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Kenya's next leader should strive for a citizen-centric government

By Dennis Kabaara | November 28th 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta (C) his deputy William Ruto (L) and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga during the launch of Building Bridges Initiative report at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on November 27, 2019. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Modern Kenyan politicians are purposed to “be in government”, not to “be the government”. Government, in this case, refers not to its three arms – Executive, Legislature and Judiciary – as explained in civics textbooks, but the Executive. Three observations can be made as we head into the 2022 election. 

First, most of these calls are coming from the One Kenya Alliance (OKA), and in particular, recent national delegates meetings in which presidential candidates were announced. For the purists, this is the essence of political coalition-building that the Constitution masterminded by establishing a 50 per cent+1 rule to ward off the minority rule that Kanu enjoyed in 1992 and 1997.  

For the more cynical, it is an opportunistic call towards the sort of inclusive political settlement that followed the acrimony of the 2007 and 2017 presidential elections. First, the National Accord, then the Handshake. In other words, governments of national unity can forestall violence and “share the wealth”. 

Second, by seeking to be “in government”, these demands recognise the notion that someone else will be “the government”. In this case, neither UDA nor ODM as the likely fronting parties for the leading presidential candidates are making these calls, which offers the subliminal implication that one or the other will be “the government” and others just “want to join the party”.  

Simply, calls to be “in government” admit the reality of a two-horse race. It is still early days, with nine months to the actual election, so past history suggests these racing horses may mutate further in the period till then. But this looks like an acceptance that 2022 presidential election will be a single round. 

Good governance 

Third, these demands effectively confirm that the American-style “winner takes it all” presidential system of government we adopted in the Constitution simply does not work for inclusivity in a multi-nationally (tribally) diverse and often divided country such as Kenya. Yet it is the same politicians who abandoned the opportunity for a more inclusive British-style parliament at Naivasha in 2009. A parliamentary system, for example, makes it easier to enter into like-minded post-election coalitions in order to govern. 

Efforts by the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to address this ended in tears, though, as experts observed, the proposals would have created a political super-mongrel with a president, prime minister and leader of the opposition as a recipe for constitutional chaos depending on electoral outcomes. 

The notion of “being in government” reflects a greater interest in the art of government that is politics than the science of government that is governance.  

Any politician spouting the “being in government” mantra must of essence be speaking to a two-sided perspective to good governance that speaks to a demand-side from the citizenry around transparency and participation, and a supply-side of government attributes around state capabilities and responsiveness; with accountability being the essential link between supply and demand.

Heading into 2022, the repurposed political notion of “being in government” has become a public rallying call to the everyday voter. Kenyans are treated on a regular basis to televised demands from individual regions for cabinet, ministerial, parastatal and other government appointments as calls for support. 

Despite claims that the conversation around elections has changed, it is clear that “being in government”, which is not new, is the game in town (other than the expected creation of political parties as merchandising vehicles for nomination losers for the lesser positions). And Kenyans are lapping it up.

Government as an election promise

Beyond the good governance perspective above that offers a framing for understanding what good government would look like, there is still no actual electoral promise from any candidate in the field thus far on how they would realign or reorient government towards their agenda.

Naturally, this recognises that any campaign promises to reorganise government would threaten or alienate the substantive voting bloc that public servants, especially teachers, represent.

Teachers are an especially tricky voter constituency, as leaders at the local level, and as voter influencers within communities. 

The result is that government itself is never an election promise. But election promises, like laptops in the past, or billions in SME support or monthly welfare cheques, must be delivered through government. In 2022, corruption, which is in most cases a government (public) transaction with private actors, is not even on the table. Though this is difficult to describe, the best way to put it is that in most cases, politicians are promising Kenyans 21st Century development and service delivery using 20th Century structures, skills, and attitudes, with a sprinkling of turn of the century systems and technology. And nobody is the wiser. 

The argument has been made that the incoming leader, the president, is the head of government, has the requisite authority and power to align it towards the agenda once electoral victory has been secured. Because the public service is permanent, while political administrations are temporal, government cannot be an election promise.  

After all, the difference between progress made by President Kibaki on the 2003-2007 Economic Recovery Strategy (ERS) and President Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda was not in the promise, but in aligning public service incentives with the results of these strategies. By introducing ERS-aligned strategic planning across government, Kibaki’s strategy worked better than Kenyatta’s, it is argued. 

In any case, what would government as an election promise look like? 

We could begin to answer that question by clarifying that public service transformation was an essential component of the ERS.  

To quote from the overview of the post-2002 election draft that was eventually translated into a comprehensive recovery strategy, “…the strategy is predicated on rapid restoration of public confidence in the core functions of government, specifically efficient, impartial law enforcement and administration of justice; competent responsive public administration (and) enabling, even-handed economic regulation”. 

It added: “Restoring public confidence in government rests on strong (and visible) political leadership by the Executive, a bipartisan spirit in Parliament, plus goodwill and support from the private sector and civil society. Given the breadth of participation required, this strategy paper proposes that the president should lead this effort.” 

Though these words read like they come from a different age, this was not a million years ago in the age of the dinosaurs. It was 2003. We are nowhere close to this thinking today. 

Of course, government as an election promise only works with a transformation from civic education (I know) to civic empowerment (I can). The transitional stage is civic competence; the idea that citizens participate in government during elections, and between elections.  

Citizen-centric government 

In 2022, citizen-centric government will be no longer a nice concept, but a specific design. Indeed, it is a constitutional command. Yet, the one area in which least thought has been applied in the implementation of our Constitution is to what its theory of government means for the citizen. 

There is a design of government implied by the Constitution that is yet to be explored. This is partly explained by the excessive focus on law and not policy in the rollout of the Constitution.

Thought about in an unusual way, policy prevents bad by promoting good, while law promotes good by preventing bad. Or more simply, policy promotes good, law prevents bad.

By focusing on the law, we focused on fixing the bad part of government (in places where this was actually done).

We have done much less on the policy side in building the good part of government. Of course, policy good and law bad is not about politicians, it is about the people.

So here is a final set of thoughts. When we say everybody wants to be in government, it is not the narrow, selfish political interpretation described in this article. It is the idea that we, the people of Kenya, are in the government, because we are the government.

We are the principals, politicians are our agents, and the president is our chief agent.

That is the citizen-centric government electoral promise that we all seek. Which, to repeat, is why in 2022, Kenya needs a governance and rule of law leader who gets this.

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