PLO Lumumba: Why Democracy should not be applied in entirety

PLO Lumumba during the interview with Spice FM.

Kenya's law scholar PLO Lumumba is challenging the notion that democracy, as it is in Western countries, can be reapplied entirely to the African setting.

Instead, Prof Lumumba argues that may, in fact, fail the very people it seeks to serve.

In an interview on Spice FM, Lumumba argued that, while democracy is often hailed as the epitome of governance, and granting power to the people through elected representatives, its current application in Africa is an imposition influenced by Western ideals and experiences.

Instead, there must be a twitch in every African country to adopt a system that actually suits the people.

African countries have had a tepid experience with democracy including multiparty politics and elections, which have fueled divisions and a feeling in some cases of artificial legitimacy.

Lumumba says that is largely because our systems in Kenya and peers are deeply entrenched in Western history and philosophy, and that some of these countries were pressured to adopt these systems only after the Cold War.

“I think the Westerners particularly after the collapse of Berlin Wall came and told us that democracy means: One, you must have multi-party politics, two, you must have periodic elections, three you must have a civil society,” he says.

Lumumba argues that effective governance should be tailored to accommodate the unique characteristics of individual countries.

In the case of Africa, being a post-colonial continent with diverse ethnicities, certain approaches may be relevant and necessary, which might not be applicable in a homogenous country like Denmark.

“A country like South Sudan has five vice presidents, it doesn't make sense in the face of it but in order to preserve the nation that which does not make sense makes sense in that environment"

In Kenya, Lumumba questions the nature of political parties, which he argues do not adhere to classical definitions.

He argues that political players in Kenya often switch between multiple parties, devoid of any clear ideology. Instead, according to the professor, these parties function more as ethnic clubs, perpetuating personality cultism.

“What we have in Kenya are just ethnic clubs or personality cultism.”

He calls for a governance system that addresses the specificities of the country, recognizing the importance of accommodating ethnicity while building institutions for effective governance. 

“The sooner we realize that governance must now address those specificities the safer we are.”

He adds “We can build institutions that actually recognize that these ethnic realities must be accommodated just for the feel-good effect”.

The current state of politics in Kenya is deeply ethnicized, with political parties forming ethnic arrangements and coalitions characterized by personality cults.

“That is why when the cult leader moves from one formation to the other all his followers move with him or her,” he says.

Lumumba believes that in the pursuit of peace, it is imperative to rethink the constitutional order and determine what we the country truly need, considering its ethnicized nature.

 “We must rethink our constitutional order and ask ourselves what we really want as a country knowing as we do that, we are an ethnicized country and that we have these political parties must we not therefore in the nature of things address all these things.”

He claims that during the constitution-drafting process, devolution was viewed as a tool to address important governance challenges.

The assumption was that devolved divisions would be able to handle a variety of vital issues while keeping the central government lean, focusing on foreign affairs and policy coordination. 

“The devolution model we ended up with it’s the one that is failing us because the devolution units are too many.”

However, the current devolution model has not lived up to expectations, largely due to the proliferation of devolved units. It is clear that we need to take decisive action to improve the situation.

Lumumba’s major concern is political parties constant disrespect of institutions such as the supreme court, by Kenyan Political leaders.

“Once, for example, you have gone to the Supreme Court and it has a finding against you stop there because it is good for the nation.”

Unfortunately, some leaders have chosen to ignore these institutions and appeal to the mob for support. This, he says has led to the rise of “ochlocracy” where governance is influenced by mob rule and street threats, rather than by democratic principles and institutions.

The lack of political maturity among Kenyan leaders is evident in their tendency to weaponize their constituencies for disruptive political gains.