Resounding “No” to Kenya’s Power Play

Binaifer Nowrojee directs the Open Society Institute East Africa Initiative.

Kenyans have much to celebrate this week. They lined up in large numbers, peacefully cast their ballots, and resoundingly rejected a flawed constitution that had been hastily forced upon them.

The November 21 referendum marks another pivotal step towards consolidating Kenya’s transition to a real democracy. The "no" vote not only forestalled attempts by President Mwai Kibaki and his inner circle to tighten their grip on power, but it also confirmed to ordinary Kenyans the power of the ballot box.

While the Kenyan public appeared to show their high regard for legal process and participatory democracy, the run-up to the referendum revealed the government’s much uglier face.

The Kibaki administration used this year to entrench power in the hands of a small ethnic Kikuyu clique. Reformers within the government not only capitulated to the backsliding, but actively contributed to it.

Two years ago, the picture looked a bit brighter. Billing itself as a reform government that would promote respect for human rights and the rule of law, the Kibaki government promised Kenyans a new constitution within 100 days of taking office in 2003.

The draft constitution had been many years in the making and had been crafted following extensive national consultations. It contained provisions that would have removed excessive presidential powers and given Kenyans a stronger bill of rights.

What the Kibaki government failed to mention was that it would change this draft at the last minute.

After stalling for two and a half years, the day before the draft constitution was due to expire, the government hastily pushed through parliament an alternate draft that preserved strong presidential powers, weakened the bill of rights, and rigged the electoral percentages needed to win the presidency. The participatory process, so critical in any constitution-making, was hijacked. The public was presented with one choice: "yes" or "no."

The frenzied campaigning for the constitutional referendum began in uproar. Through a combination of financial incentives and menacing threats, including two incidents of police shootings during demonstrations, the Kibaki government ordered the nation to vote yes.

The rhetoric of reform was dropped as President Kibaki handed out title deeds of national trust and parkland to gain votes. Public employees were informed that the draft constitution was a government project that they had to support, and newspaper and broadcast journalists were warned that their licenses could be revoked after a radio station aired an interview with a parliamentarian who opposed Kibaki’s constitution.

Anticipating the 2007 election, the government announced the creation of 47 new electoral districts. These steps barely veiled an agenda intended not only to guarantee electoral victory, but also to cement political dominance by Kibaki’s ethnic group. But ordinary people rejected Kibaki’s power play, reclaiming their nation’s path through the ballot box—an idea that is still almost unheard of in the Kenyan context.

Kenya’s bumpy road to democracy is no different from that of many other countries in Africa whose political transitions were heralded with high expectations. Kenya has suffered the inevitable democratic backsliding, the continued corruption and the unfulfilled reform agendas that remain persistent themes elsewhere on the continent.

One of the most important beacons of hope remains a change in mindset of the Kenyan public. Having been buoyed by the successful and peaceful 2002 election that brought in the promise of change, the Kenyan public remains loudly outraged by the government’s failures to make good on its promises. Radio call-in shows have burgeoned and public discourse is at its most lively. While public euphoria and high hopes have been dampened, Kenyans remain resolutely engaged in the democratic process.

The Kibaki government should be acknowledged for gracefully conceding defeat, but true credit goes to the Kenyan public for its unwillingness to allow the authorities to dispense with the rule of law. Ordinary Kenyans played a key role in changing the outcome of what, 10 years ago, would have been a done deal.

The many other Africans who lament their nations’ flagging democratic transitions would do well to draw strength from Kenya’s milestone. The international community’s challenge will be to help ensure that the political space claimed by the Kenyan public remains open.

©2005 Project Syndicate

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