In Kenya, Where Democracy Is Cherished, Politics Becomes Disgruntled

As a break from the dispiriting state of British democracy, it is a joy to be in Kenya amidst an election campaign. Huge candidate billboards are everywhere and the traffic is punctuated by convoys of colourfully painted campaign cars blaring out music and messages to drum up voter support for the 8th August poll.

Kenya has perhaps the most healthily politicised and engaged population I have encountered during decades of travelling the world. Everywhere, the issues and deeds of leading politicians are avidly discussed by well-informed people at all levels of society, from senior executives to street traders. Campaign rallies attract huge crowds, far from all of whom are attracted by the ubiquitous free t-shirts bearing the candidates images.

This deep public engagement is partly a result of Kenya’s belated emergence from decades of semi-benign dictatorship. Its first multi-party elections were held in 1992 and democracy has fully got into its stride since the turn of the millennium. Progress has been significant in that short time. Speech is bracingly free and the media does a fine job of covering the issues.

The knowledge that democracy cannot be taken for granted contributes to it being cherished in Kenya. The country has made considerable advances, albeit stuttering at times, since it took hold. The economy has grown, although not always quickly or widely enough to meet the aspirations of a growing population, and the transport infrastructure has improved. The long overdue, modern replacement for the colonial era “lunatic express” railway between Nairobi and Mombasa, the main port and second city, opened a few months ago to huge fanfare.

For all that progress, Kenyan democracy is now at a crossroads. Whilst still highly engaged, the electorate is notably more disgruntled than during previous campaigns.

As elsewhere, inequality is a major issue, with many people feeling that economic gains are too concentrated in the hands of a small elite. Public services remain inadequate and a recent bruising doctors strike over their extremely low pay, which does not always arrive on time, remains fresh in the memory. Corruption is an entrenched problem. It is perceived by many to have worsened under the current President, Uhuru Kenyatta, particularly at the highest levels of his government.

Most damagingly of all, there are shortages of staple foods such as maize flour which have caused significant price rises. This is a fundamental issue in a country where every Shilling counts for the majority of the population. The food shortages were caused by extreme weather, induced by climate change, which damaged crops, and compounded by administrative failings. It is striking that climate change is an issue that is having a direct and serious impact on people’s daily lives here, rather than the disturbing but slightly abstract  matter it remains in Europe.

what is on offer is a personality contest between politicians claiming that they would run the existing system in roughly the same way, only better than the other guy

Having the political leadership to deal with these serious problems is where the difficulties start for Kenya. A highly engaged electorate and free media can only take matters so far when the political class has yet to develop to the same level. As the independent, outsider candidate for the Presidency, Professor Michael Wainana, puts it, Kenya suffers from “the politics of ethnicity, impunity and mediocrity”.

When analysing Kenyan politics, it is hard to get a handle on the ideologies and ideas of the respective parties and candidates. There is little of the traditional left/right split or even the more modern open versus closed perspectives. For the most part, what is on offer is a personality contest between politicians claiming that they would run the existing system in roughly the same way, only better than the other guy.

Of the two leading candidates for the presidency, the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, does not always appear to truly want the job. There is a theory that he was pushed into it by those around him on the grounds of name recognition. His father, Jomo Kenyatta, was Kenya’s first president and led the country to independence from Britain (the name “Uhuru” means independence or freedom in Swahili). The Kenyatta family acquired considerable wealth during his years in power and Uhuru, an alleged heavy drinker, sometimes gives the impression he would prefer to be quietly enjoying his inheritance.

Nonetheless, Uhuru has campaigned extensively and made the new train line, the “Makadara Express”, the symbol of the progress to which he claims to have led the country. The problem with that is, whilst welcomed, the railway project also highlights some of the biggest problems of his rule. It was built by the Chinese at what many consider a suspiciously excessive cost. The loans involved have further increased the national debt, which had already ballooned on Kenyatta’s watch. The spectacle of the supposedly powerful President exasperatedly asking “what can I do about it?” at a meeting on corruption has dented his reputation too, at a time when many Kenyans are struggling to buy basic foodstuffs.

Being a country of 44 recognised ethnic groups gives Kenya great diversity but has also handicapped its democratic development

Whilst Kenyatta still tops the opinion polls in an election that was initially thought to be his to win, the gap is being closed fast by his veteran opponent, Raila Odinga. In these circumstances, Kenyatta’s last minute decision to skip the televised presidential debate and leave Odinga with 90 minutes of solo prime time TV was a strange one.

Odinga made the most of the opportunity to outline how he would come down harder on corruption and help the poor with the cost of living. To a large extent, the 72 year old former Prime Minister is a known quantity and finds it a stretch to embody the role of a “change” candidate. After being a political dissident during the Moi dictatorship (he still suffers the physical scars of his years in prison), Odinga has fought three previous presidential campaigns. He is largely relying on convincing enough voters to finally give him a chance in what will almost certainly be his last attempt.

During his one-man debate, Odinga wittily alluded to those past campaigns and the election rigging he believes denied him victory, saying “it is true I have fought three campaigns for President before – and I even lost one of them”.

This remark alludes to Odinga’s and many peoples fears about the biggest danger arising from the forthcoming election; that the government will use its influence over the election machinery and security forces to rig the result in its favour. As happened in 2007, this could then spark violence when combined with the inherent rivalries in Kenya’s complex ethnic mosaic.

Being a country of 44 recognised ethnic groups gives Kenya great diversity but has also handicapped its democratic development. Candidates often find it easier to appeal to group identity than do the hard work of producing and defending ideas that appeal to all, regardless of ethnic affiliation.

Kenyatta largely owes his presidency to the block support of the biggest group, the Kikuyu, from which he comes. For the last election in 2012, he aligned himself with his current Vice-President William Ruto, of the second largest group, the Kalenjin. This dubious marriage of convenience was concluded to enable these two individuals to avoid prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they faced charges of fomenting the violence that blighted the 2007 election aftermath.

Continued Kikuyu and Kalenjin support for this alliance, known as “Jubilee”, is one of the two keys to the election result. The problem for the “UhuRuto” tandem is that Ruto is often cited as one of the most egregiously corrupt members of the political elite. He appears to be losing support amongst the Kalenjin. Coupled with a massive effort by Odinga’s “National Super Alliance (NASA)” coalition to ensure high voter turnout across the country, this could finally open the way to State House for the veteran.

In the short-term, most Kenyans are hoping for a fair election and peaceful aftermath, resulting in a government that does a better job of addressing their basic needs. In the longer run, they need to produce a new generation of politicians, more driven by ideas and less beholden to ethnic identities. Only then will the political class have caught up with the impressive democratic development of the Kenyan people.


More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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