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The opposition experiment has failed; let's now do away with it

Elias Mokua
 Police arrest one of the protestors who engaged them  in running battles in Mathare 4A on May 02, 2023 when the Azimio protests were held in some parts of the country over copst of living. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

Protests against the cost of living and a litany of other political grievances in Kenya elicit mixed feelings and deeper reflections on what democracy is all about. It is sobering how the media, the international community and other actors literally delegitimised the protests on, understandably, account of deaths and destruction following the sustained protest momentum.

My thesis is that the role and space of the opposition in African countries is a failed experiment and therefore no longer tenable. On paper, it sounds absolutely critical to have an opposition in any Parliament to check the government. In practice, the opposition is scorned by the electorate and ridiculed by the ruling party.

Many African countries treat the opposition badly. For this reason, everyone seeking an elective seat fights to be in government. The 'defections' from the opposition to government, the opposition that rubber stamps the government agenda, starving the opposition zones of public resources and the continuous involvement of powerful States in imposing leaders in African countries speaks to the failure of democracy as a system of governance appropriate for African countries. 

Yes, in a functional democracy the opposition plays a critical role. But, decades of experimentation in African countries show that it takes courage to be in the opposition benches.

The international community that heavily funds civic education, promotes the rule of law, respect for human rights and enabling non-state actors to demand governments to be transparent and accountable fall short of praise in the way it treats the opposition, especially on election outcomes.

For five decades, Kenya has tried in vain entrenching democratic values and principles in our governance system. The single party system provided a platform for dictators to blossom, multiparty democracy has largely turned political parties into vehicles to power while those who ascend to power through elections see themselves as special and way above others.

Moreover, democracy has the effect of creating “good guys” who are in government and “bad guys” who are in the Opposition. In the West, opposition is always a government-in-waiting supported by the electorate. In Africa opposition is labelled as being for “losers” in the most pejorative sense.

We cannot continue to lose lives to oppressive regimes, demonstrations and to government elected leaders who cannot deliver but are quick to brutally silence their critics. We need to admit that pinning our hopes on the opposition, at least in Kenya, has not worked, and will not work anytime soon. Let us think of a different system of running our government in which leaders do not have to dig at each other.

Let us do away with opposition in Parliament and in the county assemblies. First, the Senate should be elevated to the Upper House that assumes the role of the opposition albeit in a modified manner. Let the National Assembly debate and legislate matters based on issue-merit and pass their resolutions to the Senate for final legislation. The county assemblies should rely on committees to play the role of the opposition where necessary.

Second, the county governments should have direct say in the national government budgeting. An absolute majority of the counties should pass the budget and major bills such as the now contested Finance Act.

Third, someone proposed on a WhatsApp wall that the formation of the government should be based on the number of seats a party wins. This helps kill the winner-takes-it all mentality. It also reduces the temptation for new regimes to recruit appointees from their ethnic bases.

In conclusion, the delegitimisation of the maandamano simply means 'let us expunge that right from the Constitution'. We have had a series of constructive dialogues since the post-election violence in 2007/08. However, if subjected to monitoring, evaluation and learning they have not made us make substantial progress as a country. It is time, therefore, to try a governance system change.

Dr Mokua is Executive Director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communication

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