Kenyan democracy’s true test lies between elections

Kenyan democracy’s true test lies between elections

The results of Kenya’s general election can make for gloomy reading. If upheld by the Supreme Court, the country will have elected as president William Ruto who, along with outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, was indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2012. Ruto, who was eventually discharged by the ICC, is also viewed by many Kenyans, including by some of his own supporters, as among the most corrupt figures in the country’s political firmament.

Raila Odinga, who was declared to have narrowly lost to Ruto in the election, has challenged the result in the country’s top court. Odinga too has faced corruption accusations. Meanwhile, at least a dozen people among those elected to the country’s parliament or holding offices in the devolved Kenyatta administration face a variety of serious charges in local courts, ranging from murder to fraud.

“What are we supposed to do when the [electoral] system consistently yields candidates that generate no enthusiasm?” asked Kenyan political analyst and author Nanjala Nyabola, in a recent piece in The Nation. In the Kenyan context, “candidates that generate no enthusiasm” is a euphemism for a rogues’ gallery of known killers, thieves, liars and opportunists who will seemingly do, say, accept and tolerate anything, no matter how morally repugnant it may be, if it helps secure power.

This is, of course, not unique to Kenya. Even before the current wave of right-wing populism that has thrown up folks like Victor Orban in Hungary, Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, elections, so-called “mature” democracies have regularly brought war criminals and mass murderers into office. Think of the many US presidents under whose watch thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered in wars, or of the Israeli prime ministers who have overseen a murderous apartheid and ethnic cleansing system on the Palestinians. Or the elected French and British governments responsible for colonial genocides.

While an important issue, I think the expectation that a democratic vote should deliver “good” rulers and that when it doesn’t, it is because of a malfunction of the system, is somewhat misguided.

I prefer to think of awful candidates as tests of democratic systems – and not just of elections. Throughout history, many thinkers and philosophers have been sceptical of elections and ordinary people’s ability to make good choices at the ballot box. But that is not the value of democracy which, rather than a system for selecting rulers, should be a system to enable the people to rule themselves – a “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, as Abraham Lincoln famously put it. In that sense, what happens in the years in between elections is far more important than the outcome on Election Day.

In a true democratic system, the ability of citizens not just to participate in the everyday decisions that impact their lives and livelihoods, but also to hold to account those who would lord it over them, should not be dependent on how they voted.

In my lifetime, I have seen Kenya go from a closeted society where the expression of dissenting political views was hazardous to health and material wellbeing, to one where such expression is mundane. Today, writers like Nyabola can publish thought pieces without the same fear of odious repercussions that writers 30 years ago would have expected.

Not that it doesn’t happen. The Sunday Nation editor, Denis Galava, was fired after penning a scathing editorial on the failures of the Kenyatta regime. Cartoonist Godfre “GADO” Mwampembwa lost his job at the same paper after the regimes in Kenya and Tanzania did not like what he had sketched. Police broke into activist Edwin Kiama’s house after he circulated a satirical poster online suggesting to the International Monetary Fund that Kenyans would not be liable for the odious loans procured by the Kenyatta and Ruto regime.

However, it is true that, compared with the past, such egregious conduct on the part of the authorities has become rare. This was not achieved by electing better rulers, but rather by the decades-long effort to change the underlying political culture and rules since the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi. The fact that those hard-won political freedoms have to a large extent been maintained in the face of attempts by the elected regimes that followed Moi to extinguish them speaks to the resilience of Kenyans, rather than to better choices at election time.

This is not to say that electoral choices don’t matter. They do. Candidates committed to upholding freedoms and bettering the lives of the people rather than maintaining the state as the looting enterprise the British bequeathed us at independence would make the work of democracy much easier. However, six decades of regular voting in Kenya have produced few of those. And even on the rare occasions when fresh faces or people with long track records of defending liberty and fighting corruption have made it to power, most have quickly morphed into the thieving authoritarians they had previously been fighting.

In the end, what counts more is not how the people voted. It is their everyday commitment to defending democracy against would-be tyrants – the eternal vigilance that would prevent, in the words of American abolitionist Wendell Phillips, even “the democrat in office … hardening into a despot”.

So, sure, Kenyans have a tough time ahead, but regardless of how the contestation over the election result plays out, there is reason to be optimistic. Despite the problematic candidates in the past two election cycles, we have made important strides in the running of transparent elections that we can rightly be proud of and that we should fight to institutionalise.

More importantly, we must realise that the work of democracy is never done and that it is now time to gear up for yet another long and grinding season of building democratic institutions and defending them against the choices we have just made at the ballot box.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.