Kenya: Presidential Aspirants Must Sell Agenda, Not Ambition

Published on 15th December 2011

The aftermath of Kenya's last general election has not given the country a chance to hold President Mwai Kibaki or Prime Minister Raila Odinga accountable for their performance in office because of the nature and structure of the coalition government. Nevertheless, Kenyans are bracing themselves for another election in 2012.

Already PNU, ODM, Narc Kenya and the G7 Alliance among others are drumming up support. However, none has given out a comprehensive agenda to the nation apart from overzealously exhibiting insatiable ambition to occupy the house on the hill.  

Holding a clean election is easy when you know you are going to win. The acid test comes when the outcome is in doubt. Why is this? Democracy in Kenya does not work in a way that we might find familiar. Despite all the focus on personalities and trivia, questions of policy apparently appear not to matter with these parties and individuals. Ideally, votes should be won and lost on the performance of the economy or the management of the nation’s affairs across the board. In Kenya, politicians rarely bother to campaign on policy or ideology. The president's performance in office, his ideas for running the country, his handling of the economy - all these are often irrelevant.

Raila Odinga appears to belabour his agenda around reforms (implementation of the constitution) and sound development policies. Narc Kenya’s Martha Karua does the same. However, the opponents (G7 Alliances) have their agenda molded around the prism of blocking Raila from ascending the presidency.

Food insecurity, spiraling crime, poverty, ballooning inflation, a volatile shilling and national reconciliation are on the back-banner of the candidates. These, indeed, should be issues informing, which policies and election agenda the candidates are mounting their campaign. This should be what the presidential aspirants should be telling Kenyans - what they intend to do while in office instead of engaging in hate speech, ethnic and regional balkanization of the country. To the contrary, now, tribal loyalties are by far the most important determinant of voting behaviour in Kenya. Put bluntly, we vote according to who we are, not what we believe. Raila, Willam Ruto, Kalonzo Musyoka, Karua and George Saitoti could thus rely on most of their fellow tribesmen to back them, no matter how useless and corrupt their governments could be.

In other words, elections in Kenya, as is elsewhere in Africa are nothing more than a disguised national census. All they do is disclose the latest balance between the tribes. In the end, democracy's only purpose is to allow a president to be removed without bloodshed. What is happening in the Arab world or the “Arab Spring” typically attests to this fact. However, Kenya has proudly moved beyond that.

It is imperative that leaders garnering for presidency come clear on their agenda for the nation. This country needs to urgently move to another level – democratically and economically. The lives of Kenyans need to be improved at all levels. We deserve a better life.

Democracy in Africa is often a sham and, tragically, Kenyans paid with their lives after the 2007 elections. Presidential aspirants have the option of avoiding another tragedy. They should embrace developmental and nation reconciliatory politics. Avoid hate speech and ethnicisation of politics for personal expediency.  

There are some silver linings. Today, Kenya has a free press and a degree of freedom of expression that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Moreover, the rise of an urban and articulate middle class is slowly reducing the grip of tribalism on politics. Whether the president is any good at his job might actually matter in future elections.

None of the candidates has addressed the issue of corruption, which is at the core of Kenya’s problems. It is not in doubt that good governance entails accountability, transparency, enhanced public participation in decision making, strengthened public sector and civil society institutions and greater adherence to the rule of law. Corruption results in grave violations of socio-economic rights, condemns people to extreme levels of poverty and often leads to social unrest. Curbing corruption is therefore critical to the achievement of good governance and the rule of law in Kenya.  Although the legal system prohibits corruption, the practice is significantly different.

Kenyan democracy has failed because ordinary people were encouraged to believe that the process in and of itself could bring change. Kenya’s leaders interpret democracy simply in terms of the ceremony of multiparty elections. Polls bestow legitimacy on politicians to pillage for five years until the next depressing cycle begins.

Kenya could descend into violence worse than the 2008 post-election crisis unless rampant corruption in the ruling elite is tackled. I find it appalling that while some positive reform steps have been taken, the old guard associated with the culture of impunity continues to resist fundamental change.

I am afraid that failure to implement significant reforms will greatly enhance prospects for a violent crisis in 2012 or before – which might well prove much worse than the last post-election crisis. In 2008, chaos followed the release of election results, which many claimed were rigged by the government. About 1,500 people died in the ensuing violence and more than 300,000 were forced to flee their homes. After weeks of talks between Kibaki's ruling party and Odinga, the opposition leader, a deal was struck which left Kibaki as president and made Odinga Prime Minister. However, most of Kenya has remained a divided society, with thousands of people still unable to return to their homes and very little justice for the perpetrators. Can among others, the issue of IDPs be addressed by the candidates?

By Kasembeli Albert

The author is a journalist based in Nairobi.


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