In spite of Matiba's pain, to many, the glass is half-empty

Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba, former minister and founder member of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy- a group at the heart of the agitation for multi-party democracy in the 1990s- passed away on Sunday aged 85. That President Uhuru Kenyatta had to make a live address to the country underscores the stature of the fallen man.

Mr. Matiba distinguished himself as one among a breed of selfless Kenyans who put philanthropy, political decency and strict observance of ethics and etiquette at the centre of their lives. With him in 1990 when they formed the formidable FORD were such Opposition luminaries like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Martin Shikuku, Phillip Gachoka, George Nthenge and Salim Ahmed Bamahriz and Charles Wanyoike Rubia. Only Mr. Nthenge and Mr. Rubia are still alive.

The original FORD split into Ford-Kenya and Ford-Asili in 1992. Bamahriz, Shikuku and Gachoka joined Ford Asili together with Kenneth Matiba, while the others moved to Ford- Kenya.

Mr. Matiba’s rallying call of “Let the people decide”, a surrender to democracy still rings true today-when a lot of the people feel disenfranchised by a self-righteous, pampered political class-as it did nearly 30 years ago.

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He was a visionary who believed that progress would be guaranteed by unity of purpose and spoke against political gangsterism that was taking root. He was to dabble in sports management and was once the chairman of Football Kenya Federation (FKF), perhaps to prove that point. Yet his infamous proposal to expel Indians like Amin did in Uganda in the 1970s was odd for him.

To him and many others, the ultimate authority rested with the people, hence their incessant push for pluralism that finally yielded fruit with the repeal of Section 2 (a) of the constitution to allow for multi-party democracy in 1990 and the introduction of presidential term limits. They wanted a freer, equal society where everyone thrived. Most importantly, they wanted the voice of the people to be heard through strong parties.

Long before CSR was chic in the corporate world, Mr. Matiba, an astute businessman, gave so much to philanthropy. His chain of business gave to help fund education, health and other worthy social courses. His businesses empire, considered self-made like the man himself is a study in the art of entrepreneurship.

His newspaper, the People Weekly transformed investigative journalism in the country and across the region through salacious exposes.

Is Kenya better because of multi-partysm? Have the sacrifices made by the likes of Mr. Matiba and the rest paid off?   To some extent, yes. Since 1992, the country has held six elections with many parties and candidates jostling for different positions, including the presidency.

The watershed moments have been the transitions from President Moi to President Kibaki to President Kenyatta. Yet that “perfecthood” that the likes of Mr. Matiba sought is still unrealized. Our democracy is beset by many challenges it is tempting to see the glass as half-empty. His dream for an inclusive economic growth remains elusive.

Indeed, Oxford University Professor Paul Collier in his book; Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places says: “elections held in poor countries with weak institutions can do more harm than good by preserving the corrupt elites and retarding the process of accountable government.”

The folly of their crusade was to rally for democracy at the expense of building strong institutions that could withstand political waves. Kenya’s democracy is imperiled by a political class that has submerged tribalism and patronage. No doubt, Kenya’s problems are tied to an electoral process that does not meet the threshold of a democratic exercise.

So, despite regular elections, our form of democracy has many shortcomings. Its first-past-the-post model propagates exclusionism; those in power fight so hard to keep it, while those outside fight so hard to get it.

The resultant situation is a polarized country where deep-seated resentment drives those from another tribe to view others as anathema. The farcical disintegration of NASA and the implosion of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission speaks of dashed hopes and new beginnings becoming false dawns.

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