When a national conversation saves a country. Kenya’s case

President Mwai Kibaki with ODM leader Raila Odinga during a press conference at Harambee House, Nairobi in 2008. Looking on from left is Graca Machel, Kofi Annan and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • After the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, the government established the National Dialogue Council (NDC) through its constitution in 2003.
  • In February, 1990 a National Conference was convened in Benin consisting of representatives of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party and other societal sectors.
  • The Ufungamano Initiative as another arena for national dialogue was established in 1999.

What does it mean to hold a national conversation? How does a country speak with and to itself? At what stage does such a dialogue become necessary? Who is engaged and what are the expected outcomes?

First, let us share several examples from outside Kenya.

After the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, the government established the National Dialogue Council (NDC) through its constitution in 2003. This is an annual forum where the president, other national leaders and citizens “debate issues relating to the state of the nation, the state of local government and national unity”.

In February, 1990 a National Conference was convened in Benin consisting of representatives of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party and other societal sectors. Although it began with focus on national renewal, it ended up suspending the then constitution, dissolving the legislature and rooting for multiparty elections.

Civic participation

Towards the tail end of the Apartheid State in South Africa, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Code-SA) was formed from representatives of political parties, political organisations, trade unions, etc, to find ways of healing the racially divided country and further create a conducive environment for peaceful constitutional change.

In the 80s and 90s, in 2012 and 2015, Singapore held national discourses to revamp civic participation and the building of social capital. The 2015 national conversation was a platform “for Singaporeans to participate in national movements, either as volunteers for their chosen social causes, or as initiators of ground-up projects that aimed to benefit the community.” A substantial budget was reserved for the implementation of dialogue decisions.

From the above examples, whenever a nation is faced with an existential threat, the value of a national conversation is evident.

Armed resistance

Historically, when has Kenya convened national conversations? When has the country side-stepped such dialogues to the detriment of the people?

Kenya’s anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s under the Kenya African Union (KAU) comprised two wings; the Dedan Kimathi-led Mau Mau armed resistance and the political formation led by, among others, Oginga Odinga, Pio Gama Pinto, Jomo Kenyatta, Joseph Murumbi, Masinde Muliro, Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki.

The politicians made representations to the British colonial government on matters affecting the locals. Due to the repression rampant during the colonial era, full blown nationwide conversations were not possible.

The majority of those who participated in the Lancaster House Constitutional Conferences of 1960, 1962 and 1963 were representatives of political parties from all races. 1960-1963 provided a historic moment in which the non-white political elite could have mobilised Kenya’s citizenry to source input to the independence constitution. This was not to be.

Kenya’s Sessional Paper No.10 of 1965 titled African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, just like the 1964 merger of Kanu and Kadu leading to Kenya becoming a de-facto one party state as well as the 1982 de-jure declaration of Kenya as a one party state, were not products of national conversations.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Kenyans began to regain their national voice. A nascent political opposition, youth, students, academia, civil society and especially urban masses came together to challenge Moi’s personal rule authoritarianism.

Through the George Saitoti Kanu Review Committee of 1990, views were gathered countrywide on how to reform Kanu. Those reached in this muted national conversation clamoured for multi-partyism, not Kanu’s reform. The 1990 Saba Saba demonstrations were themselves a national dialogue by other means. In 1991, Moi conceded to political pluralism, but not democracy.

For the first time in Kenya’s history, the 1997 National Convention Assembly (NCA) and its executive arm the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC) provided a peoples’ forum consisting of the political opposition, the faith sector, youth, women, civil society, labour, representatives of Kenyans from diverse productive sectors, the diaspora and others, through which to agitate for constitutional, legal, policy, administrative and socio-economic changes.

A succession of people’s assemblies and attendant mass action charted a blueprint on such changes. NCA/NCEC’s work ultimately influenced the content of the 2010 Constitution.

Afraid of the growing influence of the NCA/NCEC, the political opposition decamped in 1997 to join the ruling Kanu in the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) whose objective was to pass minimum reforms necessary to guarantee a free and fair 1997 General Election. The IPPG reforms were fundamentally sourced from the NCA/NCEC menu of reforms.

Citizen’s project

Frustrated by the government’s lack of fidelity to the review process law, the Ufungamano Initiative as another arena for national dialogue was established in 1999. It was a citizen’s project led by the religious sector with the object of facilitating the making of a constitution.

A national dialogue under Yash Ghai’s Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) took place in Bomas. It consisted of all parliamentarians and other citizens’ representatives basically chosen by political parties. This organ undertook both civic education and collection of views which were collated into constitutional proposals.

After the 2007/2008 electoral violence, Kofi Annan and others mediated between the Kibaki and Odinga political camps. The resultant National Accord and Reconciliation framework, which was birthed through a predominantly elite conversation, restructured the Executive to accommodate the offices of the prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. Five key outputs included reports to deal with post-election violence, historical injustices, electoral justice issues, police reforms and social-economic concerns.

 Divisive elections

After another contested presidential election in 2017, both Kenyatta and Odinga committed to a historic March 2018 handshake. Kenyatta then appointed a Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Taskforce (subsequently named Steering Committee) to help the country find a solution to endemic divisive elections and other national ills. The current discussion is: have the BBI proposed constitutional amendments and other changes come about after a genuine and robust national conversation?

As illustrated above, Kenya has had a poor history of national dialogues. Often monumental decisions are taken by a segment of the elite without the socialisation and participation of the wider citizenry in the decision-making and owning.

Sadly too, whatever decisions are arrived at are not usually implemented.

kivuthakibwana2017@gmail.com

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