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Change must begin with the people

By | October 29th 2009

A "wave of change" rolled across the world in 1989 beginning with the Autumn of Change and the fall of the Berlin Wall, events that heralded the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War. Nations across the world saw a clamour for more democratic freedoms.

In Kenya, this saw the release of political prisoners and, after a landmark New Year Eve sermon by the Reverend Timothy Njoya, a push for the return to multi-party politics led by religious leaders and later a fledgling political ‘opposition’. The huge promise of the democratic wave, sadly, was not realised. Section 2a of the Constitution was amended, ending the de jure one party State. But deliberate fragmentation of the country into ‘party zones’, rearrangement of constituency borders to affect electoral outcomes, and an explosion of parties appealing to ethnic bases all conspired to turn multi-

Partyism into chaos.

Ethnically targetted poll-related violence became a commonplace feature every five years. So did arbitrary and multiple ‘defections’ from weakened parties that serve as mere vehicles for ethnic votes. With the corruption of the National Assembly replacing violent repression of dissent, change was thwarted. Two decades later, many of the contentious governance issues reformers wanted to change continue to be the cause of conflict and controversy.

Political freedom

The end of the Nyayo Era and the departure of former President Moi and Kanu from Government did not change matters on the reform front. If a modicum of political freedom was gained, the defence of the imperial presidency continued, stifling an effort to review the Constitution. The bitter divisions caused in the campaigns for the 2005 Referendum on a contentious draft exploded in the wake of a flawed presidential election in 2007.

Spontaneous and orchestrated violence, and later deliberate reprisals, led to the deaths of at least 1,100 people and displacement of hundreds of thousands. The "ethnic cleansing", as one US State Department official termed it, joined a list of unresolved matters standing in the way of a democratic revolution. Intervention by the international community, led by the African Union, ended the violence and led to an agreement on a programme of action on many of these issues. Electoral reform has begun (but, unfortunately, party reform hasn’t) and various institutions are adopting some of the changes proposed by independent inquiries, commissions and review bodies.

Today the country is, yet again, facing the danger of the push for change being aborted. The international community, civil society, religious leaders and others have stepped up to stop this from happening. But not all the approaches adopted are helpful. Foreign diplomats are relying on various ways of exerting pressure, from a threat to issue travel bans on the individuals best placed to thwart reforms to increased funding for civil society organisations which "foster change and promote democracy". Some church leaders, perhaps thinking an incremental approach would be better than a repeat of past failures, have suggested minimum reforms. Others are demanding the abrogation of international agreements to win a symbolic victory over a rival religion. Civil society, on the other hand, is not as credible as it once was. The alignments some have taken in regard to the political divide mark them as suspect players in this exercise.

As for politicians, they have no end of issues on which to rile up public opinion, confusing issues and setting the stage for divisions similar to those we saw in 2005 at the Referendum. The ‘debate’ on constituency boundaries proves this: Despite the criteria for fixing Kanu’s boundary mischief being fairly obvious — a one-man-one-vote approach adjusted to reflect special circumstances as defined in the Constitution — they have turned this into a war of words.

In such times it behoves wananchi to engage actively in the push for reform, not just in the politics surrounding it. Informed citizens must not be hoodwinked into backing any interests wholesale. If Kenyans fail to keep track of the key issues and seek meaningful change, they risk embracing a transformation that disappoints like that in the 1990s.

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