Sound Constitutions will Liberate Africa: Raila

Published on 2nd May 2011

Mugabe and Raila share a light moment Photo courtesy
Zimbabwe and Kenya have experienced very similar histories since independence – of heroic peoples struggling for liberation from oppression and repression. Many Zimbabweans, like many Kenyans, have paid the ultimate price for a future worth having, dying in order that the nation might live. We share heartfelt grief and respect for their sacrifice.

We have other similarities and links. Several Kenyan leaders were educated here. When Zimbabwe gained independence, a number of Kenyans helped in establishing its key institutions and government structures.

It is this kind of bond that makes us partners in democracy and in moving our continent forward. Our respective liberation wars have shown how a downtrodden people can rise up and demand respect. That spirit lives in your party. It must radiate across the nation. But what, ladies and gentlemen, has happened to the Africa whose liberation our struggles typified? As we look round, we see, to our dismay, nothing but contradictions and paradoxes.

Africa, with its 51 independent states and 52nd about to be born, is a continent of great cultural diversity. It is rich in natural resources – minerals, freshwater lakes, rivers and forests. But it is also the poorest of the continents, with the highest child mortality rates and levels of inequality and the lowest human development indices. Some blame colonial rule, others the faulty domestic policies pursued by African leaders.

This blame game is taking us nowhere. I have spent my entire adult life somewhere on the political spectrum – as an observer, an activist, a three-time detainee, a member of parliament, a cabinet minister and now prime minister of my country. I have had much time for analysis and reflection. Of course colonialism messed up Africa, arbitrarily dividing our people, sapping their confidence and pride and exploiting our resources! Of course many African leaders have performed dismally!

But 40 or 50 years since many African nations attained independence, we cannot continue blaming the colonialists for our problems. Since the 1990s, a clear consensus has emerged both within and outside Africa that the problems the continent faces have to do with the way it is governed today.

This has led to human rights abuses, the breakdown of the rule of law, the over-centralisation of power, particularly as vested in imperial presidencies, and the accompanying cultures of corruption and impunity.

Powerful leaders and their close associates have done as they wished, in the knowledge that nothing would happen to them. Lack of accountability and transparency has fostered official corruption and the plundering of resources meant for development. It is these insidious developments – and not the colonial legacy – that have brought this continent to the brink of ruination, and its people to the desperate situation in which so many millions find themselves today.

But I speak to you as an Afro-optimist and a true believer in pan-Africanism, one who looks forward to the day Africa will be united in its irreversible democratic ideals and sound socio-economic policies. I would like to share with you my thoughts on two issues that I strongly believe can help us turn the tide.

First, Africa must embrace the culture of constitutionalism. It must invest in the building of institutions that promote and compel sound leadership. That a constitution is indispensable in a modern society is underlined by the fact that the struggle for the second liberation in Africa, which began in the early 1980s, has centred on demand for the enactment of new constitutions. That was our aim in Kenya and it is no less true of Zimbabwe.

We have seen that the mere re-introduction of multi-party politics in Africa, after decades of single-party and military dictatorships, has not solved the governance problem. We have seen that multi-party elections alone will not propel us from institutionalised authoritarian systems to more democratic modes of governance.

Not that constitutions in themselves are inviolable. We have not been without constitutions. We have had them, but they have been repeatedly amended at the whim of the ruling elite, and have sustained and entrenched powerful presidents whose word has been law, and who have used their power not for the nation’s benefit but for their own enrichment. Where such leaders have refused to give way through the ballot – and let’s face it, that is, most of them – military dictatorships have sometimes ensued, and these have fared no better.

In short, political power in Africa has often meant gain and riches for the ruling class and more poverty, deprivation and powerlessness for the ordinary person.We had hoped that new constitutions – new beginnings by the leaders of the Second Liberation, mandated by a better-educated electorate that increasingly knows what it wants and has no qualms about asking for it – would instill in leaders new respect for the laws that govern their lands.

One of the great disappointments of the Second Liberation has been that many of the new liberators changed their tune once they got into power. They began to manipulate constitutions to prolong their rule, and coerced their parties into securing support for additional terms or eliminating opponents. Institutionalised corruption, instead of receding, loomed larger than ever.

That brings me to the second problem. Africa has truly been left wanting when it comes to visionary leadership, the kind of leadership that is undistracted in its quest for solid institutions committed to constitutionalism, equity and impartiality. We have failed to elect leaders dedicated to ignoring tribe, religion, region and race in the management of public affairs.

One-party rule might have withered and died with the introduction of political pluralism in the 1990s but its ugly monolithic vestiges linger. In particular, our ballots have yet to be free and fair. A long list of African leaders with questionable democratic credentials has used the pretension of promoting state unity as an excuse for excess, intolerance, repression, and illegal tenure of office.

This looks more dangerous than our previous situation. What could be worse than the electorate choosing how and by whom they should be governed, only for their verdict to be ignored? When leaders and governments lack popular support, democracy and good governance cannot be expected, and nations cannot move forward.This is the tragedy that afflicts Africa today.

Zimbabwe must move quickly to resolve its democratic challenges, so that it can take its rightful place as a potential centre for economic growth in this part of the continent. All parties, and particularly the MDC, which will be a critical player, need to invest in building institutions of democracy.

Party policy, and its wholehearted approval by party members, will be one of the keys to success. No one must ever forget that good resolutions and declarations are fine in themselves but they are not tantamount to victory. That will only come when party structures and processes are people-driven, genuine and devoid of corruption, and provide a clear process for seeking the people’s mandate.

[The MDC] must be not only the maker but also the keeper of the promise.I would urge [the MDC] as Zimbabwe prepares for the next elections not to lose sight of the fact that it is in government and has government policies to pursue and to deliver.

[The MDC] will have to dig deep into its reservoirs of tolerance and compromise to ensure that this happens, for the alternative would serve neither the MDC nor its partner in government. It would only cripple the nation.

I know it is not easy. But we in Kenya, having reaped a harvest of chaos and death after our disputed 2007 elections, have managed to make useful strides forward. Our Grand Coalition government promulgated a new Constitution last year and is in the process of enacting every part of it. It has not always been an easy alliance, but the spirit of give and take has so far allowed us to make it work.

By The Hon Raila A. Odinga EGH MP

Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya.

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