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Referendum doubts justified, but we need to support this one

By David Machio | August 18th 2019

Kenyan politics is notoriously divided. You only need to tell me the name of a person, where he is from or what tribe he is, and I will tell you who he votes for. Nine out of 10 times, I will be right.

Just look at the data from the 2017 election.

In Murang’a County in the former Central Province, Uhuru Kenyatta won 98 per cent of valid votes. Raila won less than two per cent. In nearby Nyandarua, Nyeri and Kirinyaga, the results were even more pro-Uhuru. In Kiambu, the regional outlier, Uhuru won ‘just’ 93 per cent of the vote.

The same is true the other way. In Homa Bay County, Raila won a staggering 99.3 per cent of valid votes. Of almost half a million registered voters, Uhuru mustered less than 2,000 votes.

Of course, divides at the ballot box are only the tip of the iceberg. These disputes always seem to turn violent, with rioting, violence and inter-communal tension a seemingly inevitable part of Kenyan elections. For those of us old enough to have experienced it, the harrowing memories of 2007/08 still linger.

This of course has a knock-on effect on our economy. The World Bank calculated our economic growth in 2007 at 6.9 per cent. For 2008, the figure was 0.2 per cent. Fast-forward a decade and the trend remains, albeit less exaggerated. In 2016, growth was 5.9 per cent and 6.3 per cent in 2018. The blip was 2017 (an election year) where growth dropped to 4.8 per cent.

It was this reality that informed the era-defining ‘handshake’ between Uhuru and his once nemesis Raila in March 2018, and the accompanying Building Bridges Initiative. It is no coincidence that our economic performance dramatically improved in its aftermath.

But a handshake only works if the parties are united in word and in deed. If they share goals, values and, most importantly, a vision. They must walk the talk.

On this count as well, we can also be satisfied. Since the handshake, Raila has become an enthusiastic advocate for the President’s Big Four Agenda and the accompanying war on corruption. Notably, there have been none of the usual leaks and anonymous briefings from one party against the other. Their partnership is not just on paper it seems.

The latest evidence for this comes in the debate surrounding the potential national constitutional referendum.

Now, I am generally someone who is suspicious of referenda. Simply put, they have a propensity to cause chaos, and the sensible decision often is overlooked in favour of the populist one. The 2016 UK Brexit referendum is a case in point.

But my thoughts on this upcoming referendum are heavily influenced by the fact that pretty much all of our leaders agree that it is a good idea. Uhuru and Raila are joined by Kalonzo Musyoka’s Wiper Democratic Movement, Musalia Mudavadi’s Amani National Congress, Moses Wetang’ula’s Ford-Kenya, and Gideon Moi’s Kanu.

In a country as divided as Kenya, this level and diversity of support is pretty much unprecedented, and should cause us all to take notice. Of course, one name missing from this list is Deputy President William Ruto. Conspiracy theorists and rumour mongers have already begun speculating as to why he is yet to express his support.

I wouldn’t read too much into it. The DP has not opposed the idea, nor has he been critical of it. His absence from this debate should not automatically be interpreted as opposition. Let us not invent discord where none exists.

I urge that we put our cynicism to one side and get behind the constitutional referendum. As Kanu Secretary General Nick Salat has said, “We’ve massacred each other at every election, isn’t that reason enough to find a lasting solution on how we can stop these massacres?”

The leaders of the nation’s two largest political camps have identified this as a lasting solution – a key step towards cementing their newfound unity and ensuring the death and destruction that has accompanied previous elections is confined to the dustbin of history. They have managed to build a wave of consensus around the idea that includes almost all major political parties.

This should be applauded by all. The fact that the consensus is not yet unanimous should do little to detract from our support. 

- The writer is a Human Resource expert and comments on topical issues.

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