Why pushing 'sticky' political issues under the rug won't help Kenya

We did not do this, and the kind of problems that accompany elections in so-called "presidential democracies" once more revisited us with abandon, having done so with grievous consequences in the two previous elections (2013 and 2017) held since the constitution was "reformed" in 2010. Can Kenya continue to ignore the urgent need to abandon this presidential system for a parliamentary democracy?

I honestly do not think so. The current political and economic crisis in Kenya shows that competitive politics that is based on electing one person to be president simply kindles more inter-ethnic conflicts as "ethnic elites" compete for the presidency to open up opportunities for those excluded in the winner take all game. By always waiting to get "our turn" in the next elections through juggling with "appropriate" ethnic alliances, we are simply being penny wise and pounds foolish; this game will never end with any sense of fairness.

What we are likely to get, the others will lose. And when they lose, our so-called "gain" that we flaunt around like a child playing with a toy becomes a bitter chalice that the losers cannot afford to swallow! It is because the presidential system operates on a winner take all politics. Even when the so-called "winner" has only one percent more votes than the so-called loser, the winner still take it all. What can be more absurd than that?

No prosperous developing nation has been built that way in this twentieth century. If in doubt ask Lee Kwan Yu of Singapore and he will tell you how his small island, with absolutely no known natural resources, rose from a third to a first world in our life time while we in Kenya, independent more or less at the same time, continue to languish in poverty while holding senseless and inconclusive elections every five years.

Though originally established as a parliamentary political system where popular, developmental and legitimate governments succeed each other in democratic elections through political party competition, Lee Kwan Yu's strong personality dominated the process and turned Singapore into a benevolent authoritarian system which achieved wonders in terms of rapid modernization from the 1960s. But such cases as Singapore are rare in history. Getting exceptional and historically transformative individuals of the Lee Kwan Yu type who can go through competitive democratic elections to popularly reproduce their legitimacy regularly is rare in history.

In the case of Kenya, Okot pa Bitek, the illustrious poet known for his epic poem Song of Lawino, would perhaps provide the best description of our elections and their outcome as graphically expressed in these verses:

And while the pythons of sickness

Swallow the children

And the buffaloes of poverty

Knock the people down

And ignorance stands there

Like an elephant

The war leaders

Are tightly locked in bloody


Eating each other's liver

Daron Acemoglu, the Turkish-American professor of economics at the MIT, with his colleague James Robinson, wrote a very interesting book not too long ago on Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. In this book the two professors make it very clear that it is man-made institutions which make some nations prosper while others linger in poverty. It is a man-made constitution which is making us "eat each other's liver" every five years rather than pursue prosperity for our nation. Is it possible for us to fix the monster in our constitution?

Compare, for example, North and South Korea. These are the same people, with same cultures and more or less same natural endowments. Yet, in the last five decades, South Korea became a leading industrial nation in the Third World while North Korea continues to languish in backwardness.

Difference? Man-made institutions. Though its government is modeled on the American system, South Korea has a much stronger parliamentary democracy with a dynamic multi-party political system where parties are policy-based and compete as such in elections.

The government is accountable to the people and wins legitimacy through performance and not simple propaganda. North Korea, on the other hand, has a rigid one-party state where the controllers of state power are more adept at seeking legitimacy through propaganda than performance. And this is their undoing.

Let us accept it. Parliamentary democracy is more consultative and tends to give room to more diversity of opinion regarding government policies and options rather than focusing on how the pie of development is to be divided, even before it is baked, among ethnic groups with rigid pre-determined boundaries. National cohesion or nation-building, for whatever it is worth, will never be achieved that way.

In form, Kenya appears to have a multi-party democracy. In substance, however, Kenya still continues to have a one-party political system in the way its government is formed every five years after every election? Why is this the case? Because electing a president with such enormous political power is antithetical to having an effective parliamentary political system. Period.

Again, we can learn another lesson from Mauritius. A tiny little island and, as Shakespeare would romanticize, "set in a silver sea," has done wonders in terms of democratic governance and development in the same period of time compared to the giant Kenya next door. Mauritius is no doubt a successful parliamentary democracy with a very complicated ethnic mix. Africans, Hindus, Asian Muslims, Chinese and Caucasians comprise the politically active communities within what we may call the Mauritian nation.

From a poor monocrop economy based on sugar in the 1960s, Mauritius rose phenomenally to the status of the first African developed economy by 2020, based on manufacturing, tourism and finance, just before the Covid-19 pandemic unfortunately set back these achievements. Like India, Mauritius has a titular president but the Prime Minister as leader of the majority in Parliament heads the government. A special provision is made in Parliament for 8 nominated seats to ensure ethnic balance after every election. According to the Mo Ibrahim index on good governance, Mauritius is the best rated democracy in Africa.

The government of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) of 2002-2005 performed well and made tremendous progress in laying the foundation for reforms and development because the coalition believed in and practiced parliamentary democracy within a wanting multi-party parliament where the president remained both the head of state and head of government.

President Mwai Kibaki, like Julius Nyerere before him in Tanzania, did not believe in using those enormous powers that the constitution gave him to the detriment of the nation. Others before and after him have done or did exactly that. We have not had the good luck of having the Kibakis and the Nyereres in our higher echelons of power since the 2010 constitution was enacted. And perhaps we may not have one soon. So we must take refuge in what Acemaglu calls man made democratic institutions and processes to protect us from bad governance.

We now realize that we locked out the minority leader out of parliament in that 2010 constitution, thereby exposing parliamentary democracy to the notorious appetite of nascent presidential authoritarianism to gobble up would-be opposition politicians into government. We want to create the Minority Leader position as a sinecure, perhaps to quieten opposition and not to strengthen parliamentary democracy. Or, perhaps more cynically, to give the presidency the appearance of being tolerant to opposition and formally institutionalizing it.

In the meantime, we have not paid any serious attention to the issue of inclusiveness in government because we perceive government as being composed of share holders based on electoral results and not legitimate democratic rights in a consociational democracy. Mauratius and India are more pragmatic on the issue of representation of minorities, castes and nationalities in the body politic and in development opportunities.

Let us once more remember what Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once said as he was quitting the presidential seat in Tanzania. "The constitution of the Republic of Tanzania gave me so much power that were I to use them all I would have been the worst dictator in Africa."

It is unlikely that we shall always get the likes of Nyerere or Kibaki as our presidents. Let us take refuge in providing constitutional frameworks so that we do not only rely on good men as leaders but good rules of the game, laws and regulations that allow good men to govern democratically with developmental results. In our case, the manner in which we are populating the political arena with bad men through elections that are replete with irregularities is alarming.

The secret behind parliamentary democracies are as follows. First, a parliamentary system of government that provides the over all political framework and political culture in which leaders, qualified for their positions on the basis of meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty, score high on legitimacy, public approval and productivity. Second, a properly institutionalized parliamentary system scoring high on democratic governance and accountability, accompanied with the capability of managing cultural diversities through representation and consultation, thereby being politically inclusive as a reliable guarantor of civil liberties.

On all these scores Kenya has persistently scored poorly since the enactment of the 2010 Constitution. Notwithstanding the many good things in that constitution, the guys who went to Naivasha to bring us the draft constitution let us down badly. Preserving the presidential system made a complete mockery of the good job that had been done. Attempts to amend that draft in Parliament never went very far. We are where we are now because we goofed in Naivasha. But it is not too late; we can still retrace our steps and recover lost ground.

My humble suggestion is the following. Let us not begin campaigning for the elections of 2027 without making the big decision today and not tomorrow. And I can put it in the form of a question. Do we want to continue with the present mongrel of a constitution or are we ready to provide a long lasting political solution by establishing a parliamentary system of government the Indian and Mauritian type?

For the avoidance of any doubt, let me repeat once more. In India they have a president as head of state. But the government is run by a parliamentary system where elections are held periodically to give political parties the opportunity to compete for votes with the winner forming a government headed by a Prime Minister. A country of over a billion people has never relied on observers from so-called development partners to act as prefects in their elections!

What makes us so wedded to this ridiculous presidential system of government that reduces us a laughing stock of the whole world as we kill each other and spend months trying to decide who won the elections? We did it in 2013. We bungled it again in 2017. We have just had another bout of political bad manners by the electoral commission managing the elections in a foul manner and bestowing to the nation yet another election crisis in 2022! And we are behaving as if we are getting somewhere. We are not. We are just running around like headless chicken wasting away the golden opportunity to develop our nation. What is this political passion for under-developing our nation every five years?

We could as well forget about the goals of Vision 2030. With inconclusive political contests every five years, that document is no longer worth more than the paper it was written on...unfortunately!

Prof Nyong'o is Kisumu governor