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January 20, 2019

Ten reasons why I do not support the presidential system

Members of the National assembly at Parliament
Members of the National assembly at Parliament
I have always advised against continuing with the presidential system of government in Kenya. I do not believe, in theory and practice, that it is, has been or will ever be good for Kenya. The most interesting thing is that many Kenyans know this, but they refuse to accept this reality and would rather continue to live a lie all their lives rather than do what is good by abandoning it today and not tomorrow.

But why are Kenyans afraid of this change or why do they continue to avoid this change? Interestingly enough, the ten reasons I am going to give on why we should abandon this system are the same that account for the reluctance of Kenyans to abandon this terrible system. Now that sounds strange but it is true. Now, let us now begin to navigate through these ten reasons.

First, the presidential system tends to encourage, nay institutionalise, tribalism. The kind of tribalism I am referring to is the political one: One that lets an individual, or a group of individuals, believe that when their tribesman is in power, “they” will eat or get favours from government as opposed to other tribes or tribe who will be equally deprived or discriminated against. This means further that, however bad this system is to those “out of favour with the presidency”, they in turn swear that “when their turn comes after they win the next election”, those who persecuted them under “those others” presidency “will see!”

Second, other than encouraging this kind of “vengeful” tribal politics, it is also an inherently narcissistic political system. Everybody who participates in the perpetually competitive politics this system engenders is also perpetually at pains to ensure a win or at pains to avoid possible pending defeat. Society, under this system, cannot relax, yet all participants do not necessarily enjoy the payoffs of the system when they access its presidential power. One wonders whether the president himself ever relaxes to enjoy that power.

Third, notwithstanding the lofty policies the winning president espouses as legitimate grounds to power, it is never tailored to systematically implement long-term development projects in the interest of the nation. What is even worse is that any implementation of such projects quite often suffers destruction as a result of short-term goals important players in the system have. A good example is the standard gauge railway and how the Swazuris of this world sabotaged its noble objectives by loading on its debt bloated land purchases to finance their short-term goals of primitive accumulation.

How about the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport Greenfield project? Sh4.5 billion has gone down the drain without a single thing done at JKIA! In both cases, who is going to suffer? It is the Kenyan taxpayer, who will pay the debts for an over-priced project in one case, and no service rendered in the other. Yet some Kenyans don’t see anything wrong here nor can they associate what is wrong with the awful system of executive power we have adopted.

Fourth, we decided in 2010 to have a system similar to that of the US without necessarily realising that their power of the Congress and of the Federal system of government is very different from ours. Now we have non-elected Cabinet secretaries wielding enormous powers at the behest of the presidency, and with very weak advisory powers to rein in a presidency that goes rogue.

The President himself can go rogue. Under our present circumstances, the Cabinet would have no cautionary powers over him since they are his appointees. The Deputy President can also go rogue: again the Cabinet would be of no help to him. Parliament, in return, with no elected person to answer questions on behalf of the Cabinet in that august House is also rendered impotent. There is no wonder therefore that elites have seen this system very attractive in institutionalising Executive impunity in the service of primitive accumulation of the worst kind in our times. Left to continue for long, Kenya’s future development is going to be so compromised to this top heavy elite accumulation process that the division between the haves and the have nots may be worse than that found in the miserable island of Haiti.

Fifth, any government formed under such a system of government will always vie towards authoritarianism, not democracy. For example, it is very difficult for a British Prime Minister to travel to India and denounce her own intelligence service at home, while praising the Indian Prime Minister to the skies. Donald Trump, however, finds it very easy to denounce his own intelligence system and praise the Russian president. In the case of Theresa May, such an act would easily lead to a vote of no confidence. For Trump, it will lead to a few complaints here and there but not much will happen. It is worse in Africa. A president can compel Parliament overnight to change significant aspects of the law, giving him more authoritarian powers. The public will have very little to do, even when the courts declare such actions unconstitutional. 

Sixth, the basic requirement of any democratic is that while the citizens freely elect their rulers, such leaders need to subject themselves to the will of the people at all times. Such processes of subjection are institutionalised in checks and balances in government, the principle of the separation of powers, the rule of law and the respect for human rights. Since presidential systems, by their very nature, tend to be authoritarian, they are antithetical to the nurturing of democracy, especially in emerging markets (read “developing countries”) such as ours. Yet, it is this authoritarian nature of presidential authoritarian politics that primitive accumulators and careerist elite politicians love. Such politicians will, therefore, sing to the praises of democracy, while worshipping presidential authoritarian politics at the same time. They are hypocrites of the worst kind, devoid of any conscience. They are smooth talkers, who can easily sell their mothers in law to hyenas dressed in sheep’s skins. 

Seventh, while liberalism to the western minds means “a state that governs least”, to the mind of a person in a developing society, a liberal state means a state that is considerate, moderate, tolerant of diverse views, a midwife to a developing society providing such useful things like education and health. Authoritarian presidential states are antithetical to liberalism; they tend to deliver development on their own terms. They are, again by their very nature, paternalistic, even when they mean good. Their “goodness” is not liberating; it tends to create a mentality of dependence, that of “serikali saidia.” A mentality in which mature human beings are not given room, nor do they thrive to create room, for individual and collective self reliance. The “harambee” culture is hence deliberately nurtured in an authoritarian presidential system to perpetuate this dependency syndrome as one of the ideological and political weapons of making the ordinary citizen worship and not challenge unequal economic and power relationships in society. Doing away with this system means doing away with authoritarianism ans debilitating dependency.

 Eighth, this system may tend to emulate and perpetuate what Ali Mazrui called “monarchical tendencies in African politics.” Presidents, unlike Prime Ministers controlled by their political parties and parliaments, tend to have the tendency of standing alone above all leaders, expecting to be loved, nay worshipped, at all costs. Monarchs, however, do not have term limits. Constitutions that impose term limits on presidents tend to always be in conflict with presidents, who in turn always tend to extend such term limits in favour of lifetime presidencies. To nurture democracy and institutionalise good governance, parliamentary systems are a thousand times more preferable in emerging markets to presidential systems.

 Ninth, presidential systems tend to be “talent wasting” at times. Thus a young person, who becomes President at 35 years, where a two-term limit of five years each is the rule, is bound to retire from politics at 45. This would not happen in a parliamentary system. In Malaysia, for example, Mahathir Mohamed, 93, has come back to power. Parties are crucibles from which competitive democratic elections are created. Individual leaders only matter in so far as their political ambitions find expression in the wider interest of the social forces that win elections. Society is the poorer when such individuals cannot “rise up to the occasion” of needed political leadership due to a law imposed on society by a poor system of governance that presidentialism engenders.

 Finally, governments are created to serve the people and not the other way round. There is a Christian song that says: “Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide; then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside.” The time has come for brave Kenyans to choose true parliamentary democracy by discarding the present awful presidential system, replete as it is with corruption, impunity, bad governance, disrespect for human rights and an uncertain future. Here we are talking about the system in which certain individuals may just be pawns in the game.


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