Making Democracy work in the context of polarized ethnicity: The case of Kenya
By Kevin Maina
This past election has confirmed that Kenya’s democracy is not fit for purpose. I say this because the country’s democracy hasn’t taken into account Kenya’s ethnic makeup. Ethnic tensions recur every election cycle, making it pretty obvious that politics in Kenya is a game of ethnic numbers. Call it ethnic majoritarianism if you like – the idea that a majority tribe, or coalition of tribes, has the power to make decisions that affect the whole society. Kenyans live in an ethnic state that exists within the civic space, guided by a constitution, but dominated by institutions that are populated by a positive sum group. By positive sum I mean the two tribes that have occupied the presidency since independence - the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin . The recent election that saw President Uhuru Kenyatta garner 8.2 million votes, is testament to how entrenched the voting patterns of these two communities have become. Although official figures of the 2017 election are subject to a court decision, the trend of Kikuyus and Kalenjins voting for Kenyatta is pretty clear. But I would argue that this ethnically motivated voting pattern is not the problem. The problem is that the constitution does not provide a mechanism to accommodate the best loser, who in this case garnered 6.7 million votes. Raila Odinga’s 6.7 million votes were largely drawn from the Luo, Kamba and Luhya communities.
History of ethnic domination
To understand how Kenya got to this point, it is important to look back on the arc of history. Immediately after independence Kenya adopted a centralised Westminster model of government. This model vested imperial powers in the presidency. It meant that the president had powers to hire and fire cabinet, to dissolve parliament and hire members of the judiciary. In short the presidency controlled the three arms of government: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. These imperial powers are akin to the powers Turkish President Recep Erdogan recently acquired in the April 2017 referendum. Erdogan now has powers to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the judiciary, and decide whether or not to impose a state of emergency. In Kenya, there’s the ethnic factor to contend with in this mix. Under the Jomo Kenyatta (1964-1978), Daniel Arap Moi (1978-2002) and Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013) regimes the allocation of resources was centralised. And because power was vested in one office, it was perceived as favouring the tribe of the occupier. Mwai Kibaki, who took over from Daniel Arap Moi in 2002, was the first president who was not a member of the Kenya African National Union, which used to be Kenya’s only political party. He was able to ascend to the presidency because of a 1991 amendment to the independence constitution that introduced a multi-party system. At the time it was believed that multi-partyism would limit presidential excesses. The move set the tone for constitutional change. In 2010, the 1964 constitution was replaced in a bid to insulate Kenya from the post-election debacle of 2007, when violence erupted, pitting supporters of the two main protagonists, President Mwai Kibaki and Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga, against each other. The new constitution introduced a devolved system of government and emphasised the separation of powers. But how effective was it in changing Kenya’s political landscape? I would argue that it didn’t take the country’s ethnic landscape into consideration which explains the tensions during every election cycle.
Accepting Kenya’s ethnic state
Ethnic mobilisation in Kenya’s presidential elections has been the norm. While most Kenyans refuse to accept their ethnic biases, these have resulted in a cycle of election violence. Violence erupts because some people feel excluded from power, while others feel entitled to it. The country’s laws don’t help because they don’t consider the complexities of ethnicity, focusing on the functions of government and how power is exercised while remaining silent on who should hold that power. That part is left to a democracy, which I would argue, isn’t fit for purpose.
A possible solution would be to adopt a hybrid model that would maintain parts of Kenya’s current system of government while completing the ethnic equation. The aim would be to ensure that no tribe, nor constellation of tribes, could lord it over the others. This hybrid solution is borrowed from Kenya’s pre-independence Legislative Council of 1957. Eight native Kenyans were elected to the council to represent the country’s eight provinces in what was a majority white legislature. Based on this system of provincial representation, my hybrid model would do away with the presidential ballot. Kenyans would not go to the polls to elect a president. Rather, each ethnic region would choose its own representative leader. In this way each of the country’s 44 tribes would have its own representative. There would be one extra slot for a neutral candidate. This would bring the tally of representative leaders to 45. For the lower levels of government, Kenyans would elect the same representatives from the ward to the gubernatorial level. The 45 leaders would choose a head of state from their ranks. No one tribe would be able to serve more than two terms until the presidency had rotated through all the 45 communities. The head of state would appoint a prime minister from parliament to be the head of government: he or she would appoint the cabinet. The structure of the rest of government would remain as is. The rationale would be to shift the focus from national to local representation. This would promote ethnic cohesion by removing the tensions that arise when Kenyan voters choose a president. More importantly it would secure Kenyans against feelings of exclusion and therefore strengthen the national fabric. This system of governance might sound impossible to some. But a similar model exists in Switzerland where a unique federal government model ensures that the presidency is rotational. So it is possible. And it might be the only way for Kenyans to restore their faith in a collective nationhood.