Kenya: A Case for Direct Democracy II

Published on 17th September 2011

Kenya being a young democracy has grown so fast that there is real need for direct democracy to be adopted, in 1963 when Kenya gained independence from the British most citizens had simple and common needs that could simply be addressed by the then parliamentarians, things have however changed and people now have varying/unsimilar beliefs, aspirations as well as varying social lifestyles hence the current parliamentarians simply do not fully represent the wishes of the entire electorate. Citizens thus ought to get a window via which they can represent their varying viewpoints and secure their varying needs. 

Most of the voters in 1963 and in the past have generally been illiterate and unaware of government operations, this has however changed and the bulk of Kenyan citizens are now educated and very enlightened. This current population that is more informed surely needs to be included in decision making on national matters (unlike in the past when it was only the parliamentarians who were educated and knowledgeable enough to run government matters single handedly).  In fact, of-late individuals with no meaningful expertise or no profession and even hooligans have got into parliament, their actions and deeds being no different from those of common thugs!  More than ever before, the common mwananchi is therefore more convinced that he/she can also play a significant role in policy making (more than the hooligan MPs and councilors). 

It is also worth noting that whereas MPs are experts in specific areas, they are left to single handedly work on and deliberate on matters usually out of their area of specialization, yet several citizens out of the political arena may be specialists who can give beneficial input. For example our current parliament has no single MP who is an expert in matters of Genetically Modified Organisms, cloning, stem cell research, nuclear power etc – but there on the other hand, there are hundreds of citizens with lots of expertise in these fields. It is suprising that MPs get to deliberate and decide on things/issues out of their professions, issues that may be they don’t even understand!!. Direct Democracy will therefore allow and enable citizens to play a leading role in decision making in areas of their expertise.   

Kenyans are particularly angered by the ineffectiveness of their MPs,  whereas they (MPs) have been entrusted with overseeing the welfare of the citizens, most of them usually don’t have a mind of their own, instead they only vote on issues as directed by their political parties.  This thus means that since Kenyan parliamentarians have become unreliable, the citizens have to be accorded space to participate in legislation and policy shaping/making. Our parliamentarians don’t vote on issues because they are good or bad/ right or wrong rather what dictates their voting is based on petty party wrangles e.g.  ODM vs. UDM,   PNU vs. ODM,   Ford Kenya vs. New Ford Kenya  etc, all this happens as citizens needs take back stage and are even forgotten.

In a true democracy there is no authority higher than the people. All laws must emanate from the people. There must be a high level of participation of citizens in the political system. In democracies the world over, organs with executive power must be elected directly by the voters themselves so that legitimacy may be established. It is therefore very unfortunate that Kenyans have no say in who becomes mayor, Provincial Commissioner, District Commissioner, District Officer, Chief, County Commissioner, Ministers, Nominated MPs among others. Yet these are leadership positions wielding a lot of power and influence over the citizens.  Most of these are just presidential appointments by decree. Even under the new constitution such posts as County Commissioner have been suggested as replacements for provincial Commissioners.  Direct Democracy would be vital in enabling Kenyan’s to have a say in who takes which leadership position. 

Studies worldwide have shown that direct participation of citizens leads to political outcomes more that are favorable to the citizenry such as lower taxes, a greater say for the people usually leads to lower taxes and a smaller and more efficient public sector. Evidence in direct democracies also reveals that they have lower a public expenditure as the citizens reject all forms of lavish and wasteful spending.   Direct democracy greatly reduces the power of politicians as power is given to people outside the political establishment, who are difficult or impossible to manipulate. This scenario promotes rich to poor redistribution of income hence subsequent economic growth for the country. Cases where increase their salaries at will, or politicians spend taxpayers funds on costly shuttle diplomacy missions shall be curbed when citizens are empowered to directly participate in budget making and approval.

Direct democracies do promote direct decision making and participation by the masses and this leads to more stable, richer and successful states. This is so since they tap into a broad base of ideas and theories from the citizenry.  This is backed by the reality that it is only the best individuals who get to the top and it is also only the best ideas that get sieved from the rest. Kenya needs this kind of arrangement so that it can always draw from the people’s pool of knowledge. 

The introduction of Direct Democracy in Kenya will go a long way in strengthening the concept of dialogue and consensus building in parliament and in national politics at large; politicians will always opt to reach a compromise satisfying the greatest number of interests rather than take hard-line positions and be overruled by the citizens in a referendum.  They will always strive to accommodate all interests since failure to do so may see one section of politicians campaign for a no vote in the referendum.  Major parties such as ODM, PNU and KANU will also not be taking chances by ignoring the small parties as legislation passed by narrow margins stands little chance of surviving a referendum. Wider support and consensus will thus be sought in advance, and all this will lead to a better and more unified Kenya. After all consensus based governance is not entirely new to Kenyans, this is so since even before the colonialists came Kenyans had consensus based kingdoms.

Kenya is actually in urgent need of direct democracy as a practice since the citizens have over the past few years shown that they are distrustful and tired of the current breed of MPs. This has seen over three quarters of parliamentarians lose their seats during the last two general elections. This has however not translated into any meaningful change as the new incoming parliamentarians quickly emulate the character of their predecessors. This thus means that the only remedy to mismanagement is direct participation of the masses in lawmaking and policy making.

Since corruption is rampant among the political class, and since it is also naturally possible to sway/influence the decisions of a few people. It is quite risky to entrust weighty decisions to a few individuals who could easily be bribed or swayed by financial favours as they make policies and laws. It would be safer to entrust decision making roles on the entire citizenry, for example it is not feasible to sway or bribe 10 Million Kenyans – decisions made by the people will most likely be ones that are of societal benefit.

Generally, representative democracy has been a big let down to Kenyans as the political class has consistently catered for their own interests which contradict the public will:  cases in point include

  • MPs refusing to pay taxes as all other Kenyans
  • MPs publicly admitting that they only passed the constitution in parliament on conditionalities that they be exempted from paying tax. Meaning their personal interests came first and they would have easily sabotaged the new constitution had their financial demands not have been met
  • Kenyan politicians are very petty and cases of councilors exchanging blows and fighting in public are common place
  • The Kenyan political class has consistently proved to have misplaced priorities that are of no benefit to the ordinary citizens. A recent case is the decision to spend millions of dollars on the upgrading the Kenyan Embassy at the Hague, Netherlands – merely so that those politicians who have cases at the hague can still lead luxurious and lavish lifestyles as they attend court!
  • It has not been lost on Kenyans that politicians have so far been the perpetrators and defenders of corruption. Infact in the recent case where billions disappeared from the Education Ministry, no single MP has castigated the minister concerned. It is the citizens via civil society organizations that are on the streets calling for accountability and an end to impunity.

Via Direct Democracy Kenyan citizens shall be able to share power with the politicians as they shall have the power to present their needs, issues and demands to the country’s political agenda. This means that Kenyan citizens shall be able to compliment the work of MPs and not just sit back and wait to learn the county’s agenda on TV or Radio.

The Kenyan voters are mere spectators in the running of government programs and everything is decided for them in a very elitist manner. The Kenyan parliamentarians a few months ago, for example passed a resolution to compel the government to withdraw from the Rome statute that makes Kenya a member to the International Criminal Court. This was done by MPs in total disregard of the public mood. The people cannot prevent the implementation of an unwanted law or resolution, yet ideally they should always have the last word on all national matters.

That Democracy and Development are inter-linked is not in doubt, Kenyans are more likely to realize their development goals by embracing Direct Democracy. This is so since they shall be able to partake of issue based politics where they deliberate and vote on issues as opposed to the current scenario where most of the political bickering is on individuals e.g.  Kalonzo vs. Ruto, Matiba vs. Moi, raila vs. Kibaki, Mudavadi vs. Jirongo and so on. 

Direct Democracy in Kenya shall go a long way in correcting the current imbalance in the political play field by reshaping the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Embracing Direct Democracy will see the leveling of the play field and shattering the imbalance of power that currently favors’ the political class while leaving the citizens alienated and powerless. The chance for citizens to play an active role in political decision making will act towards raising the esteem of the general public. The populace will also mature politically due to frequent participation in decision making, thereby making them better voters and better citizens in general.

In a democracy, there is no authority higher than the people, infact it is correct to state that sovereignty resides in the people. Therefore Kenyan citizens ought to have the power, the right but also the duty to improve their own governance policies. Direct Democracy ensures that the masses participate and have a say in governance decision making hence political decisions have broader legitimacy than those approved exclusively by politicians.
For direct democracy to become a reality in Kenya, Regional and local self-determination shall have to be promoted so that stronger and semi autonomous federal structures have to be put in place. Proper devolution either based on fewer and larger counties or based on the provincial model is what can take politics within the reach of the average citizen. The current centralized system denies citizens the right to make political decisions locally. The Counties/Provinces ought to be semi autonomous in administering their own political and financial affairs. They should be free to choose their institutions and have their own bylaws. They should also be free to organize their own unique judicial system, housing, agricultural policies etc. 

Whereas Kenya cannot be classified among dictatorships or undemocratic nations that dot the African continent, a lot has to be done so as to solidify and strengthen the emerging democratic culture. Direct democracy in Kenya is surely the way to go as it will promote political awareness as well as stir public debate on national issues thereby giving broader legitimacy to political decisions.

By Alan E. Masakhalia.

African Correspondent, Democracy International.

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