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close this bookThe Courier N 130 Nov - Dec 1991 - Dossier: Oil - Reports: Kenya - The Comoros (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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close this folderKenya - Democracy: winning the hearts and minds of wananchi
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentKANU, the ruing
View the documentGearing up for industrial take-off
View the documentMatching resources with the population
View the documentPressing ahead with refonns
View the documentProfile
View the documentEEC at the grassroots
View the documentFinancial cooperation between Kenya and the EEC


Kenya has the distinction of being among the very few African countries which have maintained a parliamentary form of government since independence, though under a one-party state. Widely praised for that, this once enfant cheri of western democratic nations has, to the astonishment of the government, come under severe criticism in the past two years, not only for resisting the wave of political changes sweeping across Africa, ie the move towards multiparty democracy, but also for what many perceived as violations of human rights and infringements of press freedoms.

The Kenyan government’s initial reaction was one of indignation at what it saw as external meddling in its internal affairs. It had thought that democracy was being fully expressed in the country through the one-party system, which has been in place in nearly all of Kenya’s thirty years independence.

Kenya had the right, it said, to choose its own political system and not engage in copying alien models.

Although the campaign for multi-party politics had been on for some years in Kenya, the movement was not galvanised until the recent changes in Africa. Rallies and demonstrations were held last year and early this year until March when President Daniel arap Moi put an end to public debate on the issue and declared outright there was no question of multi-partyism in Kenya.

Veteran politician and one time vice-president Oginga Odinga, the government’s most vocal critic, attempted unsuccessfully to establish a political party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). His application to the High Court for registration was rejected as illegal, Kenya being a de jure one-party state. Four other prominent opponents, Raila Odinga, son of the former vice-president, lawyers James Orengo, Martha Njoka and Gitobu Imanyara, editor of the journal, Nairobi Law Monthly ran foul of the law in connection with the campaign for multi-party politics and were duly detained.

The concern in official circles was and still is that the campaign is being orchestrated by outside forces. They fear it could provoke social unrest and create a distraction to the government at a time when Kenya is embarking on its most ambitious economic development plan yet. But the reaction of the government in detaining campaigners and suppressing public debate only succeeded in creating the impression of a serious political crisis and of massive repression in Kenya, prompting calls in several western nations, particularly in the United States, for linkage of further economic aid to the country with progress on democracy and on human rights.

As the months go by, however, and observers take a more dispassionate view of the arguments, foreign criticisms of the authorities have diminished as the merits of the gaverament’s position and that of its opponents are weighed. The tendency now is to be more neutral and to say that it is up to Kenyans to choose their own political system.

The argument

The Kenyan government opposes multi-party democracy on the ground that it encourages tribalism and therefore is disuniting. Its opponents which include lawyers, clergymen and politicians, many of whom are former members of the ruling party, KANU (Kenya African National Union) believe otherwise, seeing multipartyism as the best guarantee of clean government, of accountability and respect for human rights, as well as being the best guarantor of the rights of minorities - a bulwark against tribal domination and corruption. Grouped under a ‘pro-democracy’ movement, they have in recent months stepped up their campaign, by openly calling on donors to suspend aid to Kenya until multi-party politics are restored.

Laudable and courageous as the movement’s campaign may be in the eyes of many, it faces an uphill struggle both in convincing western governments to cut off aid and in winning the support of wananchi (the people). History and events recently around the world have shown that only the people can effectively bring about internal change. There is little outsiders can do.

Kenyans being generally apathetic to politics and much more concerned with their economic wellbeing, winning the hearts and minds of the people will not be easy. That task is made doubly difficult by the fact that, with the peace and stability the country has enjoyed over the years at the back of their minds, the political turmoil that has embroiled Kenya’s neighbours (Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia) not to mention further afield (Chad, Liberia and Sudan) sends a shiver down the spine of many Kenyans. This fact is effectively being used by government and party officials to argue the case against multi-party democracy. The disturbances and civil wars that have plagued those countries, they say, could happen in Kenya, and Kenya being a fragile country would not survive.

These notwithstanding, the government appears to have gone on the offensive to put across forcefully the case for Kenya’s unique brand of one-party state. If the current perceptible shift of international emphasis on to the issue of human rights in the country is anything to go by, it is increasingly succeeding.

A one-party-state like no other

The government contends that Kenya has always been a democratic country where the freedom of choice is respected, where the people participate in decision-making and in management of affairs, and where public accountability is assured. This refers no doubt to the regular elections which have often seen large numbers of members of parliament, including cabinet ministers, lose their seats and the occasional party commissions of inquiry on major issues. These commissions, which travel round the country organising public meetings, in the government’s view, provide individuals and groups (district commissioners, trade unions, teachers, the churches, etc) with opportunities to criticise, make suggestions and influence government policies. The party, it says, has no other ideology than ‘economic progress and the wellbeing of the people’. It is simply a framework for organising the country’s political life. Although it approves the list of candidates, it neither nominates nor campaigns on behalf of members. There can be as many as twelve candidates in a constituency contest, party officials told The Courier. ‘Candidates for election risk a lot financially since there are no subsidies and they have to cover all their own campaign expenses’, a high-ranking government official said, pointing out that Kenya’s one-party system is like no other in the world, hardly comparable in structure and organisation with the sole political part ties that obtained until recently in some African countries or with the totalitarian regimes of former communist Eastern Europe.

It all boils down to the fact that the ruling party, KANU, never loses an election, and that politics in Kenya is much more about personalities than about policies. And because the contest is between individuals, it has not come as a surprise that over the years there have been murders whose motives have been suspected as political: Tom Mboya in 1969, Joseph Kariuki in 1975 and most recently, in 1990, foreign minister Robert Ouko.

But if the Kenyan government feels confident about winning the debate on democracy it is, nevertheless, aware of its vulnerability on the human rights issue, having had a number of people jailed or detained for what many considered as political offences or simple dissent. It has been accused by human rights organisations of torturing detainees.

An area of blurred vision between what is a criminal offence or pure political activity for which very few countries in the world have escaped criticism, human rights is now an issue that the international community is prepared to invoke, if need be, to interfere in any nation’s internal affairs. It is perhaps the awareness of this that has led the Kenyan government, in recent months, to take several steps designed to spruce up its image; measures which now put it in a position to challenge its critics on both human rights and on corruption. The measures include the widely applauded appointment of Amos Waco, a highly respected internationally-known human rights lawyer, as Attorney-General, the review of the cases of detainees and their release, and the enactment of legislation restoring the security of tenure for judges, the Attorney-General and the Auditor-General.

On the question of press freedom, Kenya’s press is relatively free compared with the rest of Africa, although observers note that there is a degree of ‘self-censorship’ that borders on fear. The closure of a couple of publications and the seizure of copies of the Nairobi Law Monthly review recently did the goverment’s image no good. But that does not detract from the fact that the Kenyan press is lively and enjoys a good deal of freedom. For example, despite the ban on public debate on multipartyism, it has continued to report the campaign activities of the four detainees released recently. Furthermore, the similar campaigns and demonstrations taking place currently in a number of African countries for multiparty politics are faithfully reported on radio and television.

At the time of The Courier’s visit, the pro-democracy movement campaign was not limited to pressure on donors to cut off aid to Kenya. It also involved calling for the repeal of certain legislation and dismissal of two British judges whom the opposition felt were partial and progovernment.

That the continuing campaign for multipartyism of the four former detainees is being tolerated, even though some of their activities under the existing laws could be considered illegal, itself speaks volumes about an emerging situation of freedom in Kenya. This can only win the government greater support.

Kenya’s political system is, as already noted, a matter for Kenyans. Over and above other considerations, Kenyans have to choose between two systems, one where the contest is between individuals, and another where groups are pitted against groups or tribes against tribes for political control. Tough choice for wananchi.