NEWS 2005


The beehive factor in Kenya's politics

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 centre.

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 countries.

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.