Friday, June 1, 2007

Kenya - The Struggle for Democracy

This is a book review of a new academic oriented collection of essays about Kenya's democractic prospects.

Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy

Godwin R. Murunga & Shadrack W. Nasong’o, editors

Zed Books, NY, 2007

Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy, still hot from the printer, is a compilation of scholarly essays about contemporary Kenya. The individual pieces are honest and blunt. Authors make no effort to hide prejudices that are aimed at colonialism, the Kenyatta and Moi regimes. Judgments on the Kibaki era are hedged, but various contributors fear it too is becoming engulfed in the same vortex of oligarchic power that has plagued Kenya for generations.

The editors state at the outset that contributors to the book are young academics not tainted by sell-out to the system. Further, the editors claim, young academics never benefited from mentoring that ought to have been their due from the previous generation (who did sell out). This is only the first of many themes of opportunities lost that run through the tome.

Readers be warned that Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy is an academic book replete with footnotes and citations of other learned works. Language too is quite erudite – often it seems deliberately so – sentences occasionally need several readings in order to make sense. Yet, there is a great deal of extremely good sense in this book.

The overall thrust of the book is to discuss in the Kenyan context the various elements that make up a democratic society. The basic charge against Kenya is that colonialism extended into Kenyattaism and Moism and even Kibakism without substantial change in the format of how government works, i.e. by coercion and intimidation. Although the leadership changed, authoritarian rule only became worse as Kenyatta and Moi expanded the powers of the presidency and then used those powers to assure their predominance. Yet against this backdrop, there was throughout an effort by many to push for democracy, popular participation and accountability. Topics covered in the book include the evolution of civil society organizations, the growth of religious movements and their political roles, the problems encountered by opposition political parties, the growth of youth movements and abuses of the same during multiparty elections, the stymied participation of women, missed opportunities by intellectuals, abuses perpetrated by the police, the impact of structural adjustment policies and the confusing roles of donors.

I judged the chapter on political parties to be among the most interesting, not only for its accurate history of the convoluted opposition to the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, but more on account of the analysis of why opposition did not function well and continues to operate poorly. The explanation that African polities do not accommodate a loyal opposition, i.e. you are either with me or an enemy, rings true in the Kenyan context, but is buttressed by the fact that no parties, expect perhaps KANU for a time, really have had any existence outside an electoral period. Beyond temporary coalitions designed solely to oust Moi, Kenya has no parties of issues –– only parties of “big men” who organize, pay for and selfishly direct “their” parties. This explains why Kenya has 55 registered parties, most of which are simply vehicles for personal ambitions. The author of this chapter argued that until political parties themselves become internally democratic they cannot become “democratic institutions” and realistically foment democracy.

The chapter on women explained convincingly how women were sidelined from national life during the last half century. The exclusion they experienced during colonial times arose mostly from the nature of their subsistence labor which kept them out of the “modern” sector and away from education. Such marginalization was augmented after independence when a perverted form of “traditional” patriarchy pushed them further into the corners of national life. Today Kenyan women account for only 6 percent of public figures; nearly last place in Africa. One solution might be an electoral system of proportional representation for Parliament. Countries with these systems, such as Rwanda (48 %), tend to have much higher proportions of women in public roles.

The discussion of intellectuals was a telling indictment by the author of his peers. He alleged that Kenyan intellectuals have not stood up to their responsibility to foster democracy. Several reasons for this lacuna are put forward: fear of reprisals,love of the good life, co-optation by the powers-that-be, failure of the older generation to give way to the new or simply shirking of duty. The introspection shown by this chapter demonstrates the guilt felt by many intellectuals for the failure of Kenya, both historically and currently, to achieve its democratic potential.

The chapter on the police provided details on how the police and security services evolved under Kenyatta and Moi to become the essential bulwark of presidential power. Instances of assassination, torture, and other egregious abuses of authority are cited as well as the erosion of the rule of law and the compromise of the judiciary. It is a troubling read, but necessary to understand the fear and intimidation that permeated political society and kept the opposition in check. The author hopes that under Kibaki abuses are being corrected, but gives little evidence that the system has undergone fundamental reform.

Finally, the book concludes with two chapters that link Kenya’s political troubles and tensions of the last half century to its economic woes. There were certainly causal links as bad decisions (both political and economic) and bad luck (mostly economic) led to a spiral of decline. The poor internal Kenyan economic dynamic was further destabilized by changing and contradictory policies imposed by the World Bank, IMF and donor nations. Although there is an effort to level blame for economic failures, there is more of an explanation of what happened and an appeal for consistency in the future.

Kenya – The Struggle for Democracy, is full of current information and realistic history. For those ready for a graduate-school level tome, it is a useful guide to crucial Kenyan issues.

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