Kenya's benefit-less democratisation

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    Despite decades of democratic transition, Kenya does not seem to have experienced consolidation. The majority of Kenyans are not happy with the country’s democratisation, which has not brought about significant benefits to them.

    Kenya’s rugged democratic transition

    Kenya’s democratic transition has been characterised by its endurance and contradictions that mixes progress and regression in almost equal measure. Despite initial reforms that had made the country more democratic than it was before 1992, the country’s democratisation has slowed down and in some areas reversed. However, after stagnating for two decades, the 2007 post-election violence offered new impetus for reform. The National Accord that ended the post-election violence put in place a coalition government that resulted in a progressive popular constitution promulgated in 2010 and key institutional reforms undertaken within the judiciary, parliament, and a devolved system of government. Using documentary evidence and Afrobarometer surveys, this article argues that in the last decade, Kenya’s democratisation has had significant progress towards consolidation - a powerful independent parliament, a restructured independent judiciary, a new constitution that has put checks on executive actions and a devolved system of government. However, these reforms and the entire democratic transition do not seem to have translated to tangible benefits for citizens. They have largely remained benefit-less.

    Kenya contains features that are associated with a democratic system: participatory and competitive elections, high voter turnout, and high incumbents’ turnover. However, Kenya’s electoral competition is not based on ideology or policy differences. The high participation has also not impacted on policy, and therefore, the purpose for which elections have been held has remained extractive. As has been the case in other African countries, Kenya’s democratisation has largely been undertaken without institutionalisation, while the agents of change in the transition - political parties, and opposition leaders - have themselves failed the democratic test. The political elite seem more concerned about consolidating power than democratising the state, while ethnicity takes precedence over the nation, ideology and political parties. The bases of Kenya’s elections and electoral competition are ethnicity, personality and regionalism. Even when the competition is intra-party, the three bases remain. Since independence, Kenya’s politics has been characterised by exclusion of certain communities and groups. Exclusion became overt in the multiparty era, in the registration of voters, and in the delineation of constituencies, where through gerrymandering, constituencies were curved in a way to benefit some and disadvantage others. Another major challenge is Kenya’s electoral system, the first past the post (FPTP), which has made electoral competition not just a zero-sum game but a violent one at that. In a poor ethnically divided society, where the aspirations of the community reposes in an individual, the winner takes-all system under the FPTP makes electoral loss too costly for the community.

    Worsening economy and living conditions

    Parallel to decreasing levels of satisfaction with Kenya’s democracy, perceptions of economic conditions are on the decline as well. When asked about the country’s economic conditions in 2003, 45% of respondents stated that they were fairly or very good. But this proportion decreased to 28% in 2005, to 12% in 2008, and to 10% in 2011. Perceptions of economic trends have also deteriorated. While in 2003, only 23% of respondents stated that the country’s economic conditions were worse or much worse than they had been 12 months previously, in 2011 more than 58% said the same. Overall, the trend from 2003 to 2014 clearly reflects public perceptions that are growing increasingly negative.

    Kenyans less optimistic about the future

    People’s optimism about the country’s future has also been eroded. In 2003, when asked what they thought the country’s economic condition was going to be in 12 months time, Kenyans were quite optimistic, with 80% stating that the future was going to be better or much better. By 2014 this optimism had been eroded: just 33% were optimistic about the economic future. People’s declining optimism seems to be related to their reduced freedoms, their worsening living conditions and their pessimism about their future. While in 2003 only 35% said that their living conditions were fairly bad or very bad, this deteriorated to 71% by 2011 and remained high in 2014. In the last 12 months alone, more than half of respondents in both 2014 and 2011 said their conditions were “worse or much worse compared to 12 months ago.”

    A similar response was recorded when Kenyans were asked about their expectations regarding their living conditions in the next 12 months. While in 2003 only 4% said that their living conditions were likely to be worse or much worse, this proportion increased to 42% in 2011 and 2014.

    Increasing corruption influencing dissatisfaction

    Alongside anxieties about personal living conditions and the economy, perceptions of increasing corruption and bad governance may be factors contributing to public dissatisfaction with democracy in Kenya. People’s perception of the government’s handling of corruption dropped from a high level of support (85%) in 2003 to an approval rating of only 26% in 2011, which has remained low in 2014.

    Kenyans happy with acquired freedoms…

    In Kenya, there is consensus about increased democratisation and the opening up of the political space to more participants - more political parties, more media outlets, freer expression of views, and more freedoms. But clearly anti-democratic features - rigging of elections, violence, bribery, and attempts to close the very political spaces for some groups - have also increased. Despite more than two decades of democratisation, the transition does not seem to have yielded significant changes in the institutional composition of the country. And even when institutions have changed, this does not seem to have brought about meaningful socio-economic and security gains for the citizenry. Despite the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010 and other institutional reforms which enjoyed widespread popular support, Kenyans are not happy with the transition. The politics that have characterised its implementation, and the increased tensions and conflicts that have emerged in the pursuit of the “freedoms” that the new constitution has provided, have coloured Kenyans’ perceptions of the democratisation taking place in the country.

    Kenyans are happy with the freedoms they have acquired as a result of the democratisation process in the last three decades. Kenyans’ perceptions about their freedom to say what they think and to join any political organisation have been very high and have not changed since 2008. Four out of five Kenyans said that they were “somewhat free” or “completely free” to express their thoughts, and free to associate with whomever they wanted. Similarly, more than 90% of respondents said they were free to choose who to vote for.

    …but dissatisfied with a benefit-less democracy

    Despite these freedoms, Kenyans do not see their country as a full democracy. Results from the Afrobarometer survey revealed that only 9% of Kenyans consider Kenya a full democracy. In a significant shift in Kenya’s perceptions on democracy and democratisation, the number of respondents who consider Kenya either “not a democracy” or “a democracy with major problems” increased from 17% in 2003 to 47% in 2011.

    Similarly, levels of satisfaction with democracy declined over time. While in 2003, 79% of Kenyans were either fairly or very satisfied with Kenya’s democracy, this proportion dropped to 51% in 2005 and then declined still further to 42% in 2008 before increasing marginally to 47% in 2011 and 2014. The democratic transition in Kenya has not yielded tangible economic benefits for the people; survey results show that Kenyans have been growing increasingly negative about their living conditions and pessimistic about the future. This parallel decline in political and economic satisfaction deserves further testing through research, as well as careful attention from political leaders. Dr Joshua M. Kivuva is a senior lecturer of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration and a research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi, Kenya.
    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 3 (April/May 2015).
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