Many have argued that the democratic experiment in Africa, epitomised by universal suffrage, has been less than a resounding success. They assert that the “winner takes it all” model and the resultant adversarial politics repudiates the African spirit of oneness.
President Uhuru Kenyatta together with erstwhile political foe Raila Odinga, holding this to be true, have called for a restructuring of the Executive to accommodate competing political interests. They have pushed for a political reflection of Africanism where the head of the home welcomes all visitors with extra places set at the table.
A fine line separates this form of African democracy from authoritarianism. The leadership model of yore called for strongmen, they were the latter-day equivalent of benevolent dictators; trusted custodians of a strict form of social contract for the good of all.
Does Kenya need a strongman? Can such a person be trusted to lead the country with the benevolence of traditional rulers? In a dichotomy between benevolence and dictatorship, are there safeguards that would keep a strongman within the strictures of the former?
From recent events, the Jubilee Party appears to make a case for a strongman. Senators deemed to hold dissenting views from those of the party leader have been given short shrift. Two have been kicked out of their House leadership positions and another six could lose their positions as senators. There is talk of looming changes in the National Assembly leadership to punish 'errant members'.
But consolidation of power is not limited to the Jubilee Party. President Kenyatta has brought into his fold members of the opposition in a post-election agreement. A government of national unity is anticipated. Such a move threatens to upend Kenya’s democratic system that provides for a government and an opposition as the legitimate outcome of an election. Collapsing the opposition into government means no one is left to oversight the Jubilee administration. It also means any excesses of government cannot be countermanded by the threat of an alternative government.
Perhaps even more worrying than stifling of dissent should be the insidious erosion of respect for the rule of law. An unseemly spat with the Executive has seen Judiciary subventions so severely curtailed as to render the institution hamstrung. The Executive has also disregarded numerous court orders and, despite repeated calls, has failed to appoint 41 new judges.
Last, there is talk that a circumvention on the term-limits may be attempted by those who wish to stay in power. Powerful trade unionist Francis Atwoli says the president is too young to retire and mulls a constitutional change that provides for a powerful prime minister. Some claim the president might gun for the position.
Three issues militate against creation of a strongman. The first is the unrealistic expectation that DP Ruto will exit the political scene without a fight. The DP, formerly in pole position to succeed Uhuru, has endured a sustained onslaught aimed at dislodging him. Sophist attempts to paint him as the poster-boy for malfeasance have not gathered the intended traction but have instead elicited public sympathy. It remains to be seen whether impeachment motions reported to be in the works will be enough to bar him from the race.
Second, is the assumption that other parties being brought into the proposed government of national unity will agree to play second fiddle to whoever becomes powerful premier. Each of the party principles has had an unsuccessful stab at the presidency and an agreement on who gets real power and who plays second fiddle may come a cropper.
Finally, strongmen ride on the crest of their successes particularly in matters of the economy and welfare of their people. Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia oversaw rapid economic growth and expansion from 1981 to 2003. This success has earned him another stint as PM. Far from being contrite about their role in a tanking economy, Kenyan politicians are planning a comeback.
They have squandered the respite from divisive politics provided by Covid-19 and are now bickering over leadership positions. If that is what African democracy entails, Kenyans are better off with the current system. After all, it has been tried and tested in other parts of the world and found to be working!
Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst