Why ‘Eating chiefs’ have mounted a spirited assault on democracy

On August 27, Kenya marked a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • A lot of failures and delays are routinely attributed to new constitutional arrangements that deprived officers of necessary discretion and the ability to take summary policy decisions.
  • Without the powers of repression, coercion, violation of all checks and balances, the new constitution is perceived in the administrative sector as an instrument of state sabotage.

Just over a month ago, we attempted to mark 10 years under the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Obviously, it was going to be difficult, given all the inconvenience this unforgiving pandemic has inflicted on us.

Yet the modesty of the commemorative effort also had a lot to do with the absence of formal state involvement, in word or deed.

We know that the Kenyan state can be spectacularly inept in nearly every field of endeavour, with corruption, confusion and outright mediocrity reducing every noble initiative to disastrous bungling, shameful fiasco or exasperating farce.

We also know that the one thing the state can be trusted to execute consistently to a high standard is national celebrations.

Never mind the absurd extravagance entailed – our administrators never hesitate to move Earth and Heaven to deliver a fete worthy of its billing.

A decade under a brave new constitutional dispensation, with devolution of power and resources, progressive rights regime and robust, durable institutional frame, apparently, did very little to persuade state functionaries that an official commemoration, complete with the bells and whistles, was due.

Long struggle

As a result, only the determined stalwarts of the long struggle were at hand, defiantly insisting that the march to progress and liberty is unstoppable.

Sadly for them, powerful actors, mainly in the administrative sector, initially not sold to the new constitution, have now rallied to restore the most favourable institutional arrangement for them – a powerful, centralised, totalistic state.

A lot of failures and delays are routinely attributed to new constitutional arrangements that deprived officers of necessary discretion and the ability to take summary policy decisions.

Public participation is deemed a punitive inconvenience to be endured, while accountability and related disclosures are contemplated with reluctance and distaste.

Without the powers of repression, coercion, violation of all checks and balances, the new constitution is perceived in the administrative sector as an instrument of state sabotage.

All that was needed, then, was an environment of disenchantment in the political sector which, at first, seemed delighted with the exciting opportunities in the new constitution.

In time, however, familiarity inevitably bred contempt as leaders missed monopoly of arbitrary power.

Constitutional order

Murmurs of discontent gathered to impatient crescendo and a strategy to dismantle the new constitutional order evolved into an existential imperative.

Now, it has been branded as the ember that sparks flames of violent ethnic conflict.

With the flammable fuel of democratic political competition, this places Kenya on the brink of apocalyptic conflagration.

Armed with these rationalisations, deceitful reactionaries have now mobilised to portray all actions to subvert the constitution as necessary and heroic tough decisions for the sake of the nation.

 Administratively, this has translated to impunity of the variety whereby state officers arrogate themselves authority to regulate the enjoyment of constitutional rights and discretion to limit the application of the Bill of Rights.

Politically, it is reflected by a reversion to tribal identity as the basis of legitimate political mobilisation.

Another manifestation is delirious public fantasising over the return of an imperial presidency to manage the balance of power among the “eating chiefs”.

Appropriately genteel lexicon has been employed to sanitise this reversion to atavism and demonise the constitution.

Expressions like consociational democracy, efficiency and “inclusivity” are invoked to spice up the case for changes.

On the other hand, “winner-take-all” violence and division are painted in large capitals across the constitution to cast it as a deplorable charter of ignorant wishes.

Omniscient patriarchs propose the creation of institutions designed to enable big men to represent the rest of us at the high table and take all decisions on our behalf.

In return, we surrender our right to participate to lead a mute life of meek obedience.

A week ago, a leading ideologue of the consociational brigade laid out the case against the very idea of democracy itself.

Kenya’s democracy, like many other established democracies, is inherently violent, said Peter Kagwanja.

The false belief that democracy is inherently peaceful leads to disastrous failure, he continued.

Because violence is an integral part of the democratic system – democracy being violent and destructive from its beginning and at its heart – only a reassertion of state authority to forcefully create “national consensus” can stave off the dangers of democracy.

This vicious attack on democracy was not surprising, but it was absurd.

Having acknowledged that violence is driven by extreme poverty and inequality, it was comical to take the brazen logical leap that prescribed the abolition of democracy as the antidote.

But this type of intellectual activity is remarkable, not for its integrity, but because it represents the feverish musings of minds addled by craven longings for a return to tyranny.

It also explains why, to the powerful, there is nothing to celebrate about 10 years under a progressive dispensation.

@EricNgeno