to suggest that the Big Bad Government is now ‘cracking down’ on the media and ‘clamping down’ on the Opposition is to not only ignore the complexity of the issue, but also to shut down the real discussion we ought to have.
As it is, all the newspapers are printing unabated, other television and radio channels are still operating, the internet remains fully accessible, we are all still criticising the Government without going to jail, the Judiciary is still free to function as it pleases, and the main Opposition group, NASA, remains free to carry on unimpeded. Not exactly the recipe for dictatorship, is it?
Obviously, the so-called return to the ‘dark old days’ has been greatly exaggerated. But the myth of a country steadily marching toward full-fledged democracy has also been shattered. We Kenyans have long believed ourselves exceptional East Africans. That even when we have degenerated into conflict - giving in to our worst impulses - it has just been an aberration of an otherwise impressive record.
In a region surrounded by fragile and openly autocratic states, where the bar is set as low as it can possibly be, we are (were) the conspicuous oasis in a desert, a beacon on the hill guiding our faltering neighbours into a new era. We have long thought ourselves immune from the pathologies of
authoritarianism that plague the region. But the events of the week indicate we are not entirely healthy either.
The age of Kenyan exceptionalism in East Africa is over. Our short-lived democratic credentials have expired. We would be hard-pressed to claim we live in a democracy anymore. We are, for all intents and purposes, firmly on the spectrum of authoritarianism – albeit on the lower end.
We can still distinguish between Kenya - where a few TV and radio channels are switched off in one specific instance - and Ethiopia - where the internet is routinely shut down and the media is purely State-controlled. We can still appreciate the difference between Kenya - where an opposition leader is arrested and taken to court for swearing in a second president - and Uganda or Rwanda, where the opposition leaders are frequently arrested simply for running against the incumbent.
Indeed, Kenya is still distinct from South Sudan, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where incumbent governments often exercise violence on their own people in order to keep power.
We are no longer exceptional, yes, but we are still different. But to remain different and reclaim our regional exceptionalism, we must remain vigilant and actively resist any attempts to make Kenya just another African dictatorship.
Inadvertently, the NASA ‘oath’ had the effect of exposing how fragile our democracy is, how complacent we have become, how dangerous political passivity is, and how far we still have to go.