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CONSTITUTIONAL REFORMS

At last, an end to toxic elections

In the absence of reforms, all 'nation-building' achievements are temporary.

In Summary
  • Kenyan presidential elections are always preceded by increase in corruption;
  • And when the official campaigns begin, these always have a heavy cloud of violence hanging over them.

So finally, the cat is out of the bag.

President Uhuru Kenyatta fully expects to push through a constitutional amendment, with the objective of neutralising the toxic presidential elections that have haunted the nation since the return to multiparty politics in 1992.

By using the occasion of his Madaraka Day speech to the nation to announce this initiative, the President has effectively signalled that he considers this proposed constitutional change to be a key part of his legacy.

 

And in my view, this will be perhaps the most significant component of his legacy if he can pull it off. For it is impossible to exaggerate just how poisonous and deadly Kenyan presidential elections have proved to be.

At least two such elections – in 2007 and in 2017 – at one point or another, threatened to take Kenya down the path to a full-scale genocide on the Rwanda model. In 2007, about 1,000 Kenyans were murdered by their fellow-citizens; and 600,000 uprooted from their homes.

But that would have been a mere clearing of the throat, if compared to what would have come to us with the attempt at secession which was widely proclaimed by opposition activists in 2017. For any such attempt at secession in our context – whether successful or doomed to fail – would have been accompanied by a monumental bloodbath.

Paradoxically, Kenyan leaders will labour for four years to move the nation forward in what we may term “nation building” – and then in the fifth year, in the course of a general election, engage the “reverse gear” and take the country backwards in a massive theft of public funds.

At all events, two things have always been part and parcel of Kenyan presidential elections. They are always preceded by an increase in corruption; and when the official campaigns begin, such campaigns always have a heavy cloud of violence hanging over them.

Paradoxically, Kenyan leaders will labour for four years to move the nation forward in what we may term 'nation-building' – and then in the fifth year, in the course of a general election, engage the 'reverse gear' and take the country backwards in a massive theft of public funds.

This pattern arises from the fact that any Kenyan president, no matter what he does, is always the underdog going into any election. For many decades now, our population growth rate has so far outpaced our economic growth that there isn’t enough economic opportunity for everybody.

In an ideal world, all those desperate hawkers you will see lining the streets of major towns and cities in the evenings would have jobs within some well-regulated economic sector. But there aren’t enough jobs, and so they have to do whatever they can to make a living.

 

Foreigners may look at World Bank statistics and conclude that a Kenyan president is doing quite well. But ordinary Kenyans look at their own lives and feel betrayed that so much was promised, and so little delivered. This discontent invariably leads to a conviction that the only beneficiaries of any presidency are those from the president’s own regional backyard.

Faced with the prospects of a humiliating defeat, the 'deep state' on behalf of the president – and with or without his blessing – goes into overdrive to steal enough money from government sources to buy that election.

Epic and undisguised corruption is therefore an inevitable precursor of every Kenyan general election, but all along the key objective is either to retain the presidency or to hand it over to a preselected successor.

Violence then comes along more or less immediately after this corruption, and it is in two forms.

There is the violence unleashed by pro-government activists, which is intended to limit voting in areas acknowledged to harbour hardcore supporters of the opposition. Then there is the violence orchestrated by the opposition, often intended to disrupt the buying of votes. These are the pre-election forms of violence.

But second and far worse is the post-election violence, usually pitting the hordes of opposition supporters who believe they have been robbed of victory, against the police and various paramilitary units sent in to 'restore order'. This is where the majority of deaths occur.

All this surely argues for the prioritising of the kind of constitutional reforms that the President is proposing.

In the absence of such reforms, all “nation-building” achievements are temporary, as Kenyans may yet burn it all down at the next presidential election.