Democratic elections in Kenya in 2002 were supposed to have heralded a period of intense political and economic reform. At the start of its term in office, the government of Mwai Kibaki did undertake a number of important reforms, including the creation of a special unit tasked with overseeing the fight against corruption and fraud. Unfortunately, the reform process soon ran into trouble. The governing coalition disintegrated and factional strife reemerged—much of it along ethnic lines.
The government’s commitment to reduce the power of the presidency was soon abandoned. Moreover, grand-scale corruption accompanied the end of the reform process. But there are hopeful signs in Kenya and other parts of Africa. The end of Daniel arap Moi’s autocratic rule reinvigorated the democratic forces in the country. The young generation especially treats Kenya’s politicians with growing skepticism, and civil society and the media are increasingly active in exposing corruption and misrule. The process of public awakening is not particular to Kenya. Globalization and technological change are having noticeable empowering effects on African youth. With growing frequency, demands for accountability and a better government are being heard throughout the continent
In December 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) came to power in Kenya as a result of democratic elections. That event ended 24 years of a stifling autocratic rule by Daniel arap Moi and his Kenya African National Union (KANU). Moi had ceded democratic space with reluctance and in bad faith. He had gone to every length to confuse, bribe, intimidate, and, at times, injure or eliminate the forces of change in the 1990s.
One of the most important developments that came as a result of the peaceful transition at the end of 2002 was the entrenchment and further expansion of democratic space that had been fought for and won bitterly over the past few decades. Kenyans had not so much voted for this or that party. Rather, they voted for change. They voted for a change in the way they were governed and hoped for a more accountable and transparent government. They were tired of the old order and wanted something new, something better. They were also excited that, at the last minute, the opposition had finally united. That hunger for change was not a uniquely Kenyan phenomenon. Across the African continent similar expectations of change were coalescing and continue to do so.
The National Rainbow Coalition Undertakes Important Reforms
Within months of the election, the new administration had embarked on an ambitious program of reform that included, among other measures, the creation of a Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, my own appointment as the permanent secretary in charge of governance and ethics, and the appointment of a new director of public institutions, who was charged to create a special unit to address corruption, serious crime, fraud, and asset forfeiture. The Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act of 2003 was signed into law by Kenya’s new president, Mwai Kibaki. The process of institutionalizing the resultant Kenyan anti-corruption commission as the premier anticorruption agency was completed at the end of 2004.
The government also established the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, created a specialized cabinet committee on corruption, and institutionalized the declaration of assets and liabilities by public officials after passing the Public Officer Ethics Act in 2003. In addition, the Goldenberg Commission of Enquiry was established to get to the bottom of the Goldenberg scandal of the early 1990s, in which corrupt government officials hoodwinked the Kenyan taxpayer out of approximately US$1 billion. The Commission on Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land and the National Anti-Corruption Campaign were established, as was the Task Force on Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation, with the aim of ascertaining public opinion as to whether a truth commission should be set up. There was also a dramatic reform of the judiciary that saw 50 percent of the top judges removed from office.
The Coalition Begins to Unravel
It is important to note that all the reforms discussed above were initiated within the first nine months of the Kibaki administration. Unfortunately, disagreements over the constitutional review process, the powers of the presidency, and the inability to agree on the post of the prime minister splintered the NARC coalition. Virtually overnight, NARC became dysfunctional, with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pitted against the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK). The constitutional reform process of 2003 culminated in the November 2005 referendum on the proposed constitution. The referendum became an arena in which the internal disagreements within the coalition were played out.
Those disagreements could have been anticipated, since in the immediate after- math of the single-party state in 1991, the oppositions splintered along ethnic lines. Individual parties drew support from particular areas dominated by specific ethnic groups that were mobilized along tribal lines by individual leaders on the basis of their past, present, and future promises of delivering more political patronage. It was such a splintering of the political elite—encouraged enthusiastically by the then-ruling party— that characterized politics between 1992 and 2002. The unification of the opposition behind Mwai Kibaki and under the NARC banner managed to push KANU out of power, but that unity was temporary.
As the disagreements within the coalition deepened, some members of the leadership wanted to preserve NARC as one political entity. They argued that since NARC had contested the election as a single party, it should remain together and be further strengthened. Others argued that the NARC coalition had come together to remove KANU from power. Now that KANU had been defeated, there was no need for NARC’s unity to continue.
The first, “centralizing” group of leaders harked back to the era of the 1960s and 70s, when the Kenyan economy grew under the authoritarian rule of President Jomo Kenyatta. Their view was based on an implicit, and ultimately destructive, notion that Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe and the associated communities possessed the capacity to get the economy moving again after a period of prolonged incompetence, looting, and resulting stagnation. That implicit organizing idea around which many members of the ruling elite coalesced manifested itself in a number of ways, including, for example, with regard to early appointments of senior public officials, including myself.
More destructively, it manifested itself in the arrogance of those who believed that the Kikuyu tribe would produce economic growth and be allowed some “excesses” in return. That was a model that was reasonably successful during the Cold War and had only started to falter in the mid 1980s, when the Moi regime consolidated. By 2004, it began to look as though the state was dominated by “Cold Warriors” seeking to impose their 1970s political ideals on the new realities
Young People Are Changing Africa
But the Cold War had ended. Young people —influenced by television, radio, the Internet, and mobile phones—who now make up a majority of the population, do not remember Jomo Kenyatta—except for what they read about him. In the cities, the young generation speaks its own language, “Sheng,” which is a combination of English and Kiswahili. They are less deferential toward their leaders than their parents were. They are better educated and more exposed to the world than any preceding generation. There are both negative and positive aspects of those developments. These changes hold true—in varying degrees—for the whole of Africa.
Moreover, the relevance of Africa’s former development partners and of foreign aid has declined since the end of the Cold War. That was in part the result of the West’s disengagement from directly supporting the corrupt central government and its support for civil society in the 1980s and 1990s. Other factors leading to the decline of Western influence in Africa included reduction of the government’s capacity to absorb aid, improved tax collection that decreased Africa’s reliance on foreign aid, and the rise of political correctness that saw conditional lending as “imperialistic.”
The 1990s saw an unleashing of many freedoms, which changed the way in which Africans see themselves. In particular, there emerged a more confident urban population, which, while acknowledging the shortcomings of life in Africa, also feels an affinity with urban young around the world. That is especially true with respect to access to information, for technological interconnectedness has heightened expectations among the young. Today, African governments have to be sensitive to those expectations or risk political crises. Consequently, foreign aid, although still important to those countries that receive budgetary support and infusions of emergency aid to mitigate natural disasters, might also be less relevant in the minds and hearts of an entire generation of young Africans whose outlook is more global. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Africa was the world’s least globalized continent.
Moreover, the information age arrived when Africa’s own institutions were at their weakest and the suppression of the intellectual class at its worst, in the 1980s. However, successful elections in a country like Kenya, in which the electorate clearly articulated its wishes, point to a strengthening of the democratic process.
First published by CATO Institute as Development Policy Briefing Paper No. 2, March 15, 2007.
By John Githongo
Former permanent secretary for governance and ethics in the Office of the President of Kenya and a senior associate member of St.Antony’s College, Oxford University.
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