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Intra-elite mistrust kills our political health and growth

By Ken Opalo | July 24th 2021

Georgetown University Assistant Professor Ken Opalo. [Courtesy]

The One Kenya Alliance (OKA) is reportedly working to field a joint ticket in 2022. However, the negotiations remain under the dark cloud of intra-elite mistrust that characterises our politics.

Whether we are talking KANU (1966, 1988 or 2002), NARC (2005), or Jubilee Party (2020), our politicians have been unable to honour their commitments once in power. This history bodes ill not just for OKA, but the reported Jubilee-ODM alliance as well. Part of the challenge for OKA is that its constituent parties are weak and lack mechanisms of enforcing intra-elite pacts.

If aggrieved, leading politicians can simply leave or register a new political party and take their supporters with them. However, the other, perhaps bigger problem, is the simple fact that our politicians cannot be trusted.

Our history tells us that they do not only lie to the voting public but are also always at the ready to double-cross each other. In other words, their personal inability to make credible commitments manifests itself in a collective public failure to build enduring political parties anchored in grassroots mobilisation.

We are not the first society to face this problem. Many countries around the world have confronted and successfully addressed the challenge of inter-generational power-sharing. Possible solutions in countries with presidential systems of government have included strict one term limits (Mexico), geographic zoning and rotation of candidate selection (Nigeria), a collegiate presidency (Switzerland), or fixed identity-based allocation of public offices (Lebanon).

While all these solutions have had their own challenges in context, the fact of the matter is that where elites have established and maintained a consensus on the rules of the game, they have been able to then preside over largely stable political systems.

The point here is that no legal agreement or constitutional amendment can solve the fundamental problem of personal untrustworthiness among our politicians. This failure is a millstone around our necks. The lack of intra-elite trust is a serious impediment to the stability of our party system and democratic consolidation. 

-The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University 

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