2017 Kenyan Elections: Not ethnicity, religion, or money but legitimacy and confidence in institutions will decide the future of democracy

By: Toussaint Kafarhire Murhala, Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR)

Kenyans are preparing to go to the polls tomorrow. In an opinion piece recently published in The Conversation, Dr. Joseph Wandera of St. Paul’s University (Limuru, Kenya) wonders what will decide tomorrow’s elections. The three independent variables he propounds are: “a dose of faith, tribe, and hard cash.” He holds that the main influence in the coming election will come from “religious services, money tokens, [and] ethnicity [which] are an integral part of the political system.” This appears to be the case because the loop closes between how political leaders allocate favors and cash handouts to ethnic and religious supporters to get their votes in return, thus securing allegiance to stay in control of political power. Is this unique to Kenyan politics? To begin with, elections in Africa are not different from elections elsewhere except that Africa has had a different trajectory and political history. What others name as “interest groups,” or political party affiliation, Africans conceptualize as ethnic groups.

We use words and concepts to convey meaning. Like all symbols, concepts come to us already embedded (here in the English language we are using) and embodied (in the institutions). As such, words do matter and they do matter a lot! Thus, let me return for a moment to Wandera’s choice of words.

  • The phrase, “a dose of faith” to symbolize the role that religion plays in African politics might sound a bit superstitious. As people tend to aggregate along religious beliefs, religions have everywhere been social forces for change and instruments of political competition.
  • The concept of “tribe,” on the other hand, has a controversial and derogatory connotation inherited from 19th century colonial lenses. Africanist scholars reject it in favor of ethnic groups, which are the fundamental cultural and political units that, for the sake of democracy in Africa, should be used as basic units of analysis.
  • And, finally, the concept of “hard cash,” or the small handouts given to voters is not specifically African. The role that money plays in politics is almost universal. I could compare this to the NGO culture of granting stipends as transportation reimbursement incentives to attract more attendance to formal meetings. Given the levels of poverty in Africa, the cash handout has become a common practice during political campaigns, but it does not necessarily imply that voters will cast their ballots in return in favor of their circumstantial donors. This, in my opinion, is simply a consequence of the capitalist system within which the “measurement” of everything we value and transact in the everyday life has been reduced to monetary gains.

Some might dismiss the symbolic importance of words – and therefore the value – that I am assigning to the terms used by Wandera. They may quote Thomas Jefferson who dismissed beliefs and symbols saying, “whether my neighbor believes in no god or in twenty gods makes no difference to me; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Another old adage says, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But, it is noteworthy that words we use every day organize the landscape of the meaning we ascribe to life events, and to elections in Africa. Since elections are themselves a symbol of something else, and since no symbol exists outside of the system that produces and conveys it, it is our own participation in and with them that constructs their “power” and their very meaning. To say that “a dose of faith, tribe, and hard cash” will determine the upcoming election in Kenya, therefore, tells us nothing about the meaning of the election or the reasons behind the fears and anxieties surrounding the democratic process in Africa.

Thus, I am more inclined to investigate systems of meanings (why democracy matters) instead of contexts of events (likelihood of violence), as determinant of political outcomes. For instance, we should seek to understand the history through which democracy has morphed to meet the expectations and conditions of Africans. That is, we should strive to understand the symbolic meaning of democracy in the African context in order to address the many problems confronting African societies, including the possibility of political violence in contestation of polls results. Remembering the violence that ensued from the presumably electoral frauds in 2007/2008, for instance, can only point to the failure of both the democratization process and the trajectory of the modern state in Africa. If those memories give salience to the politics of ethnicity in Africa, in reality they bring to the fore the failure of the incumbent to implement a legal and bureaucratic rationality. Instead, being unaccountable to anyone in controlling the state apparatus and resources, the “strong man” has allocated advantages only to his base supporters and clients.

Is this a sign of failure of the modern state in Africa? Traditionally, the modern state is the social contract to offset the arbitrariness of power, to protect citizens and their way of life through enacting laws and enforcing them, and legitimately using “violence” to quell internal feuds that endanger the social contract. To meet these expectations, the state can legitimately levy taxes and, in return, is expected to provide basic public benefits. The democratization process ushered in the early 1990s was, thus, expected to replace the dictatorial and patrimonial states that had dominated the political landscape of Africa since the 1960s and establish structures that would allocate a greater sense of self-worth, human dignity, and available public resources to all citizens.

But, are African politicians doing it wrong by using the voters’ ethnic identity or emotional capital? Like everywhere in the world, elections always arouse old fears and unleash basic passions. Kenya is no exception. In November last year, the whole world followed the US elections with trepidation, only to be disappointed by the victory of billionaire Donald J. Trump against Hillary Clinton. The rationale in putting in the White House a man with an erratic personality and recorded sexist attitudes, if not sexual scandals, in a society known for its culture of political muckraking speaks volumes about the paradox of the neoliberal democracy. To this day, more than half a year after the election, most Americans still feel embarrassed by their president who, they believe, is not the right person to fix the moral distributional issues besieging American society. But the Trump administration was voted in to punish both the black president Barack Obama and his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was perceived to be affiliated with Wall Street financial institutions. This voting logic blinded voters who did not recognize that Trump’s own wealth resulted from that very system.

The thinking that in Africa people are voted in office based on their capacity to buy allegiance based on ethnicity and religious affiliation can only provoke an immediate visceral reaction. Yet, those familiar with African politics in general, and with the politics of Kenya, in particular, know that the concept of ethnicity is a powerful enough construct to stir people to action. In democracies, however, while the distribution of political, economic, and social advantages is based on individual merits, leaders should be voted in or out of office if they can secure the fundamental rights of each citizen and the whole nation, regardless of partisanship whether based on religion or ethnicity.

Democracy is assumed to empower the people so they can take ownership of – and participate in the decisions that affect – their lives. As such, it is not superfluous to look at the evolution of the concept, which until the 18th century included only property owners in the concept of “the people.” The rest, that is, the poor citizens were not allowed to vote for fear that they would make a claim to the wealth of the capitalists. And this is not even to mention the treatment of the blacks or the denial of the vote to women. Today, democracy has become a theoretical framework within which people are demanding greater social justice, political freedoms, and economic rights. To them, democratic elections also provide an immense opportunity to transform existing political arrangements to balance the might of sovereign states at the service of a small and powerful elite group with the possibility to secure fundamental rights of all citizens. Bearing this in mind, violence becomes an alternative only when institutions to ensure democratic legitimacy lose the confidence of the people. Not necessarily for ethnic, religious, or payment reasons.

As Kenyans go to the polls tomorrow (Tuesday, August 8th), I and the CIHA Blog team hope and pray for a just, fair process through which people can reclaim social justice, political freedoms, and economic rights.


Featured image source: http://www.africablogging.org/