In this 5-part series of the reform agenda in Africa and Kenya in particular, Ghanaian George B.N. Ayittey, Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation argues that reform requires democratization, market liberalization, decentralization of power, repairing dysfunctional systems and the politics of inclusion. Elites should seek their wealth in the private sector as governments do not produce wealth. Control of key state institutions must be wrestled from the ruling elites and reformed so that transparency, accountability and professionalism can be established. The civil society should lead a genuine revolution, sweeping out of parliament the Hippo generation and bringing in the young Cheetah generation. Only then will reform of Africa’s ossified state system be possible.
In his book Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, the late president of Kenya, wrote that the Gikuyu system of government, prior to the advent of the Europeans was based on true democratic principles. According to the tribal legend, there was once a king in Gikuyuland, named Gikuyu, a grandchild of the elder daughter of the founder of the tribe. His rule was tyrannical. People were prevented from cultivating the land, as he commanded that all able-bodied men join his army and be ready to move with their families at any time wherever he chose. The population thus lived a sort of nomadic life and suffered many hardships from lack of food. At last, they grew tired of wandering from place to place and finally decided to settle down.
They approached the King and implored him to let them cultivate the land and establish permanent homes. Owing to his autocratic power, he refused to hear or consider their plea. The people were very indignant with him and in desperation, revolted against him. The generation which carried out the revolt was called iregi (revolter) while the next generation which started cultivation was given the name ndemi (cutters) in remembrance of the period when they began to cut down forests and established themselves as agriculturalists.
After King Gikuyu was dethroned, the government was at once changed from despotism to a democracy, keeping with the wishes of the majority of the people. This revolution is known as itwika, which means to break away from. It signified the breaking away from autocracy to democracy. This achievement was celebrated all over the country through feasting, dancing and singing that went on at intervals for a period of six moons.
In order to run the new government successfully, it was necessary to have a constitution. A revolutionary council, njama ya itwika was formed to draft the constitution. Every village appointed a representative to the Council, which took the responsibility of drafting the new constitution. The first Council meeting was held at a place called Mukorwe wa Gathanga in the center of the Gikuyu country. It was decided that a few rules which would act as the guiding principles in the new government be made in order to maintain harmony in the government. The following rules, which afterwards became law, were made:
1. There be freedom for the people to acquire and develop land under a system of family ownership.
2. Socially and politically, all circumcised men and women should be equally full members of the tribe and the status of a king or nobleman be abolished.
3. The government should be in the hands of council of elders (kiama) chosen from all members of the community, who have reached the age of eldership.
4 The change of, and the election for the government offices should be based on a rotation system of generations in order to keep up the spirit of the itwika (people's revolution) and to prevent a return to the despotic government system.
5. No man should be allowed to hold a responsible position other than warrior, or become a member of the council of elders (kiama) unless he was married and had established a homestead. Women should be given the same social status as their husbands.
Under the Gikuyu constitution, each family group formed a family council (ndundu ya mocie) with the father as head (a lineage head). The heads of several lineages formed the village council (kiama gia itora) which was headed by the eldest of the lineage heads. Over the village council was a wider district council (kiama kia rogongo) in which all the elders of the district participated. The district council was presided over by a committee (kiama kia ndundu) composed of the senior elders of the villages. From these elders, the most advanced in age and wisdom was elected as a judge and president (mothamaki or mociiri) of the ndundu. From the district council a national council was formed, comprised of several ndundu, representing the whole population. Among the judges, a president was elected at the meetings of the national council.
The Gikuyu system of government was unique in several respects. According to Kenyatta,
“In the whole governmental organization, there was no inheritable position, everything depending on personal merit. Elevation to high office was based entirely upon the behavior of an individual to his group and to the community at large. The group had the right to recall and dismiss or suspend any of its representatives whose behavior was contrary to the well‑established rules of conduct. In fact, it was the voice of the people or public opinion that ruled the country... In the eyes of the Gikuyu people, the submission to a despotic rule of any particular man or group, white or black, is the greatest humiliation to mankind. The spirit of itwika, namely, the changing of government in rotation through a peaceful and constitutional revolution, is still ingrained in the minds of the Gikuyu people (Kenyatta, 1938:189).
Another feature of the Gikuyu system of government was its rotational system of succession among the generations. The community was divided into two categories: (a) mwangi, (b) maina or irungu. Membership was determined by birth. If one generation was mwangi, their sons would be maina and their grandsons would be mwangi and so on.
One generation would hold office for a period of 30‑40 years, at the end of which the itwika ceremony was performed for the young generation to replace the old. After the proclamations and feasting, a new government was formed and the revolutionary council (njama ya itwika) was dissolved and the delegates returned to their villages (Kenyatta, 1938:186).
In Dec 2002, Mwai Kibaki was elected by Kenyans to clean up house and institute real reform. But “the Mount Kenya mafia, as the Kikuyu cabal became know within weeks of Mr. Mwai Kibaki’s inauguration, appeared to have renounced reform in favor of shoring up its ailing patron’s power” (The Economist, Oct 11, 2003; p.52). In Sept 2003, Odhiambo Mbai, a leading political scientist and key man in efforts to redraft Kenya’s constitution and introduce fundamental reforms such as paring the president’s almost limitless powers and independent judiciary, was assassinated in his home. Three men were charged with the murder but not the senior government figure they accuse of hiring them. Three top people from the East African Standard newspaper were also arrested after publishing one of the suspects’ confessions – minus the alleged paymaster’s name.On July 8, 2004, angry Kenyans clashed with police in a violent street protest in Kisumu to express their fury at the government’s failure to enact a new constitution.
When Kenyans go to the polls on Dec 27, they should send the greedy, career politicians packing – all of them, those who have been in government or parliament for more than 20 years. They are all the same: ossified politicians with cobwebs dangling from their ears. This is the Hippo generation. What have they done for the people? Charles Bukeko says voters in Makutano Junction will throw out his MP, the vice-president, Moody Awori. “He has done nothing for us,” Bukeko says. “There is no piped water; the roads are pathetic. This time the voters will be looking at the person,” (The Economist, Nov 3, 2007; p.54).
Throw every single one of them out and vote in fresh new faces or the Cheetah generation in December – the young and intellectually agile, who brook no nonsense about corruption and understand what transparency and accountability are all about. Parliament needs to be swept clean. Only then will any meaningful reform of the dysfunctional and rotten Kenyan state be possible.
By George Ayittey
Ayittey is a Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation.
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