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February 17, 2019

Fight against corruption must not lead to Executive tyranny

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga share a light hearted moment at the foot steps of Harambee House after their meeting where they resolved to work together and unite the country after the long protracted elections. March 9, 2018. Photo/file
President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga share a light hearted moment at the foot steps of Harambee House after their meeting where they resolved to work together and unite the country after the long protracted elections. March 9, 2018. Photo/file

It was a common experience in Africa in the 1960 and 1970s. As people soon found out that the lofty promises the nationalists had given were hardly bearing fruit after Independence, disillusionment and mass malcontent set in. The same nationalists, as Okot p'Bitek's epic poem "Song of Lawino" dramatically demonstrates, overdid themselves in opulence and arrogance, mocking the people that their votes that put them into power was not meant for the growth of representative democracy, but for the growth of "exclusive tumbocracy".

All of a sudden some new "saviours" came out of the military barracks, not seeking for the people's votes to gain power, but shooting their way into power to save the people from the tyranny of "exclusive tumbocracy". The people cheered them, carrying twigs and leaves in ecstasy, and dancing along the streets and in market places to welcome the new saviours. But the excitement did not last long as the military juntas turned against the people, as they now used state power, even more brazenly, to pursue their personal and narrow interests, slaughtering to death those who would dare raise a voice against their iniquities. As Idi Amin once advised his soldiers: "Bunduki yako ni mama na baba yako; utumie kujilinda na kujisaidia."

Kenya is not a military state but it is an authoritarian regime struggling to be born as a democracy. In the struggle for democracy, the people of Kenya, and indeed in many other African countries, have done their best. But they have always been disappointed by the ruthless "staying power" of the authoritarian regimes (if in doubt read my book, Popular Struggles for Democracy in Africa published by Zed Press in London in 1987). Thus in 1992, our struggle for democracy only managed to open up the frontiers for multiparty electoral competition, while the presidential authoritarian regime remained intact, with President Daniel Moi at the head. Ten years later in 2002, electoral reforms achieved through popular pressures for democracy made possible the removal of Moi and the advent of the reformist Narc government, which made a lot of progress in implementing the reform agenda as it failed, at the same time, to uproot the "authoritarian pumpkin from the homestead". This was its undoing in our attempts at the Bomas of Kenya to completely democratise society through radical constitutional reform. As it were, in the Narc government's attempts to democratize Kenya further, the potential for failure was very high since the "essential enemy was within the gates."

V.I. Lenin once said that an old society pregnant with a new one needs violence to midwife the birth of the new society. In many ways this can be said in many settings. For example, it could be said that the US as we know it today could not have been born without the Civil War that led to the abolition of slavery and the birth of one united government bringing together the former "slave South" and "the industrial North". Likewise, apartheid in South Africa could not have been dismantled without the liberation war waged by the ANC led by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. But in both cases, the vestiges of the old anti-democratic forces metamorphosed in new forms to systematically reassert the old values, requiring constant struggles to keep the momentum of democratic progress burning. Violent revolution, therefore, is not necessarily a guarantee for the birth and success of a better and new society.

Wind the clock forward and we come to present day Kenya. Few Kenyans, even in their widest of imaginations, could ever have believed that, some time in 2017, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta could shake hands and decide to execute a common agenda in the interest of building a national, developmental and democratic state in Kenya. The two were polar opposites of each other. Raila: a thorough bred reformer, molded in the trenches of democratic struggle and change, baptized by some nine years of detention at the hands of Kenyatta/Moi authoritarian regime and twice "done in" in presidential elections by this same regime extended in the person of old Jomo's son, Uhuru. Uhuru: born in wealth and privilege, groomed to be President through the machinery of political patronage typical of authoritarian regimes, but doomed to have no legacy as a president if he plays safely to survive and not to make any history in his own right.

Raila realised that without effective access to state power he would never substantially contribute to the real process of building a national developmental and democratic state. Uhuru realized that more accumulation of wealth through bureaucratic power was not really his "forte", and really not something that would endear him to the people. But who are the people? They were polarized into two powerful camps, facing each other menacingly like the "allies" and the "axis powers" during the Second World War. Only a truce would provide him with the political environment to legitimately pursue any worthwhile legacy. The only person standing between him and this "truce" was Raila. Raila, on the other hand, also saw this truce as worth it if it could open up state power (read the presidency) to pursue needed democratic reforms, That, I think, was the secret behind the "hand shake"; but I may be wrong. And it has set an agenda for change that, if successful, could usher in a better Kenya.

But, like in the Narc government, the essential enemy still remains within the gates. There are forces that could easily appear over zealous to implement the goals of the handshake with the intention of deliberately delegitimising it or deliberately antagonising the people against the noble intentions of the handshake. And these are the people who either occupy critical positions within state power or commanding heights in business. They may, at the same time, be the people who feel that, should the handshake succeed, they stand more to lose since a dysfunctional and corrupt state serves their interest better. They could use the excitement about change led by the executive to execute executive tyranny under the guise of undertaking change.

In this league of this wicked lot I would easily include the sugar barons: Those shady businessmen who have no qualms importing, through shady deals, raw sugar that can meet national consumption demands for 18 months at the expense of killing the domestic sugar industry. Remember this industry affects the lives of Kenyans living in 18 counties. Flooding the market with contraband sugar has the potential of ruining 14 sugar mills with an investment of close to Sh4.5 billion each, and contribution of annual tax revenue to government of close to Sh20 billion. Kenyans would never forgive Uhuru and Raila if the handshake does not do away with such iniquities in our lives. Let the handshake not be like the past military coups in Africa: Arriving with good news and leaving a nation behind torn apart by conflict and wallowing in poverty and national shame.

Further, Uhuru and Raila must slay one dragon that has systematically undermined national unity, democratic reform and development since Independence. This is the institution of the presidency which, like an albatross, has hang around our neck causing us untold pain and suffering at every election.

Let me repeat it once again at the risk of being boring. In a multi-ethnic and pluralist society such as Kenya, a presidential system will always be prone to the politics of exclusion, thereby engendering tribalism and undermining nationhood. It is also a perfect setting for nurturing corruption as the "president's ruling tribe people" or "presidential tribal allies" will always "get away with murder" while others suffer. In this process, the language of politics constantly veers away from democratic discourse into tribal name calling: A really sorry state of affairs for any nation wanting to rapidly develop and catch up with the Singapores of this world. Ask yourself: In recent years, why are the nations that developed very fast in the Third World mainly parliamentary democracies — Singapore, South Korea, India, Mauritius?

In answering this question, my dear handshakers, you have your reform agenda cut out for you.

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