If you can read and write, you are good to vie in any election
By George Nyatundo and Tom Mokweri
| August 5th 2021
Political leadership in a democracy is not a birthright that can be inherited, gifted or bequeathed to one’s kin. Hence, the politics of degrees is the new political hot potato. How educated does a leader have to be and what is the consequence of lack of intellectual exposure? This has developed into a socio-political rupture which our Constitutional scheme must be willing to endure.
Senator Okong'o Omogeni-chaired Justice, Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee’s endorsement of the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2021 calculated to constructively amend section 22 of the Elections Act which requires all candidates for political seats to be graduates as from next elections is pertinent, timely and in order.
The proposal means that any Kenyan, able to read and write should be allowed to run for any political office. Scrapping of academic requirements for any elective seat, in essence, captures the spirit of democracy.
Indeed, the value of the best possible education in the exercise of high political office cannot be underestimated. It’s argued here, firstly, that degrees and other high qualifications are essential but not necessary in a democratic set-up.
Secondly, reasonable and proximate nexus must exist between a restriction of a constitutional right and the objective intended to be achieved by such legislation. In our case, what objectives are degree qualifications for elective posts intended to serve?
All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya. Accordingly, our Constitution works a scheme which elevates democratic practice as government of, by and for the people. Such power shall be exercised either directly or through their representatives.
Further, the Constitution provides that every citizen is free to make political choices. Free expression of the will of the electors is a right that cannot be wished away by the State. Every adult citizen, therefore, has the right, without unreasonable restrictions to be registered as a voter and candidate for public office.
All democratic societies endeavour to guarantee, at first, that all citizens receive optimum height of universal education through school systems. Secondly, officials in high political offices have a team of adequately qualified advisors to aid their decision-making processes.
Yet, going by Kenya’s 2018 adult literacy rate of 81.53 per cent, it means that almost nine million Kenyans will be locked out of elective posts due to illiteracy. That number will be exponentially higher if we factor in degree qualifications.
We should ask instead, as to how to order our political scheme as to minimise the temptation of acting unwisely or unjustly. A structure that deplores action to one’s own gain or to particular vested lobbies. Political action is at all times related with conflicts, multifaceted contexts and dilemmas.
It is doubtable whether an educational course or qualification can help here. Even if it were useful, the immediacy of personal integrity, ethical values and behaviour and the paramountcy of its violation by political action cannot be supplanted by academic certificates.
The 20th-century terror and brutality by fascist and socialist regimes brought the need for intellectual exposure to the centre-stage of political dialogue. Just as the overriding role of private over public education system in maintaining the ascendance of political clans in America. Given the cost of higher education and extreme economic inequality in Kenya, it’s absurd to change goal posts in the middle of a political fixture.
At a fundamental level, connecting political leadership with high educational qualifications constricts the circle of social groups at the helm of power. That way, the democratic principle of equal opportunities for assuming political office becomes smothered. Discriminatory quandary where political offices will be up for grabs only to a few will become the norm. The role of political parties as vehicles of public opinion should be informed by their ranks and file that are effectively educated from Grandes Écoles.
In a democracy, the right to vote implies that all votes count equal. Personal acumen may benefit from the wisdom that accompanies education. Education may come with family affluence and social status.
Yet, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that those less fortunate, who failed, due to one reason or another, to finance higher education are idiots. Thus, academic requirements imply an artificial and unreasonable restriction on the constitutional right of the sovereign people.
Literacy is a non-obligatory but desirable attribute. The requirement dramatically fails to recognise other forms of competency-based learning and training as academic qualification. Thus, it’s a discriminatory device against the masses from determining that right which intimately concerns their lives.
Why can’t we just give democracy space to work its magic? As Winston Churchill remarked: "Democracy is by no means the best form of government, but it is the best we’ve got." It’s the impulse and inclination of acting based on feelings and emotions that should be repulsed.
Dr Nyatundo is a legal scholar based in India. Prof Mokweri is Dean, Business and Economics, Turkana University College
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