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Unravelling the facts and fiction about Kenya’s turbulent politics

By Anyang Nyongo | July 13th 2014

Facts, in social sciences, are regarded as stubborn things: you cannot wish them away even if you wanted to. Quite often they are also seen as brutal: they can offend, annoy, shame, humble and “put someone in his or her place”. When isolated they may make little sense; but when put together in a certain way they help explain certain problems which face us or certain questions which puzzle us.

Regarding social phenomena or events which occur in history and our thirst to know why and how they occur, social scientists develop theories which seek to help us explain such things. Theories put facts together or relate them to each other in such a way that we can then explain why certain things happen, or why people behave in a certain way.

For example, in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007 there were elections held in Kenya: that is a fact. In 1992, 1997 and 2007 there was violence and inter-ethnic strife in Kenya mainly with regard to the presidential elections: that is yet another fact. It is only in 2002 that presidential elections was not associated with violence during or after the elections: that is a fact.

We now need a theory which helps us explain why in three out of four elections we had violence, while in one we did not. If we can do that we can help eliminate violence and inter-ethnic strife in our politics and still go on to use elections as a way of choosing those who rule or govern us in a way acceptable to all of us.

The first tentative theory (or hypothesis for that matter) I want to advance is that “presidential elections tend to promote inter-ethnic violence because of the high stakes associated with capturing the seat of the president”. How far is this true?

Well, looking back into the history of Kenya since 1963, this looks a plausible explanation of why there have been inter-ethnic violence with regard to the seat of the president being kept or captured by elites from one or the other ethnic group. When Tom Mboya was assassinated and inter-ethnic strife followed it was with regard to competition for the seat of the presidency. When JM Kariuki was assassinated again it was with regard to the competition for the seat of the presidency and this time it led to serious political repression in the last years of the Kenyatta regime. Moi then ruled for several years without giving Kenyans any opportunity to elect their president until 1992. He then went on to hold to the seat.

The second tentative theory I want to develop is that “when there is overwhelming consensus among ethnic groups in Kenya led by their elites as to who should be President, there is likely to be peaceful elections and a legitimate government acceptable to the greatest number.” While quite attractive as a theory, it helps us explain the phenomenon of only one election out of four. The elections of 2013, though held after the passing of the 2010 Constitution, was really no different from all the others which were associated with dangerous inter-ethnic tensions. In this regard it is better to have the kind of situation which leads to a 2002-like elections all the time for Kenyans. While this is unlikely to happen, we need to look for a better theory that can help us construct a system of elections that produces acceptable rulers and eliminates inter-ethnic strife.


The third tentative theory I want therefore to advance is “since the constant factor in producing inter-ethnic strife during elections is “electing the President,” a presidential system of governance is not suitable for young nations with ethnic diversity like Kenya; a system which promotes ethnic consensus and compromise before and after elections would be preferable.”

Let us now examine the facts as they pertain in young nations with ethnic diversity; most likely nations which became independent after the Second World War like India, Mauritius, Singapore and Jamaica, for example. All these countries are governed by Prime Ministers and not Presidents, and they have been relatively stable democracies. They have, of course, experienced violence; but not necessarily electoral violence associated with the election of their Prime Ministers.

There are therefore two facts that seem to face us as “brutal facts” so far in our discussion. One, that the presidential system of government is no good for us in Kenya: it is the cause of most of our electoral and governance problems and will continue to do so even under the present constitution. Two, that elite consensus is very useful in having peaceful elections and in observing the rules of the game in elections.

The elections of 2002 were peaceful and produced broadly acceptable results because of the elite consensus before and immediately after the elections. This consensus was then destroyed soon after by the very nature of presidential politics in our kind of society, and that rapture of the consensus led to disastrous consequences for our nation. So elite consensus works better in a system where political parties compete in elections to produce a Prime Minister who is more likely to be a product of consensus.

To safeguard the elite consensus it is necessary to establish rules of forming governments which is inclusive of all political parties which gain the support of the people during elections. In other words proportional representation not just in elective bodies but in government as well. For example, in 1994, the ANC and its allies could easily have taken all cabinet positions in South Africa. But Nelson Mandela insisted that the cabinet had to reflect the strength of all political parties in South Africa for the sake of stability and peace in the young nation. We should not, however, leave such matters to the good will of individuals: we should enshrine them in our Constitution for our use today and for posterity.

We have therefore important matters arising from our experience so far with our new Constitution which we should address in this year of jubilee. Unless we are a people who like to deliberately inflict pain on ourselves every now and again we should deal with this issue of doing away with the presidential system of government and embrace a parliamentary system of government. Second, unless we are elites who are pathologically committed to a way of viewing the world purely in terms of accessing power and privilege in ethnic terms, we should accept to form governments where all Kenyans are included, or where every Kenyan sees an opportunity of being included. This is what we mean by the politics of inclusion. The politics of inclusion does not really mean that you get power first “ by whatever means “ and then you decide to include others “on your own terms” subsequently. We need to write rules of governance which are inclusive and which compel inclusivity in practice at all times, now and in the future.

We have an opportunity now to review our Constitution and look into that 20 per cent of it that we thought was not quite good when we went to the referendum in 2010. Some thought we should have rejected the constitution because of that 20 per cent. Others said we should pass it and then review the 20 per cent later. The time has now come for us to chart our future on a more sustainable constitutional framework. Let us rise up to the occasion.


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