Rethinking Kenya’s electoral system and why tyranny works

In Summary

• Kenya often claims that it is a democracy, whereby the majority rules.

• But let’s face it, democracy here is more like when two wolves and a sheep vote on what’s for dinner. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga outside Harambee House on March 9, 2018.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga  outside Harambee House on March 9, 2018.
Image: FILE

There is a critical political event looming. One that will change the trajectory of the next general election in 2022.

That is – a proposed constitutional change. BBI seems like it is being thrust down our throats. But I propose that we embrace this force feeding. 

In order to achieve any gains, we must allow ourselves a little bit of discomfort, a little bit of tyranny in order to get things done, in order to birth a new nation. 


I propose that constitution making need not be so polarizing. If we look past the politicization of the BBI, is there a greater good?

For one, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has the opportunity to offer us a roadmap from ethnic majoritarianism (winner-take-all system) to a parliamentary system with proportional representation.

Proposed as a way to make democracy work in Kenya’s highly ethnic society. At the outset we can also admit that constitution making has always been a challenge in an ethnically diverse society such as Kenya.

It would seem counterintuitive to overhaul parts of the constitution before we have fully implemented the current one, but Kenyan’s must not shy from modifying the constitution so that it speaks to our current and complex realities.

In 2010, a new constitution was promulgated, and the new system of governance was ushered in by President Uhuru Kenyatta’s first term in 2013.

As he nears the end of his second term, Kenyatta has implied that as a country we have been doing elections all wrong!

We should all be inclined to pay attention to this suggestion, for Uhuru Kenyatta surely knows the pain of elections- given that his presidential poll was one of the only three in the world at that time to be nullified.


Kenya’s 2017 election raised questions about elections in Africa generally and whether they were a force for political stability or instability. The president is not without a point when he says that we have been doing elections wrong.

The current Constitution states every five years on the second Tuesday in August that a general election must be held. However, with this comes a period of uneasiness for the country.

In the 2007 General Elections, Kenya at the brink of civil war, saw feuding candidates President Mwai Kibaki and Honourable Raila Odinga come to the table out of necessity.

They both signed a National Accord which was entrenched in the Constitution, a deal that the constitution at that time had not envisaged. Peace was restored, but only fleetingly.

Every electoral cycle since then has brought a sense of uneasiness and insecurity for many Kenyans, a situation that is also clearly reflected in the performance of the economy in the run up to an election or just immediately after it.


Kenya often claims that it is a democracy, whereby the majority rules. But let’s face it, democracy here is more like when two wolves and a sheep vote on what’s for dinner. This is the so-called “Tyranny of the majority”.

Kenya is more aptly named a Republic – whereby ideally there are checks and balances. Where a system of government is carefully balanced to safeguard the rights of both the majority and the minority.

Some say that the ideal situation is to ensure no one ends up on the menu as dinner! So that- what the wolves want matters, but so does what the sheep wants.

If a Republic is to pass BBI then it will pay attention to how the constitutional change is arrived at- whether this change comes from the people or at the hands of a few individuals.

I beg to differ, if we recognize that constitutional change is paramount to the nation, then I urge us to enjoy the few positive things that tyranny has to offer.

History has left us an important lesson: “when countries are young, individuals build them, only when they mature do the institutions build individuals”.

The American constitution was the brainchild of just a handful of men; the founding fathers.

The first ten amendments to the American constitution in 1789 were the brainchild of just one man: James Madison.

How it is handled can affect in many ways, how the people relate with its government, and in whose interests the constitution will eventually serve.

In reality, the “law of large numbers” or the “tyranny of the majority” may still prevail due to the intricacies of a parliamentary model and the inclusion of many other Kenyan tribes may not be guaranteed.

However, it does offer a better probability than the current system of 50% plus one. Cases around the world have shown is that the parliamentary system offers a move toward less centralized politics.

And looking at this model in the political economy sense; the rules, which govern political markets, will determine how efficient government is at delivering essential services.

This is crucially an opportunity to deal with the fact that politics in Kenya is founded on the premise of deep-seated ethnic divisions (the usual precursor to violence), therefore regimes are highly ethnicised. This makes most elections highly volatile; as a result, elections is a high-stake game.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s heritage has been fearless, and can be bold still, if he ushers us into a proportionally represented parliamentary system.

The Building Bridges Initiative has just cause. It already has the consensus of Uhuru and Raila, which makes almost any amendment to the constitution probable.

In borrowing from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the problem which Kenya needed to solve first was always one of development, not per se democracy.

Kenya is promised a new beginning, if the mechanisms in the promised constitution work to actually change the fabric of society rather than just changing the political structure of it.

Faith is a Development Economist and Consultant, passionate about Political Economy. Engage with her on Twitter @semasana or email her [email protected]