Category Archives: democracy

What exactly does it mean to be Kenyan?

Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! The Psalmist

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File photo showing Ghana’s past presidents together. Credits citifmonline.com

Kenya’s 2017 election pitting Raila Amolo Odinga as challenger to HE Uhuru Kenyatta’s incumbency has been billed as a 2-horse race between two corrupt parties. While this may be true on some level, I hereby opine for time and eternity that there are far deeper concerns at play than corruption. This is not to say that corruption is not an issue. Rather this is to say that corruption is a secondary issue. What is at stake is the very concept of Kenya as a nation and a going concern.

The Ganges’ Jewels and Jinja

The state of Kenya formed as a secondary outcome of geo-political chess. The British Empire’s crown jewel was India from which she derived spices, textiles and jewels. The fastest route from Brittania to India was through the Suez Canal. Whoever controlled the Suez Canal controlled India. Egypt controlled the Suez. Whoever controlled the Nile controlled Egypt. Hence the control of the Nile was of utmost importance to the preservation of the British Empire’s crown jewel. It so happens that the origin of the Nile is in Jinja, Uganda; which is Kenya’s immediate neighbour to our West. Hence a direct logical line of thought can be drawn from the riches of the Ganges to Jinja in Uganda. The physical manifestation of that line happened to be the railway line from the port of Mombasa in Kenya to Kampala which was to later become the capital of Uganda.

Building the Mombasa-Kampala railway was a long, tedious and arduous process. And as they say, the journey is the destination. Some of the builders stopped and smelled the roses and in so doing, fell in love with these environs. The end result of this process was that large swathes of indigenous Kenyan land ended up occupied by our former colonialists. A by-product of this was the so called Happy Valley set. Eventually the railway arrived in Kisumu and from then onwards to Kampala. But history could not be reversed. Our colonialists’ love affair with Kenyan vistas and wildlife left an indelible mark whose result was the creation was the British Protectorate of East Africa.

In this manner, what began as a geo-political game to gain mastery of India, resulted in the formation of a transport corridor upon whose heels followed the creation of a colony which would later come to be known as Kenya. This is how the state of Kenya was formed; as a geographic area on either side of a railway. This geographical area contains tribes and communities within it. This was the Kenyan state that gained independence, and could have turned into a nation of brothers; but has severally failed to rise to meet the defining challenges that have assailed it.

Flashforward to today. Our 2017 election is pitting the son of Kenya’s first president against the son of Kenya’s first vice-president. The fact that 50 years of intervening history have brought us to this juncture is a failure of both our leaders as well as a our parents’ generation.

Various facts are both incidental and causative to this emergence of ethnicity which include more geopolitical chess, political repression, assassinations and the raw need for political mobilisation given the context. But the point remains that Kenya in 1963 was not a tribal country. Kenya in AD 2017 is. Tribalism and ethnicity need not be a negative thing. Our diversity can and should be appreciated. With that covered, let us cover a little bit of sociology.

States, Nations and Identity

For starters some definitions. A state is defined as a patch of land with sovereign governance. A nation is defined as a group of people who are bound together into a single body, through history, values, language, culture, art and religion. (Notably missing from this definition are railways. The British built theirs and still had to leave. But we digress.)

The development of an identity from state to nation is often not easy. National identity is often forged during national crises or challenges. As a psychological rule of thumb, when an entity is faced with a challenge and especially an existential challenge, their response will be a function of their identity. Therefore failure to form a strong and cohesive identity cripples one’s ability to respond to a challenge or crisis. By extension, a polity either rises to the challenges facing it or succumbs under these challenges, as a function of the polity’s identity. Failure to form a strong and cohesive national identity cripples a nation’s ability to respond to challenges which it faces.

Easily accessible historical examples of challenges forging national identities include the US Civil War (the challenge was slavery and secession, the identity response was democratic and constitutional deliberation) and the Cold War (the challenge was territorial and existential, the identity response was capitalist and expansionist). For Britain the destruction of the Spanish Armada could be said to have been a signpost in their national identity (this challenge was existential and their identity as a sea-faring nation was called upon) in much the same way as the Franco-Prussian war was formative for Germany (the challenge was France, the identity forged was conservative, capitalist and Protestant). The Hundred Year’s war was similarly a crucible for both England and France. Closer home, other examples have been discussed at length in the piece immediately prior to this one. Let us now dig into the crux of this argument.

Brothers or Children of a Lesser god?

In the aftermath of the 2002 election Kenya was officially the most optimistic nation on earth. To paraphrase one victorious naval commander, Kenya had “met the enemy and they were ours.” The subsequent political machinations that quickly soured into 2007’s post-election violence should serve as a signpost for any statesman on the path towards nation-building. President Kibaki’s 2002 win may have been significantly more marginal or even contested had Raila not said “Kibaki Tosha!”

Over and above that, Kenya’s first president, Kamau wa Ngengi aka Jomo Kenyatta, rose to that position after Raila’s father arm-twisted the colonial government into releasing him as a pre-requisite for national independence. The subsequent fallout between these two founding fathers has never quite been resolved since then.

In the wake of this fallout, the Luo community has had the worst of it on the ‘national’ stage. Key names that dot the landscape include Tom Mboya who was assassinated in broad daylight. An intelligent capitalist and political mobiliser if ever Kenya had one, Tom Mboya was responsible for the student airlift which gifted the world with America’s first black president. This was as a result of a fortuitous meeting in Hawaii between Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. It is said that Ann Dunham fell for Luo nyadhi and then weaponised it into the political operative who stormed the White House. Another Luo great who is said to have fallen to ethnic strife was Dr. Robert Ouko. He exited the land of the living courtesy of a bullet to the head. In his final position as Minister for Foreign Affairs he so impressed George Bush Sr. that the sitting power structure felt sufficiently threatened by possible regime change.

It has further been said that should you visit the Turkana, Samburu or other Northern Frontier Districts, upon your departure to return to more beaten paths, these communities tell you to “Salimiana ukirudi Kenya.” Translated literally this means “Greet your people when you return to Kenya.” A more succinct way of communicating systematic alienation and under-development may not be found in our history. This systematic alienation of politically ‘light’ communities by successive governments was the result of development agendas based on cronyism and political tokenism. This skewed development is what necessitated our new constitution. It must be noted as an aside that constitution development is traditionally not a peacetime achievement. This should perhaps further underline the extent to which government budgets have been directed at arbitrary, non-national and tokenist targets.

This record must also note that this new constitution was an arduous labour of love which was fought severally by sitting governments. These included the long-drawn out process of the Yash Pal Ghai’s commission in 2000, followed by the bait-and-switch of the Bomas Draft and the Wako draft in 2005 and finally governmental lethargy in 2010. Even Kenya’s best president economically, Mwai Kibaki was against the 2005 Draft and only relented to political pressure by joining the Yes vote late in the 2010 Yes campaign. The heavy political lifting during this interminable process was carried out by one Raila Amolo Odinga. Wait, where have we seen that name before?

And finally there is the little-known and oft-overlooked fact that it was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who pulled our 3rd president out of Makerere and installed him in the upper echelons of KANU in 1960. It must be noted that at this time Kenyatta was still in prison.  From there Kibaki took a brisk walk into treasury in 1963 and from there to the office of the Minister for Commerce and Industry in 1966.

In other African nations, such good turns are often returned in due course. By this I am referring to the curious case of Ghana. Ghana’s current president’s father paid the immediate former president’s tertiary education fees in Ghana and flight tickets for further education in Russia. As it so happens, HE Nana Akufo-Addo unseated John Mahama right in the middle of Mahama’s incumbency. What am I trying to say? In short that one good turn deserves another.

As we finish up, (lol) it should be clear by now that the nation of Kenya owes much to its Luo leaders if not its Luo people. Given that RAO and the Luo people have not appointed his successor, chances are that this bloc will splinter if Raila were to pass away (God forbid) without identifying his successor. And even if he did appoint his successor, chances are 90-to-10 that this successor will not be as widely accepted by the Luo people. Accordingly, and in the knowledge that we may not have the opportunity to repay these good deeds in good time, it would behoove us to repay the Luo people before the bloc splits. Otherwise there will be a lingering “ethnic debt” which happens to be a wedge in the identities of other African nations.

This brings us to my final questions on Kenyan nationhood.

  1. What shall we as the nation of Kenya do with this man Raila Amolo Odinga, who fought for our new constitution which is devolving funds to previously marginalised counties?
  2. What shall we as the nation Kenya do with this community whose brilliance is globally recognised and whose contribution to our political progress has perhaps not been sufficiently rewarded?
  3. Shall we continue to play exclusionist games of tag with our presidency?
  4. Shall we choose to define our national identity as inclusionist, or exclusionist?
  5. Or shall we continue to label certain communities as “opposition material?”
  6. And if we do so, the logical follow-on question is; if the Luo who we (partially) owe our new constitution (remember I said partially) cannot be rewarded for their contributions to our political progress, under what circumstances will the Samburu, the Turkana and the Masai ever qualify to be termed as Kenyan or worthy of Kenyan leadership?

Exactly what does it mean to be Kenyan?

 

I Dreamed of Kenya

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We know who we are but not what we may be – William Shakespeare

This post is a bit radical in that it draws from the history of other African countries and nations in the hope that their history will inform Kenyan choices going into elections next month. No nation lacks aspects of their history that are less than savoury and so this post might at times seem like pointing out the speck in our African brothers eyes. So to other Afro-centrists, please do not interpret this as a pharisaical prayer not to become like the publican. No this is standard African peer review. Hopefully of the type that spurs improved action and governance.

My central and persistent thesis in this election is that Kenya is at a junction in its history. This junction is fundamental and defining as far as Kenya’s national identity is concerned. The choice we make in 2017 will define how we respond to any challenges in future. Therefore we need to make a prudent decision. That being said, let us dig in by studying the histories of other African nations.

  1. South Africa

In South Africa in 2009 a frail, old Nelson Mandela went round the country campaigning for Jacob Zuma. The reason for this was that that Mandela is a Xhosa, same as Thabo Mbeki. Zuma on the other hand, is a Zulu and was the foremost Zulu in the ANC. Zuma was allowed to run on an ANC platform. There was a marginal Zulu grouping known as the Inkatha Freedom Party. At the time of the 2009 election the rhetoric surrounding the IFP was getting increasingly violent. This violence in my opinion was partially based on Zulu dominance a la King Shaka. Granted, the IFP only had marginal electoral support but if Zuma had not been voted in, the IFP would have gained legitimacy in the eyes of many Zulu who would have switched from ANC to IFP.

To come back to present day affairs, it is generally acknowledged around the globe, and within South Africa that Jacob Zuma has been less than ideal for South Africa. The generation that did not interact with the system of apartheid has no allegiance to the ANC. As a result Cyril Ramaphosa, another Xhosa, might be named as Zuma’s replacement. Neither the late great Nelson Mandela nor Thabo Mbeki were neophytes at nation-building. They must have known that Zuma was a less-than-ideal candidate. But like true statesmen interested in a thriving stable South Africa, it was politically expedient to do so. They also knew that as part of the elite, it was not their place to make that decision. This decision to turn away from the Zulu or Zuma had to come from the electorate itself. South Africa is now dealing with much more substantive political issues than ethnic rifts within the ANC coalition. Malema vs Ramaphosa is much more to my liking than Buthelezi Mangosuthu vs Mbeki, if you get what I mean.

Of what relevance is this to Kenya in 2017? For starters it must be said that advanced democracies are beginning to define democracy not only as “Everyone has their say” but also as “Everyone has their day.” This is why Mandela and Mbeki are not neophytes at nation-building and why Raila deserves the same benefit of doubt that Zuma received. It is my humble submission that a Raila presidency would not be as reprobate as Zuma’s. Moreover Kibaki’s Anglo-Leasing scandals should clear our imagination of any illusion that a Raila presidency will be all that and a bag of chips. For goodness sake, even this team digitalis finding it hard going. Application of the simple principle of accountability to the electorate at the ballot should be enough to weed out bad leaders by the ballot. Otherwise our fledgling democracy would not even be “government of the people, for the people, by the people.”

But the main point to be drawn from this history is that the call to shunt Raila and the Luo aside was not and is not one for our political elites to make. This decision should come from the electorate. 2013 gave us a golden chance to get over our ethnicity issues once and for all, but we spurned the opportunity.  Metaphorically speaking, we chose to continue marching around our mountain of ethnicity for another 40 years. As a result, our politics will continue to be identity-based instead of issue based for the foreseeable future.

  1. Nigeria

Once upon a time an astute analyst commented that Kenya and Nigeria were twins separated at birth. At first glance the similarities may appear to be superficial and hilarious, given our population sizes and mineral deposits, but you only need to drive in Lagos and Nairobi rush-hour traffic to feel the similarities. A closer look however reveals an uncanny resemblance.

Nigeria as a state was defined as balancing the requirements of three main political groupings, namely the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo. Perhaps to give a bit of background, The Hausa-Fulani are northern and originally more nomadic. The Yoruba are centred in the south-west whereas the Igbo are centred in the south-east. Also, you could almost say that the Igbo are the Kikuyu of Nigeria in terms of business and trade acumen while the Yoruba are the Luo of Nigeria in terms of being flashy, educated, white-collar professionals. Perhaps to stretch our analogy a bit to fill out the triangle, the Hausa-Fulani would be the Kalenjin of Nigeria.

Now as you would well know from history, the triangle is the least stable political structure of all. So much so that it is completely contrary to nation-building efforts to find accurate census figures of these three populations who are all scattered across Nigeria. Nigeria’s history and political discourse has to the best of my knowledge been dominated by the interactions between these three groupings. This triangle came apart during the Biafran War, an event which is still a political hot potato 50 years after its outbreak. Nigerian social media also regularly has heated and vitriolic tribal arguments much like Kenya. In short Nigeria’s national identity is yet to come to grips with the Biafran War.

Given Nigeria’s history, I have often wondered what greases and cools Nigeria’s political engine. And then it hit me, off course they have oil! And well, their unemployment is at around 14% compared to ours at 39%. So apples to apples, we both have political triangles. But apples to oranges Nigeria has its unemployment under the 20’s and oil revenues to boot. These are 2 luxuries we as Kenya do not have. This makes our economic policy making twice if not thrice as much in urgent need of solid job-creation.

Again we must ask ourselves, exactly how does this affect cocoa production in Ghana? For starters, this must not be interpreted as agitating for a secessionist Biafran or Luo state. Not at all. I quite like the Kenyan map and borders as they are. (Thank you very much for that question.) The point here is that, our political triangle must be recognised for the problem that it is towards building a strong cohesive Kenyan national identity. Our continued tribal bigotry will have consequences whether we like it or not. Attempts to bury our head in the sand about its existence, or offer stopgap measures without dealing with the problem itself will only further exacerbate a bad problem.

We could go on and on about how DRC in the 50’s had Africa’s largest middle class; and how Tanzania is ensuring local value addition of their minerals; or how our unemployment is a ticking time bomb which needs to be dealt with. But rather than make you read an additional few hundred words, we will stop there for now. It is my fervent hope and prayer that this ‘processed’ history of Nigeria and South Africa will inform our choices going into the election this August.

NASA Tibim!

Thucydides, Democracy and Africa

Bertrand Russell once said that one reads a book either to enjoy it or to boast about having read it. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponessian War (HOTPW) provides both reasons. For one the name Thucydides is very much in vogue currently as a result of the geo-political problem known as Thucydides Trap. This describes a situation in which a rising power and an established power are driven towards conflict by factors within and without their control.

But this book at the same time provides significant reading enjoyment. It gives numerous insights into human nature as well as military and political strategy. On numerous occasions he outlines both the immediately ostensible goals of a course of action as well as its ulterior and knock-on effects. His dissections of negotiations and parleys also provide a good measure of wisdom in how to analyse whether a proposition is beneficial for both parties involved in it or for only one party.

That being said, he acquits himself of his task of chronicling history admirably and in a balanced manner. He does this despite executing various duties as an Athenian officer in the course of the war. What is most troubling is how towards the end of the book Athens becomes riven by factions part of which contribute considerably to its eventual downfall from its lofty heights.

From these events, as well as from the general political climate globally, the question of whether democracy really is the best system of government for man comes into question. This question has been raised earlier on the blog.

Before proceeding I wish to point out that my ancestors followed a democratic system of government. I hail from Kenyan Meru stock. (There is Tanzanian Meru which is also Bantu.) So my ancestors happened to have some form of democratic system in which there were two sides of government per age-group namely the Kiruka and the Ntiba. Each ruled for a period of 7 years. During Kiruka rule the Ntiba would form some kind of opposition and vice-versa. During a change of guard market places would be uprooted, policy errors dissected and the litany of wrongs by the immediately preceding regime was generally denounced. This provided some sort of societal catharsis and cleansing. It was a unique system of government which even colonialists found remarkable, this deep within ‘the dark continent.’

This is not said in order to talk up the Meru people, but rather to make the point that this is not a reactionary view against the prevailing system of government globally. As a Meru, I respect my ancestors; as a Kenyan I respect the law; and as a child of the universe I hope to have the good sense to acknowledge a system that works well elsewhere. That being said, for all we know the OECD could well be the modern version of the Delian league. As can be seen from history, for the most part democracy works. So let us launch into its analysis.

Chief among the concerns that democracy addresses is the human desire for justice; both in terms of equitable governance and before courts of law. The concentration of power within a monarchical system makes it very easy for persons with access to the king’s ear (or hand or generally those close to him) to defeat the law, and in effect be above the law. Within a democracy, the judicial system sits outside the reach of the executive and (in theory) provides some form of check and balance to the executive and the legislature. The phrase “in theory” is bracketed because the nomination of Gorusch to the SCOTUS shows that in many situations the judicial system is very much a part of political rough and tumble. It is also for this very reason that presidential election petitions are overwhelmingly in favour of the incumbent, not just in Africa but globally.

In terms of equitable government, democracy makes an entity’s governors accountable to those governed. In theory this makes the governors pursue choices that are politically expedient, such as ensuring that proceeds from national resources such as say the Suez Canal, are distributed equally among all citizens. In practice and human nature being what it is, governors frequently seek to subvert this accountability by dividing and conquering the governed along whatever fault-lines are available. Once divided the citizens will vote for ‘their man,’ regardless of how equitably he has governed or how accountable he has been.

Another concern which democracy addresses is that it provides some pressure valve or ventilation so to speak on the geo-political system. When citizens are pre- occupied with their own leaders and elections, they are unlikely to start expanding their territory at the expense of their neighbours. Conversely, should one neighbour such as India see that a border is contested with say Pakistan, then it is in their interests to fund the Pakistani opposition or faction which would support their claim to the disputed territory. This was a move that classical Grecian city states used frequently as is accounted within HOTPW. 

On the flip side, democracy presents certain knotty questions which do not have straightforward answers. Most of these occur in fringe cases but eventually, in accordance with the law of entropy they will likely affect the socio-economic well-being of a political entity.

First and foremost is that democracy provides the means for factional interests to override national interests to the detriment of all. This happens moreso during times of crisis. For example towards the end of the Peloponessian war, Athens was politically and militarily paralysed by factions to such an extent that at some points had the Spartans walked in they would have easily conquered Athens.

A more insidious demerit is the assumption that citizens have the capacity to discern the best course of action. One underlying premise of democracy is that the (vast majority of) citizens are mature, informed and educated voters. Or to use psychological terms, the expectation is that voters are at the stage of post-conventional development. Out here in Africa, with poverty levels and unemployment rather high, this is a rather faulty premise. For example, when the USA was thinking through the issue of slavery, crowds would gather to hear Stephen Douglas and Lincoln debate on the issue. They would in this manner gain an informed opinion on the issues at hand and could be trusted to thereafter select the best course of action. In today’s multiplicity of media sources, sound-bite segments and photogenic politicians the voters are getting more and more opinions and less and less information and often alternative facts. In the even that a democracy is guided rather than direct, then the system must be engineered to make it so. Thereafter the system itself must be defended. This most illuminating piece by Jonathan Rauch points out where and how the American system was engineered as a guided democracy and dismantled into a direct democracy.

Last (that will be tackled here) but not least is a tangential result of the above problem. In many cases progress requires one to adhere to a temporarily disadvantageous line of action in exchange for a long term benefit. One of the best examples of this is the difference between India and China in economic progress. By virtue of the fact that Chinese political action is guided and controlled, they have the liberty to pursue a steady course of action for a long duration without fear of needing to appease disaffected or disgruntled voters. If they wanted to delay joining the WTO, they did. If they wanted to move populations into a city and farm maize on that land, they could. If they need to set up tariffs and incentives for domestic commerce they can. India on the other hand has had several changes in the direction of its commercial and economic policy. Sometimes the economically correct party was voted out of power. As a result India’s economic growth has to some extent been hindered by its political system of government.

A more extreme expression of this problem is that in today’s media-bombarded, instant-coffee, Ctrl+C-Ctrl+V generation delayed gratification is increasingly a hard sell. It wants what was advertised, and it wants it now. By this means democracy’s chief weakness is emphasised which is its tendency to result in massive debts, whose repayment results in widespread disaffection resulting in the rise of demagogues, fascists and tyrants. The irony of this particular problem is that Greece, which itself bequeathed the world democracy as a system of government, is currently reeling under the effects of imposed but necessary austerity measures after freeloading on the Euro for a while. On the flip side of this, Iceland which was also hard-hit by the effects of the 2008 recession, is set to vote in pirates and comedians.  But Iceland after following rather unconventional economic paths are currently on a solid footing going forward.

In summary, it should be clear that for all its merits, democracy presents loopholes through which the fabric of a political entity can be worn thin. As such these must be guarded against. But generally speaking one should not criticise without offering alternative solutions. The question would then arise, what really is the best system of government for man? I would propose a monarchy, specifically one under-girded by Mosaic law. At which point there would be a general hue an cry about how outdated this is. But that discussion on the perfection of Mosaic law can be left for another day.