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To discard dark past, we’ve to faithfully implement the law

By Maina Kiai | September 29th 2019

The Brexit saga in Britain throws out some interesting issues that we should be thinking about in Kenya and other divided societies. What to do when society—almost equally—holds deep and emotional positions that are diametrically in opposition and which have life-changing consequences?  

The Brexit referendum was the second one on the issue after the first in 1975 that took Britain into the European Union. At the time, 67 per cent of the votes agreed to join the EU. The decision was overwhelmingly enough that there was little debate or protests as Britain joined the EU and benefited handsomely from it, including becoming the financial capital of Europe and increased its voice globally.

The second referendum was set up really to sort out the divisions in the Conservative Party which was acutely split about staying or leaving the EU. For despite the low level of opposition to the EU in 1975, a vocal group of anti-EU folks persistently campaigned against it. And their numbers grew as first the financial crisis of 2007/8 hit hard across the western world, and as wars, conflicts and despondency outside Europe led to a surge of refugees into Europe.

There has always been a racist angle to much of the anti-EU sentiments, which have been conjoined with anti-immigrant sentiments. Indeed, for a while, the idea that Turkey, a Moslem country with a population of about 80 million, might join the EU was the convenient scapegoat. And there has always been a nostalgia for the “good old days of the British Empire” underlying these views even as the world long moved on.

The 2016 referendum had about 52 per cent in favour of Brexit, against about 48 per cent who wanted to remain in the EU. The actual votes difference was about 1.2 million votes in a country with a population of about 66 million.

Because the vote was so close, and because there was no threshold for victory in such a decisive and critical issue (such as at least 60 or 66 per cent) the debates about whether to leave or stay have only gotten shriller and divisions have deepened dramatically.

It is unlikely that the divisions in the UK will lead to violence and conflict but there is a strong chance that there will be instability, confusion and economic retraction. Scotland and Northern Ireland are firmly pro EU, and there is every likelihood that a messy, uncontrolled Brexit will lead—sooner rather than later—to Scottish independence, which would quickly seek to join the EU. And Northern Ireland may finally become one with the Republic of Ireland.

These are not necessarily bad or negative developments, but you can be sure that there will be rancor, disillusionment and more divisions, as the largely English anti-EU blocks do not want to see more of their “empire” receding. They will resist Scotland and Northern Ireland passionately.

But how to resolve this mess and confusion? Some believe that a third referendum is the way forward to finally resolve the matter. This comes from many of the pro-EU blocks confident that now that people have seen the potential mess of Brexit, and with much more turnout, they would prevail. Opinion polls largely confirm this, but only just marginally. But the Remain side would have to get at least 60 per cent of the vote in any new referendum to begin to resolve this issue, at least for a time.

Others think that a general election is the way forward. Theresa May tried this approach soon after the referendum but found that support for her party’s view to leave the EU had dwindled. But not nearly enough to oust the party from power. Boris Johnson is doing better with opinion polls than Jeremy Corbyn and he seems bent on an election that can legitimise him in power especially since his party members are fast defecting or resigning. But again, unless a party can get an overwhelmingly large majority this issue will continue to haunt Britain and Europe.

Now if this was Kenya or another African country, there would be waves of stateswoman and men coming through to offer mediation and conflict prevention lessons. That is largely because we are a way more fragile state and we can more easily descend into chaos and conflict. But perhaps Britain should consider this option, for the paths ahead look fraught with chaos. Luckily, Britain has a sensible Supreme Court, devoid of partisan hacks whose decisions can be foretold before any submissions are made.

But more crucially, all this mess exposes the unfinished business that is the democracy in Britain. If ever there was a time to figure out proportional representation so that even significant minority views have a say, it is now. If ever there was need to discard the awful first past the post, winner take all system in Britain it is now.

We clearly need to look at our own systems in Kenya, but that can only happen after we genuinely implement the Constitution, stop appointing hacks and yes people to various constitutional and judicial positions and get a leadership that is not mired in the looting that makes Kenyans poorer every day.

- The writer is former KNCHR chair. [email protected]

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