What portents the greatest risk to Kenya’s budding democracy? Certainly not the likely referendum on the BBI report, the political leadership or the political formations that will arise thereafter, or the tribal arithmetic and the tyranny of numbers.
The greatest risk to our democracy is the growing cynicism from a public that is increasingly getting wearied of the experiment with popular government. Democracy’s design was such that those who do not get the job done are thrown out and those who claim to know how to do it are put in.
Glaring inequality, poverty, rising unemployment are not just dampening the excitement of democracy, the people are increasingly frustrated that the vote is not providing the bridge to prosperity and a better life.
Daren Acemoglu of the Massachussets Institute of Technology and co-author of the seminal book Why Nations Fail calculates that over time, democracy boosts a country's GDP by up to 20 per cent.
Fundamentals of governance
The reasoning is that democracy persuades leaders to focus more on public 'do-gooding' like education, health, good roads and infrastructure. This finding is based on a study of the four Asian Tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. Of these four, only two – Taiwan and South Korea – can be classified as fully democratic and they have a lot to show for going the democratic way.
For good measure, Kenya does not feel like a poor, ill-governed and unstable country. Why then do its development indices indicate otherwise? Is there something awfully wrong with the fundamentals of governance?
In truth, democracy works well when everyone feels that they have a stake in it and that it is actually working for them. In the absence of that, apathy, ethnic antagonism, bigotry hold sway.
Shouldn’t it terrify us when the bottom half increasingly feels excluded from the high table? Why do they exist in conditions of poverty and misery frequently no better than when they voted five years before?
The difference between the developing world and the Asian Tigers – who we are constantly reminded were at par with us 50 years ago – is that tribalism, cronyism and influence-peddling have subverted democracy to the advantage of a few.
Elections are nothing more than rigged referendums where cliques of cronies fight for power by hook or crook. Those who have it fight hard to keep it, while those who don’t have it fight harder to grab it.
And that is half the story. What to do when regular elections are not a guarantee for clean, transparent and responsive government, and ultimately, economic prosperity?
Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University says social capital is a key ingredient of good governance because it makes democracy work. His findings from a study of two regions of Italy where (in one) the people stay back and do nothing – though they vote – and the other where the people actively participate in their affairs are like night and day.
In northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds and service groups, the regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives”.
In Making Democracy Work, Putnam demonstrates that a political endeavour that is devoid of rules and where no one is held accountable and, worse still, has a predetermined outcome ceases to serve its purpose and loses favour sooner or later.
Among the Asian Tigers – and other mature democracies characterised by high-performing economies – the built-in systems ensure accountability, which in turn make the leaders responsive to the needs of those who elected them. The politicians know that there is a price to pay for bad or failed policies.
Make no mistake, democracy is not an end in itself; neither is it one-dimensional. Someone has to take care of the many other moving parts. But the conundrum of movement without motion must be resolved.
By all means, democracy offers a better alternative to the chaos and anarchy associated with other forms of government. But we have to accept that a feisty media that barks and bites – like in our case – or a vibrant civil society or a clean Judiciary will not of itself get us the desired results. All hands must be on deck.
So turn up for the next BBI rally; don’t stay at home to watch it on TV or read about it in the newspapers. Get out and participate.