A reformed democracy the salvation

US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 30, 2017. AFP PHOTO | NICHOLAS KAMM

What you need to know:

  • The reasons that contributed to the failure of democracy in the early 1960s are very much in play today.
  • Kenya’s presidential system encourages the emergence and dominance of tribal lords.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which Francis Fukuyama, the famous American political scientist characterised as representing “the end of history”, ironically revived the hopes for the rise of liberal democracy in Africa. Soon, Africa witnessed a new political epoch as dictatorships gave way to multiparty democracies.

A publication by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) notes that after the end of the Cold War, Africa registered a radical transformation in governance with the number of democracies rising from four to 17, while autocracies dropped from 41 to single digits.

Many of the autocracies, however, did not transform into full democracies, but rather became anocracies - states that possess an incoherent mix of democratic and autocratic traits and practices.


Kenya was an autocracy that became an anocracy after the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the 1990s.

By the turn of the 21st century, sustained pressure for reforms created a possibility for full democratisation in Africa.

As the events of the last few years have demonstrated, however, democracy, especially in eastern and central Africa, is under threat due to a resurgence of anti-liberal forces such as religious and ethnic intolerance and institutionalised corruption fostered by a predatory elite class.

The challenges to democracy in Africa is aggravated by the unnerving political climate in the West, caused by the rise of far-right movements in Europe and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States.

The assault on liberalism in the West has buoyed the anti-democratic forces in Africa, as demonstrated by Kenya’s 2007, 2013, and 2017 contested election results and ethnic and State-sponsored violence.

The West’s loss of moral authority as a guarantor of liberalism has created a vacuum being filled by China, an authoritarian country with immense economic influence in Africa.

Whenever challenged about their lack of democratic ideals, political elites in Africa inclined towards authoritarianism are wont to cite China’s economic miracle, which has happened under authoritarianism.


China has served to inspire the political elites in Africa bent on circumscribing fundamental rights and freedoms.

The gospel of an authoritarian developmental state has gained credence even among some middle class Kenyans fatigued by political bickering.

When African states gained independence in the early 1960s, they started out as largely liberal democracies, but soon power was consolidated under authoritarian leaders who claimed they were saving their countries for the sake of development.

The reasons that contributed to the failure of democracy in the early 1960s are very much in play today. In Kenya, now as in the early 1960s, political elites have continued to use divide-and-rule tactics learnt from the colonialists, to mobilise political support.
Like in the 1960s, politicians have continued to cultivate tribalism to win political power, and once in office they reward their ethnic groups with state patronage at the exclusion of “rival” communities.

In addition, now as in the 1960s, marginalised communities have reacted to exclusion by agitating for secession. Only critical reforms can reinvigorate faltering democracy, deliver it from the purgatory of anocracy that it has stuck in since the reintroduction of multipartism in 1992, and thus ensure its survival as a nation.


The reforms should strengthen devolution, eradicate corruption, and reduce the overbearing powers of the national government. especially the presidency.

While the 2010 Constitution was a significant achievement, its major weakness was in allowing for a powerful winner-take-all presidency that encourages dangerous zero-sum political competition.

Kenya’s presidential system encourages the emergence and dominance of tribal lords who thrive by fostering ethnic divisions.

The most critical reform should involve replacing the current presidential system with a parliamentary one headed by a prime minister, who will be in charge of the government, and with a term limit of not more than four years.

Furthermore, the position should rotate across the counties to discourage the marginalisation of ethnic minorities and as a means to foster the development of strong political parties.

Dr Kithinji is the director, African and African American Studies Programme, University of Central Arkansas, US. [email protected]


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