Kenyan elections have become increasingly delinked from the quest to meet the needs and aspirations of the people. They are almost entirely an elite circus providing the self-absorbed, politically impotent urban middle classes with something to Tweet about - or to pontificate on from the comfort of the bar stool - and the peasants perhaps a few coins or a branded T-shirt and free entertainment every five years.
Kenya is heaving with anxiety. The streets of Nairobi and other towns have in recent weeks been transformed into theatres of horrific terror reminiscent of the police state of the era of retired despot Daniel arap Moi. The opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) is currently holding protests every Monday demanding the disbandment of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which has been roundly discredited as lacking any integrity to conduct elections next year. The protests have been met with ruthless police brutality that has stunned the nation and the world.
Apparently emboldened by the collapse of their crimes against humanity cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC) – which Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda attributed to widespread witness tempering, non-cooperation by the Kenyan state and political intimidation of the Court – President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto no longer pretend to have sworn to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of Kenya. Nearly everyday there are fresh reports of mysterious murders, threats or arrests of human rights defenders, journalists, student leaders, bloggers, whistleblowers, social/political activists and dissidents. Controversial wheeler-dealer Jacob Juma who blew the whistle on grand corruption in government was one recent night felled in a hail of bullets by unknown gunmen in Nairobi. For months Juma had been saying powerful people in government were plotting to kill him. His murder followed that of prominent opposition youth mobilizer in Nairobi, Stephen Mukabana, who was similarly gunned down. No arrests have been made in either case.
Social media is abuzz with hateful messaging that reveals a dangerously broken nation. Both government and opposition supporters are culpable. This author is reliably informed that since coming to power in 2013, the Jubilee government has hired teams of bloggers to drive its propaganda on social media not only by touting government achievements but also by shouting down government critics especially through personalized attacks and ethnicised slander. On the other hand, hawkish politicians across the political divide are spewing incendiary rhetoric aimed at radicalizing their supporters and priming them for confrontation.
All this is happening ahead of general elections set for August 2017, which are shaping up to be a titanic battle with real possibilities of perhaps the worst political violence in the country’s history. In all likelihood that contest will be between the incumbent Kenyatta, who will be seeking his second and final term, and CORD leader Raila Odinga, who will be gunning for the presidency for the fourth – and some say - last time. The two politicians are the sons of Kenya’s first president and vice president respectively. Concerns about possible election violence aside (we have dealt with that in a previous article), this article contends that, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election next year, there will be no meaningful change for the people of Kenya. They will lose – again.
Kenya’s politics will not change, no matter who becomes the president. The thieving cartels that have captured the state will remain in place. Mass poverty and deep inequalities will continue. Neo-liberal capitalist policies that cater to the interests of big business while duping the masses of the people that benefits will trickle down to them will persist. Corruption will still be the way of life. Tribalism – a tactic of the ruling classes to keep the nation divided for political ends – won’t die. It will be business as usual. Only the people’s revolution can radically transform Kenya. Concerned citizens should rise up and begin to work hard towards that end.
Why elections cannot bring about popular change
The re-introduction of multiparty politics in Kenya in 1992 after the repeal of the infamous Section 2A of the then constitution, which made the country de jure a single-party state, is considered to be the culmination of the “Second Liberation”. That term refers to the relentless - and often brutally repressed – efforts by bold citizens to end personal rule in Kenya, or the so-called “imperial presidency” and its evils, established by founding President Jomo Kenyatta and continued by his successor Moi under his motto of Nyayo (meaning, following in the footsteps of Kenyatta.) Both the Kenyatta and Moi dictatorships notoriously featured political assassinations, detention without trial of dissidents, prolonged jail terms on trumped-up charges, forced exile, disappearances, widespread brutality and systematic torture by state security agents, intimidation, muzzling of the media and generalized state terror that kept the masses of the people either despondently silent or busy singing praises of the regime.
Since the return of multipartyism, Kenya has held five elections (1992, 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2013). But only one election, that of 2002 at the end of Moi’s 24-year reign, was undisputed. Mwai Kibaki, a former vice-president under Moi, was elected the third president of Kenya with a landslide of 67.6 percent of the vote. All the other elections before and after were characterized by persistent concerns about the fairness of the process and the credibility of the outcome (Hersi and Otieno, 2015: 10). It is widely believed that Moi brazenly stole the 1992 and 1997 elections. The opposition claimed – and there was credible evidence – that the 2007 poll was rigged by the incumbent, President Kibaki, leading to the outbreak of atrocious violence that brought the country to the brink of civil war.
The 2013 election, a tight contest between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga - both prominent politicians under the Moi and Kibaki regimes - was held against the backdrop of the 2007/8 chaos. A new constitution had been enacted in 2010, leading to the creation of a new electoral body, passage of new electoral laws and the establishment of the Supreme Court of Kenya with exclusive jurisdiction over presidential election petitions. Despite all that, serious irregularities were witnessed in the presidential election and the credibility of IEBC as a neutral referee was tarnished (Wanyeki, 2015).
There was more distress to come. Petitions filed at the Supreme Court to challenge Uhuru Kenyatta’s controversial win were dismissed – primarily on technicalities, not on the substantive claims. Kenyans were urged to “accept and moved on”. They did. But these events left behind a deeply felt sense of loss of faith in the country’s electoral processes. The first election after promulgation of a new constitution, which had been trumpeted as heralding a new political dispensation, ended up showing clearly that the contradictions of Kenya’s politics remained unresolved.
The perception that it is impossible to hold free and fair elections in Kenya is now widespread, not only because of diminished credibility of the relevant public institutions but also because of high levels of corruption. It is generally assumed that everyone has a price. Despite accusations of graft against high-profile individuals, convictions are very rare as long as one has the money and is properly connected politically. Corruption is the main reason why the opposition, religious groups, civil society, professional bodies and ordinary Kenyans have called for the disbandment of the IEBC. The electoral body’s former chief executive James Oswago was forced to step down following corruption allegations touching on the 2013 elections, which he denies. Similar allegations continue to dog IEBC chairman Isaac Hassan and several commissioners.
Since the second advent of multipartyism, all the leading candidates in the five elections and their top allies have been political elites and beneficiaries of the old system who merely turned around to parrot new slogans. The parties under which they vied (Democratic Party of Kenya, Ford Kenya, Ford People, Social Democratic Party, National Rainbow Coalition, Orange Democratic Party, name it) never proposed any radical ideological vision for the country. Kibaki who succeeded Moi in 2002 had been a long serving vice president before falling out with his boss. Raila Odinga, detained by Moi for eight years, had served as a cabinet minister under Moi prior to the 2002 elections and was for a brief period secretary general of the much-maligned independence party, Kanu. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was the Kanu candidate in 2002. The political actors in all the elections have remained essentially the same, only that they don new garbs to hoodwink the people with the rhetoric of change.
The numerous political parties and coalitions that have mushroomed since the repeal of Section 2A are differentiated by the personalities they front and their ethnic bases, never by ideology. They easily enter into marriage with the party in power whenever it suits them, without any attempt to consult their members – usually after money has changed hands or on the promise of appointment of party bigwigs into government. The parties are never heard from between elections, nor do they bother to build their own constituencies, mobilize and politically educate their members or take principled positions on national issues of the day.
So, it does not really matter who comes to power in Kenya. Politicians pursue power, not a national vision. The political parties lack ideological clarity and are not rooted in the people, but are mere vehicles of convenience to achieve personal ambition for public office. This elite capture of Kenya’s politics ensures that anyone with a far-reaching transformational agenda cannot flourish in the public arena. In 1997, for example, renowned environmentalist Prof Wangari Maathai who would proceed to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004, ran for president but only gathered a handful of votes.
Whatever side of the political divide the elites belong, they all loathe popular mobilization that could radically alter the status quo and jeopardize the interests of the minority that owns Kenya. In the ethnic strongholds of the top political honchos, dissent is ruthlessly crushed. Critical alternative thought is detested and suppressed, whether one is in Nyanza where Raila Odinga rules the roost or in the Central region, the backyard of Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenya is effectively divided into ethnic enclaves headed by wealthy barons who determine the nature of politics in each region.
Elections cannot bring about popular change in Kenya because, being an elite circus, they are heavily commercialized and transactional. Unregulated campaign spending means that whoever has the fatter wallet carries the day through massive bribery and vote buying. Monies from all sorts of sources find their way into the campaigns: drug money, proceeds of human trafficking, lucre from poaching, donations (actually advance bribes) by local and foreign businesspeople expecting to be awarded government contracts, funds diverted from projects for the people, money looted from public coffers ahead of the election, etc.
Moreover, mass poverty, miseducation, civic ignorance, youth unemployment and general hopelessness mean that the average Kenyan voter has neither ability nor interest to read and rigorously critique manifestos or demand party ideology. A voter is unlikely to think twice if they are offered a little money to vote for a particular candidate, spend sleepless nights campaigning for him or to join a gang to disrupt the campaigns of their candidate’s opponent.
Added to this depressing state of affairs is the problem of coloniality. Kenya is 53 years old as an independent nation, but it has never fully broken away from its colonial past. Ultimately, independence came to mean the departure of the British colonialists and their replacement with local bosses. Independence never transformed into genuine self-determination of the Kenyan people. One of the leading lights of Kenya’s liberation struggle, Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko, has put it this way: “A people who once stood tall at the end of their liberation struggle, and had made great strides towards meaningful political independence, social justice and economic emancipation, have failed to marshal their human and material resources today to achieve basic self-sufficiency in human needs. The political greatness of Kenya, which we fought for so hard and for long, has failed to materialize.” (Kihoro, 2005)
Why is this the case? Ondoro and Otieno (2015) observe that, “From Jomo Kenyatta to Uhuru Kenyatta, the process of democratization has been superficial. The struggles to remove the colonial government did not yield meaningful democratic change. Jomo failed to deconstruct the colonial state”. That state remains intact in many ways. Just like independence came to mean replacing the British rulers with local ones, today elections in Kenya mean replacing one ruler or ruling class with another.
The liberation struggle was for basic rights that were part of the everyday experiences of the people, writes Manji (1998). “The initial spark for most people was provided by the desire to organise to claim rights to food, shelter, water, land, education, and health care, and the rights to freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom from harassment and other forms of human-rights abuses.” Fifty-three years after independence, millions of citizens go to bed hungry and sickly children learn under trees in Kenya as politicians pursue power for personal glory.
Over time, elections have become increasingly delinked from the quest to meet the genuine needs and aspirations of the people. They are almost entirely an elite affair providing the self-absorbed, politically impotent mission-schooled urban middle classes with something to Tweet about - or to pontificate on from the comfort of the bar stool - and the peasants perhaps a few coins or a branded T-shirt and free entertainment every five years.
What many citizens might not even suspect is that election outcomes are really never determined by the snaking queues of enthusiastic voters who rise up at dawn to cast their ballot. There is the “deep state” to contend with. The deep state is a network of elite individuals or groups, who, working behind the scenes, subvert the popular will through the control they exert over formal state institutions and processes (Kegoro, 2015). The military and intelligence agencies are essential elements of the deep state, which also includes some senior or longstanding non-elected officials within government, for example top civil servants, select individuals with effective control of key commercial, military or criminal groups, the financial sector, corporate media, as well as individuals who broker agreements between other members of the deep state.
In Kenya, heads of the military, the police, intelligence services, the civil service, the colonial-era provincial administration, corporate potentates and the media are not politically neutral as they are often portrayed. They are often part of the deep state. Other powerful players (usually influential former politicians or retired civil servants) are co-opted through appointment to the boards of parastatals or state-owned enterprises. With strategic backing of the deep state whose tentacles reach every corner of the republic and whose resources are limitless, it is usually impossible for an “outsider” to win a presidential election or for an opposition candidate to dislodge the incumbent.
So, if elections cannot bring about the radical changes that would meet the people’s needs and aspirations, what needs to be done?
Not yet Uhuru: Towards the people’s revolution
Writing just three short years after independence, Kenya’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had already resigned his post following irreconcilable ideological differences with his Western-backed boss, Kenyatta, stated as follows: “Some of us were, perhaps, slow to realize that the time when accession to independence was progress in itself has passed. Only the political and economic content of that independence can reveal whether it will have real meaning for the mass of the people” (Odinga, 1967). The word independence in this quote could be replaced with elections to perfectly describe the circumstances in Kenya today. As we have attempted to demonstrate, even when declared to be free and fair by the high priests of democracy - the supposedly neutral expert observers - regular elections on their own do not constitute progress, or democracy, or the will of the people, or change, or whatever. Only the political and economic content of an election can reveal whether it will have real meaning for the mass of the people.
After five so-called competitive, democratic, multi-party elections over the past quarter century, there is little to show that these elections have produced “real meaning for the masses of the people” of Kenya in terms of achieving “basic self-sufficiency in human needs”, as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko point out. Poverty, unemployment, hunger, landlessness, ignorance and disease still bedevil the people. Moreover, assuming that the results of the 2013 elections were a true expression of the will of the Kenyan people, can the current tyrannical, violent, corrupt, profligate and neo-liberal capitalist rule of Uhuru Kenyatta be said to be a reflection of the popular will? Is this the Kenya that citizens want?
Politicians, clergy, industry fat cats, the media, NGO types, bourgeoisie intellectuals and other privileged classes continue to peddle a false consciousness to lull the masses of the people, that: We are maturing as a democracy; your vote, your voice; pray for peace; we are a sovereign nation; the people have spoken; you have adequate representation in parliament and at the county assemblies; elect good leaders who will address your needs, etc. But none of that puts food on anyone’s table. Or a roof over their heads. None of that guarantees people their basic rights and freedoms, even when stipulated in the constitution as is now obvious. This false consciousness must be destroyed, so that the people can see for themselves the concrete reality of their own situation and organize to liberate themselves from the oppression of the ruling classes and their enablers.
The eminent Tanzanian intellectual Issa Shivji has called for a “new democratic consensus” that goes beyond the rituals of bourgeoisie democracy, such as elections, and that is rooted in popular power. The two critical elements of this new democratic consensus are “the right of people to self-determination and the right to life” (2009). The right to self-determination is not just about national independence; it is also about popular self-determination. “Self-determination for the village community would mean the right to be consulted and participate in making decisions concerning them,” Shivji says. The right to life, on the other hand, “is a composite right that includes the right to livelihood, food, shelter and education – in short, the right to be human.”
To be sure, Kenya’s new constitution guarantees people power, as conceptualized here by Shivji. The extensive Bill of Rights is especially quite revolutionary. But in the context of elite politics it remains dead words on paper – until people take the initiative to organize, embrace a new revolutionary consciousness based on their concrete realities and build their popular power. The one word for that is: Struggle. No one is going to bring the citizen her share of the “fruits of uhuru” on a silver platter. She must roll up her sleeves and struggle for them. We will quote Shivji (2015) again:
“Africa’s comprador ruling classes, and educated middle class, are so compromised by imperialism that they are incapable of providing leadership. The only possible alternative bloc is that of the working people made up of popular classes – workers, peasants, small producers, urban and rural poor, the so-called slum-dwellers and informal workers or the “precariat”, small bourgeoisie with nationalist tendencies and other strata of rural petty bourgeoisie. They need an ideology, organisation and leadership to constitute an alternative political bloc.”
That means ordinary citizens must organize themselves at every level as collectives, determine their own objectives and strategies to bring down the current anti-people system. That is democracy from below. Change will never come from the top. Those who enjoy the benefits of the status quo will not freely initiate change or relinquish their privileges without a fight. A unifying ideology that will tie together all the collectives in citizen-driven solidarity will culminate in a solid national bloc of people power that will demolish the present elitist system and put in its place a truly democratic order.
* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News.
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Kegoro, G. 2015. “The Invisible Hand Inside Ballot Boxes: The Phenomenon of the Deep State in Kenya’s Electoral Competition”, in Otieno, F. (ed.), New Constitution, Same Old Challenges: Reflections on Kenya’s 2013 General Elections. Nairobi. Society for International Development/Uraia Trust.
Kihoro, W. 2005. The price of freedom: The history of political resistance in Kenya. Nairobi. MvuleAfrica Publishers.
Manji, F. 1998. “The depoliticization of poverty”, in Eade, D. (ed.), Development and Rights: A development in practice reader. London. Oxfam GB.
Odinga, O. 1967. Not yet Uhuru. Nairobi. East African Educational Publishers.
Ondoro, N. and Otieno, F. 2015. “Nosy or Neutral? Evaluating the Security Sector in Kenya’s 2013 General Elections”, in Otieno, F. (ed.), New Constitution, Same Old Challenges: Reflections on Kenya’s 2013 General Elections. Nairobi. Society for International Development/Uraia Trust.
Shivi, I.G. 2009. Where is Uhuru? Reflections on the struggle for democracy in Africa. Nairobi. Pambazuka Press.
Shivji, I.G. 2015. “Wither Africa in the Global South? Lesson of Bandung and Pan-Africanism.” Pambazuka News. http://www.pambazuka.org/global-south/whither-africa-global-south, accessed on 21 May 2016.
Wanyeki, M. 2015. “See No Evil: Reform and Observation of Kenya’s 2013 Presidential Elections”, in Otieno, F. (ed.), New Constitution, Same Old Challenges: Reflections on Kenya’s 2013 General Elections. Nairobi. Society for International Development/Uraia Trust.