Interesting things are happening in Kenya’s democracy. The August 9 election is not one of them.
Nanjala Nyabola is a political analyst and the author of “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics”.
Published On 6 Aug 2022
Every five years, the editorial boards of foreign media remember that Kenya exists. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration that undermines the stellar work that athletes do in keeping the country’s name on the lips of every town that dares to host an international marathon. Still, it feels like every five years when an election is on the table, the eyes of the world shift towards East Africa like vultures circling a carcass, salivating for another clash of titans and even for violence. The pieces almost write themselves – say something about “tribalism” (sorry, ethno-nationalism) and primordial hatreds, slot in a few lines about dynastic competition and maybe throw in an allegory about the savannah. A laundry list of tropes that are vague enough to hold the attention of distant audiences that need to periodically be reminded of tragedies in Africa™ in order to feel something and be made grateful.
The fallacy at the centre of this is that democracy is something that happens every electoral cycle. Somehow over the last 30 years, not just in Kenya but around the world, the idea of democracy has been bled dry of any real meaning and distorted into a caricature of a stick figure dropping a piece of paper into a black box. This is the triumph of the democracy consultant: successfully translating complex social systems into two-year plans and 10-point performance indicators that must be attained before the donor’s budget cycle closes. But it is the tragedy of the people. These indicators simplify difficult things and come at the cost of infusing meaning into the way we shape our societies. Democracy has become hollowed out into the performative act of voting, and not the hard and boring work of building societies that make sense for the people who live within them.
Those of us who live in Kenya and are invested in its wellbeing, and not merely spectators to the electioneering that happens every five years, know that democracy in the country is in trouble, regardless of what happens on August 9. The Jubilee administration which infects both major platforms in this cycle has been primarily governing by fiat for the last 10 years. The executive has hollowed out key civic institutions in service of expensive, ill-thought-out, debt-making projects that have brought the country’s economy to its knees. And now we are stuck with expensive baubles that have made billions for the foreign companies and governments that build them but make no sense in the local context, and that we will be paying for at usurious interest rates for generations. A railway line that only runs halfway across the country. An elevated toll road built to serve the needs of expats who don’t vote or pay taxes in a city in which only 15 percent of people commute by private car.
Public participation that is supposed to bring civilian oversight into key legislation and spending is a farce. We write submissions that never get read, we go to hearings that never get properly documented, we file cases in court only for judges to decide according to the law, and to be rotated out when the law doesn’t rubber-stamp the executive’s agenda. Only an article published in an international newspaper could get the government to retreat from plans to cut down an iconic tree that is older than the city itself. Protest, outcry and court orders were not enough to save the estimated 4,000 trees that have been decimated around the capital over the last five years.
The education system is in shambles. Against the advice of local experts, the bellicose minister of education has forced through a curriculum that is hurting children and parents equally, but the teacher’s unions, hollowed out as leaders abandon the abuse and violence they are subjected to in favour of electoral politics, remain silent. When the pandemic hit, hundreds of thousands of young people studying in boarding schools were kept away from their families for almost an entire year without public consultation or engagement with their parents, and no measures to help them process that trauma. Thousands of children, almost double the number of girls versus boys, did not return to school. Austerity measures triggered by poor economic planning mean that the largest university in the country is planning to eliminate its humanities and social science departments, as lecturers and university unions remain silent. None of the avenues to protest and express dissent are working. And when children do protest, the government threatens to collect their identity information and penalise them by denying them access to higher education. The only way they manage to get our attention is when they set their schools on fire.
International crises are beating at the door as well. Oil prices are the highest they have ever been in history. The pandemic still looms large. Climate change has delivered the fifth cycle of failed rains and the threat of famine hovers over much of the country. Independent media has been hollowed out by state capture and financing crises. Yet none of this is on the electoral agenda. Instead, we are being treated to a farce in which major candidates are both claiming the putative victories of the last 10 years while actively disavowing the same government that they have been vocally and visibly a part of.
(This is the part where you say: “But it could be worse, at least you’re not Other Country X!”. It could be worse, but it should be better and that is the purpose of democracy.)
This election is not interesting, and it is intellectually dishonest to expect us to contort ourselves into pretending that it is. The most important things in Kenyan democracy have already happened or are happening in places that shallow, just-add-water storylines will not see; in between election cycles, outside the capital, within local government, in institutions like trade unions and protest movements. There is nothing profound happening at the national level – a constellation of men who were handpicked for power by an ageing autocrat and who have never had real jobs using a country to avoid dealing with whatever that reveals about how they have chosen to live. Contorting this moment to suit this never-ending search for a clash of titans is a boring and uninspiring distraction from the real work of democracy. We’re bored. We’ve been at this for at least 30 years. Thirty years of watching the same cast of characters circle around each other, promising the world and delivering chaos. Thirty years of pretending that after we are done fighting each other they won’t meet up at the country club and smile at each other from across the bars that we are not allowed to enter. Thirty years of pretending that their children don’t attend the same schools or play in the same polo clubs. We are bored.
And that has to be all right. Important things can be boring – they often are. Perhaps the biggest mistake the world has made is to lean into the glamourisation of politics. The collective embrace of the idea that politics is supposed to be entertaining has led us down a rabbit hole that has culminated in cultures of misinformation, inordinate spending, and the collapse of crucial conversations into content. Maybe this idea that politics is an endless repository of content and media fodder is the reason why the politics of so many countries has descended into showmanship and pantomime. Maybe politics is just supposed to be hard and boring.
I will vote because my grandparents and great-grandparents were denied the vote by a racist colonial government, and this is the least I can do to honour their memory. But I do so knowing that voting and elections do not a democracy make. Allow me to cast my ballots while stifling a yawn and reading a book, refusing to answer 19 questions about “dynastic competition and primordial hatred”. The most interesting thing about democracy in Kenya is not this election.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.