factor in Kenya's politics
Story by WYCLIFFE MUGA
Publication Date: 10/29/2005
Not too long ago, I had the
difficult task of explaining to a group of foreigners a small news item
appearing in one of the local newspapers.
The news was that a group of men
had been arrested by police on their way to a political rally. What puzzled
the visitors was the reason for the arrest – the men were found carrying a
beehive to a referendum campaign meeting that was being held in a nearby
The obvious answer, that these men
were determined to disrupt the rally, had not occurred to the visitors. Even
after I explained, they still had questions: Why prevent your political
opponents from addressing their supporters? Why disrupt a peaceful gathering
by tossing a hive full of angry bees into the crowd? And, above all, why a
beehive of all things?
It was hard to explain that what
they had read actually reflected a substantial advancement for Kenya. That the
level of violence over the referendum has actually been low compared to that
of previous political battles.
It is always difficult to explain
to outsiders that a certain degree of brutality is actually considered
"normal" in the politics of this country, and that we only worry if
things begin to get out of control.
But, leaving the foreigners aside,
let me do my bit for "civic education" and point out a few things
that have not been given emphasis thus far in the referendum debate.
First, I would emphasise that for
all the lofty words and phrases so often heard, a constitution in a democratic
country is not primarily about unity or development or the welfare of
generations yet unborn.
It is simply a device for the
distribution of power. It essentially attempts to balance this distribution
between the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature; or between national
and regional interests; or between individual rights and the demands of
citizenship in a modern state.
The most insightful comment about
constitution-making that I have read in recent weeks was not made in Kenya,
but actually came from an online report on the Iraqi referendum which ended
recently. The writer expressed the view that "a democratic constitution
should be hostile to the accumulation of power at any one centre." That
is the essential thing, and the rest is detail. It serves to remind us that
although what we in Kenya have learnt to fear most is an all-powerful
president, the evils we associate with excessive powers of the presidency, can
actually be brought about by judges, MPs, or the media.
It was parliamentary tyranny that
led to the huge salary increases and other incredible perks for MPs, at a time
when most Kenyans are striving to survive on less than a dollar a day. Media
tyranny played a big role in the Rwanda genocide.
So if constitution-making and
politics are about distribution of power, it is no wonder that the
people-driven constitution (codified as "the Bomas Draft") was
doomed to be a non-starter.
That draft is nothing more than
the unrestrained effort by different sectors of society to grab for themselves
all sorts of powers without any thought of balancing their desires against the
claims of others. It promised everything to just about everybody.
This explains why the Orange group
that is opposing the proposed Constitution has had a upper hand in the
campaign, while the Banana group has had their work cut out for them –
selling the new Constitution.
But if the lessons of the 1992 and
1997 general elections are anything to go by, then the Orange group may be in
for a surprise. For what the results of those two elections revealed, was that
if those who hold the instruments of government are willing to utilise them
well, they can easily turn the tide of public sentiment in their favour.
In this respect, we may say that
at least some good has come of this referendum process; it has somehow
compelled the Government to heed the cries of various minorities which have
hitherto been ignored.
It is not really clear why the
Government suddenly finds that it has ears for the longstanding pleas of the
Ogiek, or the Maasai. In a crude mathematical reckoning, these are not the key
voting blocks that will determine the outcome of the referendum.
But perhaps the reasons behind
these recent moves are not as important as the fact that they are happening at
all. And despite the pretences of various foreigners (including some diplomats)
that this exercise in political patronage is shocking, the practice is as old
as democracy itself.
In one of his books, (based on
events that actually took place) the British 19th century political novelist
Anthony Trollope had a passage which aptly explains how it all works.
An opponent of the Government of
the day, seeking to justify a change of position, starts by declaring that he
did not particularly like the prime minister of the time, but that "the
thing now offered was too good to be rejected, let it come from what quarter
it would. Indeed, might it not be said of all the good things obtained for the
people, of all really serviceable reforms, that they were gathered and
garnered home in consequence of the squabbles of ministers? When men wanted
power, either to grasp it or to retain it, they offered bribes to the people.
But in the taking of such bribes there was no dishonesty, and he would
willingly take this bribe."
This passage might just as well
have been written in reference to what is going on in Kenya right now. And
before any foreigners turn red in the face claiming that the Government is
bribing voters, let them consider the political traditions of their own
Apart from the occasional beehive
tossed at a crowd attending a political rally, we are really not that
different from the rest of the world in our politics.