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Wangui Wa Goro analyses the role of the Kenyan voter in averting a betrayal of a genuinely democratic platform and those who suffered and died to make the platform possible.

When we struggled in exile against the Moi-Kanu regime, our mantra which reflected the name of our organisation was UMOJA – UNITED MOVEMENT FOR DEMOCRACY IN KENYA which spelt out an agenda for change, long before multiparty democracy in Kenya was possible. Much has changed since then, particularly the removal of the dreaded Clause 2A of the Constitution which barred Kenyans from forming opposition political parties. Elections have since been held on two consecutive occasions but whether this represents the much vaunted “multipartism” is yet to be tested.

The fact that there are briefcase parties and several of them does not necessarily mean that the country has turned to a multiparty democracy although we can rejoice at even the ability to register these. In our vision then and in my vision now, we were determined as were many Kenyans to see an end to dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in Kenya which would end violence against fundamental freedoms such as the right to life, the right to associate, the right to conscience, the freedom from want and the freedom of expression amongst others. We hoped that the rule of law and the respect of the rights of all Kenyans would be the baseline from which a new dispensation could be built.

Key to our campaigns was the restitution of democratic rule and governance and the rule of law which protected the lives of every Kenyan no matter what their class, gender, creed or ethnicity, whether they were inside the country or out. It has been my enduring hope that Kenya can quickly get back to track because many Kenyans know what is right, they are decent and hard working people and we are blessed with a nation which is truly gifted in its natural and human resources and well located to harness these gifts for all of us and offer hope to others. I was lucky enough to grow up in a free, post independence Kenya to know from an early age that this was possible.

At the end of the second post Clause 2A election period, five years ago, however, I wrote an article entitled KENYA AT 40 which asked whether we were going to see new wine in old bottles or old wine in new bottles. Despite my misgivings, given the volatile nature of elections and the pre-election Kenyan history which had kept Kenyans repressed through the Moi-Kanu regime, I allowed myself that momentary jubilation with millions of other Kenyans that a milestone had been reached and Kenya had taken a bold and symbolic step of removing the one party-one person dictatorship which meant that the country was finally on the road to democratisation. Despite this, I remained sceptical at both the processes leading to multiparty elections which nearly returned Moi to his “two terms!” and the hurried way in which NARC was formed without much democratic process in the country and in the party. Worrying too, was the fact that the key players of the various “coalition parties” had at one time or another served in the Moi-Kanu dictatorship.

What excited me however, in the last election in 2002, was the will to change and the way in which the Kenyans embraced the ballot box to see off the dictatorship, thus heralding a new approach to the democratic processes. The key promises that were made for this to happen were firstly, the delivery of the new constitution which had been initiated during the Moi-Kanu era and for which the consultative processes had involved all Kenyans and secondly, the end to nyayoism which was synonymous with dictatorship. The referendum also gave us another peak at this will and eagerness to use the ballot box to make decisions.

Yet deep inside, despite these and other cosmetic changes, however, unlike many of my fellow Kenyans, I remain sceptical because I believe that old habits die hard and many of the new players in the new regime and others in the opposition, with the exception of a few had really not been involved in the pro-democracy struggles which led to the toppling of the single party single person dictatorship. They were unlikely to change not for want of trying but they would not know how and in some instances, preferred not to know how in their arrogance and belief in their God given right. I believed that many still do not know or care about what the desires of the Kenyans really are, nor the full extent of the price that has been paid through detentions, killings, exiling, jailing and other state led repressions nor the struggles for democracy which finally led to the momentum which saw Moi and his cronies off. I was soon proven right as old faces began reappearing around the president including, now in the final stretch, Moi himself: Old wine in an old bottle, a scenario I had not contemplated.

We had campaigned for multiparty elections as a tool to democratisation, not just for the changing of guards at the top of brief case, overnight formed parties. A vision was for a Kenya where equality, justice and freedom from fundamental needs could be shared both through the rule of law, particularly for those in the greatest need, but also engaging people in democratic decision making processes at all levels of society including their parties, and not just at election time. What lessons can be learned from the last elections?

I hoped, perhaps cynically, that explicit mechanisms, institutions and personnel would be put in place early enough after the departure of the nyayo regime which had violated the social, economic, political and human rights of the large majority of Kenyans and which all the players, now united through NARC would endeavour to reverse. At the state level, the government was buoyed by the post election feel-good factor and the overwhelming euphoria and expectation that nyayoism and all its tendencies had been shown the door. The Rainbow Coalition also bore promises in that it had activist/reformers who were elected into parliament and even to ministerial and cabinet positions. New bold blood was also engaged in some critical positions. There seemed to be real hope for the foundations for democracy. The hope was that NARC and the other parties would begin to strengthen their parties in preparation for the next elections.

In the early months of the Narc government there was promise that democratic accountability and mechanisms for democracy would come into being and would begin to deliver restorative justice, processes and outcomes which would begin to address some of the gross human, social, economic and political violations and begin to reverse the fortunes of every Kenyan. Key to this was the Constitution which would not only safeguard Kenya from dictatorship by diminishing the power of the presidency and empowering institutions and other mechanisms, but also modernise Kenya for the 21st Century.

Sadly, this was not to be and remains a major stumbling block for democratisation as a mechanism. Other mechanisms would include independent institutions of the Judiciary, Parliament and Executive and the setting up of specific offices and institutions to redress the ills of the KANU years as well as reforming the Public Services. Institutions such as the Anti-corruption Commission were formed, the office for Governance and Ethics in the office of the President and the Kenya National Commission for Rights amongst others. There were promises and attempts to reform the Judiciary, corruption at all levels would be rooted out, people would be held to account for violations of human rights, those who had embezzled public funds or employed their relatives and cronies would be dealt with etc.

In other examples, what has happened to the Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Governance in the person of John Githongo who was forced to flee the country and his job is well known world-wide. His post has not been refilled, nor his work followed up. In other instances, institutions such as the Anti-corruption Commission and the National Human Rights Commission which began with great promise do not have enough authority to carry out their duties. In their weakness, they appear to have been calculated token gestures as corruption, violence and poverty have continued unabated. In another example, the late appointments and processes for the Election Commission of Kenya do not inspire confidence. Equally, the last minute formation of political parties, the wrangling and the violence has also not helped and may predetermine the outcome for democracy even before Kenyans have a chance to get to the ballot box. The unravelling of the official opposition and the joining of the Kibaki party by the leader of the opposition Uhuru Kenya has undermined that democratic space and left the other opposition parties (which are not recognised within this parliament) without a voice.

But after a while, the whole systems began to unravel both at the state and party level, firstly with the breaking up of the Rainbow Party that was not founded on democratic, transparent unifying principals beyond the desire to rid Kenya of the Moi-Kanu regime. The breakdown of the rainbow party (which was based on a coalition of parties) was so bad that at one point, the Kenyan state was governed by an individual, the President whose party nobody knew and there were no mechanisms or checks and balances either at party or state level. President Kibaki did not belong to NARC as it had disbanded and he did not belong to any of the constituent or new parties. This had never happened even in the worst of the Nyayo-era period as Moi conducted the dictatorship under the aegis of KANU.

At the social level, racism, religious intolerance and sexism are at a rampant high including the rape and violence against women and children, attacks on specific ethnic communities and day to day vigilante activities which include violent killings and violation of the law including the killing of police officers. Further, attacks on the media, (and other gestures such as slapping of public civil servants and journalists without censure by those associated to high public office) continue to erode the right to fundamental freedoms and send out the message that there are those who are above the law.

The fact is that through such gestures which happen on a daily basis, many communities and individuals feel under siege through continued political, social, religious and ethnic pressure including vigilante activities like extrajudicial killings and corruption some of which are perpetuated by people perceived to be in position of power and authority, a far cry from what Kenyans had hoped for after what looked like the crushing of nyayoism. The law is not applied equally, thus the poorest and most vulnerable are hit the hardest and the system does not protect them from exploitation by those who purport to be in power, including small localised power linked to big power.

The civil society has also been weakened by the promises of reform from their former colleagues now in government or in parliament, but Kenyans should know by now that reform is the avoidance of change and that is why it has always been preferred by the ruling classes and their intelligentsia who have gone unusually silent or have failed to pick out the nuances that will undermine true multiparty democracy in Kenya. How much longer are Kenyans going to be expected to wait?

The impunity that the poor face in relation to access to justice, fundamental services and the inability to have a say in their day to day lives has been so normalised that paying bribes before accessing any service is a way of life still and expecting that one might be attacked or killed for not conforming makes the lives of many Kenyans miserable. Many communities also feel alienated through exclusion. The rich can pay for protection but the poor remain exposed in desperate conditions and in many instances below what can be called minimal human conditions. Failure to account and be held accountable has to be a measure by which Kenyans can articulate their desires. The delivery of these in the past and in the future are a serious indictment and barometer of democracy, equality, freedom, justice and the rule of law. As Kenyans go to the ballot, they must ask themselves whether the different parties/individuals will address these fundamental needs.

It is in fact these tenets for the road to democracy they must use to measure their promised leaders and to underpin their election decisions. At least that is what I would do if I had that promised right to vote which at present I do not have although I am a Kenyan citizen. At minimum, democracy should guard the most fundamental of needs which alleviate fear and want. This requires a vision for democratic change and rule and engagement at all levels. The institutions, mechanisms and processes which treat all Kenyans as equal before the law must be strengthened and the rights of every Kenyan protected no matter what their race, gender, class, ability or creed. Our right to multipartism must be underpinned by real parties not paper parties. Elections are only the first step and that was secured even before 2002.

The score sheet will read disappointingly if Kenyans fail yet again for a third time to seize this golden opportunity by selling their hard won rights to the class interests of the rich and therefore, they can be told again to their own faces that they are willing accomplices in their own violation.

While one can only rejoice at elections as the first step forward towards democracy and the fervour in which the Kenyans have seized this, they are only means to an end and this is what the Kenyans should bear in mind as they exercise their right on December 27, 2007. They are the best guarantee of democracy and not the leaders, whatever their party. Most Kenyans are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea in the current elections as true multipartism has not really arrived in Kenya, but token paper parties with little track record and nearly all of them tarnished by their associations with Nyayosim one way or the other. Kenya needs a clean break through a new republic and a national debate for this needs to happen urgently. Choosing leaders who will genuinely facilitate this may be the way forward.

Kenyans therefore have to fix the wider vision of a better place for themselves now and for their children tomorrow. There is much to be won beside short term, last minute token gestures, empty promises, and those who can vote must keep their eye on the ball for true development, justice, democracy, peace, unity and equality. Kenya has the promise and the potential and if those with the right to vote fail to seize it now judiciously, this may well be the last chance.

*Dr. Wangui wa Goro is a public intellectual, writer, translator and academic who has been living in the UK and campaigning for democratic rights for Kenya for the last 25 years. She is currently an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Human Rights and Social Justice at London Metropolitan University.

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