The triumph of hustler nation ushers in Kenya’s ‘lobby moment’

President William Ruto

President William Ruto inspects his first guard of honour at Parliament Buildings since being elected head of state. The triumph of the ‘hustler nation’ has thrust Kenya into its lobbying moment. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Kenya is not short of grassroots sectoral groups engaging in indirect lobbying campaigns for afforestation, climate change, water or gender equality.
  • But local non-state actors and interest groups lack adequate resources, political and managerial skills and cohesion to make a serious mark in swaying public policy.
  • The big question is whether the country’s level of development will sustain a strong lobbying culture to substitute bribery and corruption.

After Kenya’s 2022 elections, it is fairly legitimate to speak of a “democratic surge” in the country as a contrast to the “authoritarian surge” debate globally.

Despite the optimism generated by Kenya’s peaceful transition, the country is still in the throes of an epic “clash of visions”.

As President William Ruto recalled during his inaugural speech on September 13, during the electioneering period, “We have had a robust conversation about the moment we are in.” 

On the one extreme, former President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that Kenya was staring at a “constitutional moment”.

During the 57th Madaraka Day address at State House on June 1, 2020, Kenyatta averred that: “I am already discerning a constitutional moment.

Not a moment to replace the 2010 Constitution, but one to improve on it.” His then deputy, Dr Ruto, begged to disagree.

“This is an economic moment,” he retorted in his final political rally on August 6, 2022. Kenya, he said, was ripe for its “moment of economic empowerment… We must lift those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid by ensuring opportunities for all,” he tweeted on March 20.

The August 9 elections marked a dramatic triumph of the “economic moment” argument over the “constitutional moment” line of reasoning.

"Lobby moment"

The election dust has settled. But the debate about the sustainability of Kenya’s budding democracy is far from over. Is Kenya now staring at a “lobby moment”? That is the question. 

The ruling United Democratic Alliance/Kenya Kwanza coalition government is an internally cohesive political force with a clear pecking order, commanding both legitimacy and almost absolute power.

It has control over the Executive, Parliament, a majority in the county governments and assemblies and a working rapport with the Judiciary.

Inversely, after its defeat, the opposition is badly divided, demoralised and in disarray. The civil society is elitist, donor-dependent, pampered and ineffectual.

This political outcome has brought Kenya onto the cusp of a ‘benevolent dictatorship’.

Conceptually, this connotes a government in which a leader exercises legitimate absolute political power over the state for the benefit of the population as a whole and allows for some civil liberties or democratic decision-making to exist (through public referendums or elected representatives).

An ‘enlightened dictator’ is a contrast to tin-pot dictators who have little or no political credibility, focus on their supporters, typically have delusions of grandeur, only serve their self-interests and take away liberties.

This thrusts to the fore the role of strong non-state actors and interest groups in Kenya’s emerging democracy.

Soft power, not hard power, is the cornerstone of democracy. In politics, soft power is the ability to co-opt rather than coerce and involves shaping the choices and preferences of others through persuasion, appeal and attraction.

Arguably, a powerful culture of lobbying can buttress a weak ‘royal opposition’ and ineffectual civil society. 

However, the art of lobbying governments is relatively new in Africa.

Post-2022 election Kenya exemplifies Africa’s emerging democracies where new avenues are opening for independent interest groups to develop the capacity to influence public policy and keep democracy on an even keel.

Lobbying is a new phenomenon in Kenya’s public governance. Generically, it is widely understood as the efforts by individuals, private interest groups, non-governmental organisations, faith-based entities, or firms to influence the decisions of governments (including legislators, policy-makers and judges) and secure favourable outcomes in laws, regulations, policies and decisions.

Effective canvassing of government, in contrast to opposing it, entrenches democracy. It is a key tool to guarantee equal conditions in public governance processes, enabling the general public to engage in decision-making.

Moreover, it improves the quality of public debate and decisions, opens avenues for diverse opinions, and input from experts and promotes citizen participation.

Policy making

While the art of persuading policymakers to adopt a favourable policy is relatively new in developing countries, it is the preferred approach to influencing government policy in developed countries.

Experts attribute effective lobbying of governments to the level of development. According to literature, the growth of GDP per capita leads to increased lobbying. The richer the country, the higher the ability of interest groups to influence policy-making by governments. 

In politically stable and wealthy countries, lobbying becomes much more effective than bribery or corruption in influencing policy outcomes.

Scholars identify bribery as the dominant means of influencing policy in poor countries.

Recent literature on the relationship between lobbying and bribery in transition countries have concluded that lobbying substitutes for bribery as countries move up the development ladder.

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution provides for participatory democracy as the basis of the legality of lobbying in the country.

The new law provides for the right of sectoral groups of citizens to lobby their government. But because of a long history of authoritarianism, there is a gap in clear laws regulating canvassing by non-state actors in emerging democracies.

Despite this, Kenya’s American-style presidential system of government provides for a powerful Executive (presidency) that wields more power, refocusing lobbies on the presidency, Cabinet and the civil bureaucracy.

Kenya’s Constitution also creates a strong national Parliament (both Senate and National Assembly) as well as county assemblies, which have more powers than in parliamentary systems, making legislative lobbying a major strategy by non-state actors.

Finally, the doctrine of separation of powers has provided for an independent and powerful judiciary.

This has transformed courts into a new arena of litigation strategies and tactics by private citizens.

Okiya Omtatah has become iconic in the age of litigation by private citizens in Kenya’s Judiciary.

But a political culture that favours efforts by concerned groups, organisations, or businesses to sway government decisions as an indelible feature of democracy is yet to emerge.

Kenya is not short of grassroots sectoral groups engaging in indirect lobbying campaigns for afforestation, climate change, water or gender equality.

But local non-state actors and interest groups lack adequate resources, political and managerial skills and cohesion to make a serious mark in swaying public policy.

Local organisations with the capacity, strategies and techniques to influence Kenya’s regional and international partners such as the East African Community, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development and the African Union are yet to evolve.

The triumph of the ‘hustler nation’ has thrust Kenya into its lobbying moment. The big question is whether the country’s level of development will sustain a strong lobbying culture to substitute bribery and corruption.

Prof Kagwanja is CEO of the Africa Policy Institute and adjunct scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University, Kenya

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