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February 22, 2019

No real alternative to referendum


A man who held high office in former President Mwai Kibaki’s administration once told me that when their team took over the reins of power, they were utterly shocked at just how badly off the country was.

Apparently, the many years of relentless looting by the elite of (also now retired) President Daniel Moi had caused such extensive systemic damage that it was a wonder the country was functioning at all.

And I imagine that had the opposition NASA been victorious in the 2017 election, they might have had the same experience. All this corruption that is now being revealed would have been immediately obvious to the incoming team of Cabinet Secretaries and other top officers of the new NASA government. And they would very likely have been shocked at just how ravenous their predecessors had been.

Well, in this small detail lies the essential strength of democracy: For democracies to fully function, there must be a realistic possibility of peaceful transfer of power.

If such transfer is effectively guaranteed to take place from time to time, then on the one hand, those in high office will be a lot more careful. They would be constantly aware that some very unfriendly eyes might soon be looking at the books of accounts for their ministry or parastatal.

And on the other hand, those out of power would have every motive to work towards exposing the rot in government — as this would be the surest way to bring down their political rivals and rise to replace them. This then, is the other dimension of the toxicity of our presidential elections — quite aside from the dreaded election-related violence.

So long as it is considered possible to buy an election; to bribe voters and make them do your bidding at the ballot box, Kenya will always have leaders who either need to raise money to fight an election; or need to replace what they had lavishly spent on political campaigns. In the end, the public loses: the money stolen is usually handed over to a few ‘campaign managers’ who spread it around — while keeping most for themselves.

And thus, elections become a process by which millions of poor Kenyans are defrauded, and a new elite of a few dozen millionaires is created. Unfortunately for us all, the 2017 election only served to reinforce the existing assumptions and generalisations.

Such as, for example, that Kenyan presidents never lose at the ballot box; or that there is always an improbably huge turnout in a serving President’s backyard if he seeks reelection; and that the votes cast down the line in opposition zones ­— for governor, for senator, for MPs and for MCAs — often don’t add up.

Such a rotten system has to be changed if there is to be any hope of progress, whether on the economy or in governance. For it is a self-perpetuating cycle, from which there can be no escape without structural change.

Many of us know men and women who once had the highest ideals imaginable: A genuine desire to serve their nation, a powerful sense of indebtedness for the good fortune that had come their way in life and a wish to ‘give back. Men and women whose eyes glistened with tears as they spoke of children falling asleep in rural classrooms because they had not had any breakfast.

But such a person, once in office, and desperate to be reelected, will give no thought to hungry and barefoot schoolchildren, as they race to accumulate the millions they need for their campaigns.

For the present — and especially bearing in mind the very real threat of national dissolution that we faced only recently — it may be necessary for the nation’s top leadership to consult and work together.

But our democracy needs a strong parliamentary opposition, irrevocably committed to bringing down the government of the day — a task for which provable accusations of corruption are by far the best artillery.

And for that strong opposition, we need to have a return to the Westminster parliamentary system, arrived at by way of a constitutional referendum.

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