Should Africa emulate Kenya’s democracy?

The liberal democratic model that Kenya has embraced is an elite project

Now that Kenya’s Supreme Court has confirmed William Ruto’s victory, I wish to return to a recent Twitter Spaces discussion on the regional implications of the Kenyan elections. The Twitter discussion was hosted by Robert Kabushenga, the former CEO of Uganda’s The New Vision Newspaper, and had speakers selected from all countries in the region. The discussion came on the backdrop of conversations on social media about the lessons other Africans can learn from Kenya’s “thriving democracy”. Here, I underscore the challenge that comes with conceiving Kenya as the model of governance, not only for the region but also for the whole of Africa.

Democracy has two aspects: the processes and the outcomes. The former delivers the latter. The processes mainly refer to the methods that are used to choose legitimate leaders; these ensure that the authority that leaders wield come from the consent of the people for whom such power is exercised. In fact, also included in these processes are institutions, which are vehicles for delivering outcomes.

Analyses about democracy in Africa tend to confuse the means with the ends and, as a result, they stop at the processes, without considering the ultimate objective of the exercise, which is to improve the conditions of life of the people – which constitute the outcomes. Because each generation should live in conditions that are better than those of the previous ones, the “good life” for the people means that democracy is always being perfected; however, this does not mean a licence to a partial analysis that stops at the methods (which themselves, as the recent American example proves, can never be perfect).

So, when we examine whether Kenya’s model is the kind of “democracy” we ought to emulate, our assessment must be based on the examination of both the processes and the outcomes of the model. This means not limiting ourselves to conclusions about democracy based solely on two aspects of the processes that seem to have mesmerized us all: regular elections and freedom of speech.

Kenya appears to perform exceptionally well on those two measures. Kenyans hold regular elections that are keenly and closely contested. Ironically, even those who admire the hyper-contestation end up praying for God to prevent the very fires they have stocked from burning.

Similarly, Kenyans perform well on freedom of speech as defined in the liberal sense. They are free to say whatever they want, even to the extent that they often insult their leaders. But if dissent is about disagreement with decisions taken, and if the ultimate objective of dissent is to ensure that leaders take the best course of action to improve the living conditions of citizens, then the realization that such insults do not yield any results begs the question: what is freedom of speech good for in the absence of accountability, if one’s criticism is to be ignored anyways?

Interestingly, those who are often inspired by Kenya’s democratic processes, which they confuse with democracy, often turn to Rwanda as an inspiration due to its success with the outcomes of democracy – clean roads, functioning bureaucracy, reliable public utilities, low levels of corruption, etc. It must be quite confusing to many when they see democratic outcomes resulting from what they believe is a dictatorship. It is this confusion that has many on social media comment about wanting to be like Rwanda, without the dictatorship!

Why this disconnect? Simple. The liberal democratic model that Kenya has embraced is an elite project. It preoccupies itself with elite interests and necessarily sacrifices those of the average person. This explains why Kenyans long for leaders who preoccupy themselves with improving the living conditions of the average person, the Wanjiku revolution,  the kind of leaders who liberals, in a display of cognitive dissonance, refer to as “benevolent dictators.”

The following exchange between two of East Africa’s intellectual giants David Ndii and Charles Onyango Obbo regarding Kenya’s election is illustrative of the fact that the liberal model is an amoral project.

Obbo: “House of suspects: MPs who will be battling court cases. Hopefully, Kenya can avoid catching up with India, where nearly 50% of MPs have criminal records.”

Ndii: “Who will disabuse the African intelligentsia from romanticizing democracy? Electoral democracy is representative government. It is not a moral-ethical sieve.”

Ndii is telling Obbo that the morality of leaders doesn’t matter since it is a representation that gives legitimacy to power, not any moral pursuit. This is consistent with the expectations of the liberal democratic model whose key feature is representation without participation.

Liberal democracy is an amoral project because it reduces representation to an end in and of itself. It’s about who gets what position. Otherwise, it is the commitment to the aspirations of those who entrusted you with power,  rather than one’s selfish pursuits, that makes representation a moral endeavour. This is the divergence in the assumptions that Ndii and Obbo have about representation. The former conceives the latter as naïve, and miseducated, for expecting that the representatives ought to be people with clean criminal records with a commitment to the aspirations of the people. Ndii’s description of electoral democracy is problematic, and it is here that liberal democracy is fundamentally defective as an inspiration for governance.

If representation does not (and is not expected to) have a moral goal, there would not have been a reason for getting rid of colonialists. The very reason for getting rid of colonialists was that they couldn’t conceivably represent native interests. Moreover, the Africans who served in colonial regimes also lacked moral aims because of the interests they represented. Indeed, the failure of independence in Africa is the replacing of white faces with black faces without fundamentally altering the aims of representation from amoral to moral pursuits. The false start at the end of formal colonialism is the inability to transcend the amoral purpose for power that was enshrined in our consciousness during the colonial regime and perpetuated in the post-colonial order. In fact, Africa has lacked leadership because where there are no moral aims for power, there can’t be leadership.

This is why people mobilize on an ethnic basis. The logic goes: If my aspirations cannot be represented, at least my ethnicity must be represented. If both myself and my kinsman miss out, it’s violence till death. But why should a person’s democratic right be reduced to some form of consolation and why should people be placed on a path to violence?

Such logic divides people along ethnic lines and renders them incapable of collectively (across ethnic lines) pushing back to demand that their aspirations (as citizens) be fulfilled; they have to settle for the crumbs that their tribesman will bring them in the form of private favours where the “representative” demonstrates his or her benevolence by paying school fees for “needy” families in the community; when someone in the community dies, the “benevolent” representative contributes money on the condition that he or she gets to speak (campaign) at the funeral. In other words, when the people’s aspirations cannot be represented, their ethnicity is. Naturally, this erodes citizenship and a sense of common destiny. It develops vertical rather than horizontal solidarity and camaraderie in society. In an electoral democracy, the only tool that the ordinary person possesses as their source of power is their vote; however, in such a situation the vote is weaponized against compatriots. It is no wonder that the young people who aren’t prepared for these amoral concessions vote to stay away from the polls altogether!

The price to pay

In the conversation on Twitter Spaces, the Ugandan journalist, Raymond Mujuni, observed that except for Rwanda, the legitimacy of leaders in the rest of the countries in the region is contested. This was an observation that elicited the question: Why?

The short answer is that from the outset, the RPF rejected the Faustian bargain. It rejected the amoral purpose for power that has been accepted, and perfected to varying degrees, in the region. But to do this, it exercised the moral courage to pull the rug from under the feet of political entrepreneurs and establish a governance system where the aspirations of the ordinary person – the good life – are the driving force for politics.

In the region, only the RPF has had the courage to pull the rug from under the feet of political entrepreneurs. Consequently, the early years of its rule were turbulent with contestation over the soul of the party. On the one hand were forces that wanted to maintain a politics of ethnicity and regionalism – with the attendant amoral purpose for politics – that prevailed for so long that genocide became its logical conclusion. On the other hand were those committed to building a state where the aspirations of the ordinary person – the good life – were the driving force behind politics.

As the tide turned against the first group, one by one, its members turned to exile. With consolidation, a turn to politics of consensus took hold. However, when those who went into exile talk about the politics that are prevailing in the country, it is as if time has frozen from the period they were present there. This reputational damage they are able to cause, by smearing the government as being incapable of tolerating dissent, is the price the RPF has had to pay for the choice it made and continues to make.

This disgruntled elite with an axe to grind has found common ground with a gullible western audience unable to grasp the political evolution of the country as well as Africans who are mesmerized by the amoral politics of the liberal democratic model, especially the aspect of the freedom of speech.

They claim that anyone who doesn’t agree with Kagame is killed or forced into exile. They fail to recognize that political space is closed only to those who disagree with the idea that the purpose of politics, at every level of society, is for those in leadership to preoccupy themselves with the aspirations of the ordinary person. This is subtle but significant for those who genuinely want to understand how politics is practised in Rwanda.

Moreover, with consolidation, the price for those who rejected this proposition has itself undergone a shift. For instance, the tendency has been to ignore them as a mere nuisance rather than a threat to the political system itself, as might have been in the early post-genocide period.

This is how the state, for instance, and to varying degrees, conceive Victoire Ingabire and Frank Habineza. The state has zero interest in eliminating either and understands that doing so would be counterproductive. Neither is it interested in forcing people into exile. On the contrary, it is encouraging even those it disagreed with on this matter in those early years to come back and contribute to building their country. Examples of some of the dissenting voices who later decided to return to contribute to nation-building abound, including former Prime Minister Pierre Celestin Rwigema (now an RPF representative to the East African Legislative Assembly), Valens Kajeguhakwa, and many others.

It follows, therefore, that the RPF does not consider dissent that promotes the amoral aims for power (ethnic mobilization and regionalism which translates into representation without participation) as legitimate civic discourse. It is considered destructive. Its experience with genocide has informed its choice: it would rather constrain destructive politics than depend on prayers, as those who prefer the liberal democratic model have elected to do after stocking the fires. When pushed, it points to the abandonment of everyone from near and far as genocidal violence turned the country to ashes as proof of what destructive speech can accomplish, a lesson it wishes Rwanda could have learned without having to lose a million of its people.

As a bargain, the RPF has demonstrated that it will take into account dissent as long as it is around the aspirations of the people for the good life – legitimate dissent.

On the contrary, in places where the liberal democratic model has thrived, there is an implicit agreement that the people can air their grievances, even in the most insulting manner, on the condition that they expect their grievances to be ignored; the radio and television talk shows are vibrant but nothing really changes.

But what do they trade off? When criticism is ignored, freedom of speech acts only like a pacifier. It strips away participation, which requires that grievances are taken into consideration. Once again, it is a situation of representation without participation.

On the contrary, although speech in Rwanda is constrained to democratic outcomes, there is more effective participation. In other words, the difference is the distinction between quality and quantity of speech.

The question that Raymond Mujuni implicitly asked through his comment is whether when we talk about democracy we are talking about substance – i.e., people’s effective participation – geared towards effecting change in people’s lives; or we are talking about the cosmetic processes that consist of rituals every five years and for people to insult each other knowing that the most they can get from such practice is cathartic value.

As a region, we could commit to the liberal democratic model of governance, if we choose to. But our inspiration is not Kenya. Burundi perfected the model long before Kenya. Up until 2015, Burundi had the most vibrant liberal democracy in the region and possibly in the whole of Africa with a vibrant media and civil society to boot. Burundians could express themselves like no other people.

And before Burundi, there was Mali.


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