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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Betrayal in the Kenyan Media

In Francis Imbuga’s 1976 play, Betrayal in the City, the Kenyan playwright and literature scholar describes life in the fictitious, dystopian, post-colonial state of Kafira. One of the characters, a university don jailed for speaking his mind: "We have killed our past and are busy killing our future".
As I write this, Kenya is busy killing its future. Once again, a disputed presidential election has put the country on edge. After a week of building tension and deserted streets and people stocking up on food, and water, protests have erupted in parts of Nairobi, sparked by the declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as winner. Gunshots and police choppers are being heard in Kibera, one of the capital’s largest slums and a bastion of support for his bitter rival, Raila Odinga, who claims he election has been stolen.
Many had already fled their homes in expectation of violence and in the capital city, Nairobi, many have not gone back to work since voting on Tuesday, leaving its normally bustling and noisy Central Business District feeling like a ghost town.
Small protests had been breaking out in several parts of the capital and in other urban centres, throughout the week, which had led to clashes with police and, regrettably, at least 5 deaths so far. Given the ongoing unrest, that figure is set to rise even further.
However, you wouldn’t know this watching most of Kenyan media -considered by some as one of the most vibrant on the continent. TV screens are full of pictures of celebrating Kenyatta supporters and political pundits analyzing the election outcome. Kenyans are having to turn to international media and to friends and family to get a sense of what is happening.
Throughout the week, while dutifully covering the complaints of election hacking and rigging raised by Odinga, as well as the responses from the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the media was in the main determined to avoid any mention of trouble. Instead, it has opted to regale the country with colorful stories of the Githeri Man, Kenya's new internet sensation.
On social media, the usually irrepressible collective that calls itself Kenyans On Twitter (#KOT) is similarly subdued. As they have been doing the whole week, gangs of twitterbots are trolling the online streets looking for any reports of protests, branding them either “fake news” or evidence of a nefarious plot by foreign correspondents to incite violence for the sake of boosting their career prospects or securing book deals. There have even been reports of police preventing journalists from covering the demonstrations, confiscating equipment and deleting footage and even threatening to shoot them.
Much of this is reminiscent of what happened in the 2013 election. Four years ago, as the country again hang on tenterhooks as politicians bickered over another presidential election, I wrote of a compact that had developed between the media and the public: “Kenya would have a credible election, no matter what.” Back then, it was thought that the way to avoid the sort of violence that had nearly torn the country apart in 2007, on the back of yet another disputed presidential election (hope you are noticing a trend here), was to not ask uncomfortable questions about it.
Today, the reasons for silence are considerably more sinister. In the run up to the election, there was great public resistance to “preaching peace” as a means of pre-empting violent protests in the event the election was disputed. So out went “peace journalism”. But in place of a compact with the people based on the mutual fear of anarchy, the media appears to have made a deal with the government based on a mutual interest in plundering the public.
By law, the government is forbidden from advertising its achievements in any media during the election period. However, this did not stop the Kenyan media houses pocketing millions in the weeks before the election for broadcasting blatantly illegal advertisements from the President’s Delivery Unit, some of which even bore the tagline “Jubilee Delivers” and “Uhuru 2017” (Jubilee is the political party of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking re-election).
In return, it seems the media has sold its soul. The first sign came very soon after the closing of the polls when one TV channel, KTN NEWS, gave the results of what it called an exit poll. The curious thing about that poll was it does not seem to have asked the voters how they voted, which one would assume is the point of an exit poll.
But worse was to come. Going to bed with government seems to have led to a wholesale abandonment of their journalistic duty to independently verify the results of the election announced by the IEBC. A Court of Appeal decision in June had made it clear that results of the presidential election declared at polling stations and constituency tallying centres were final and could not be altered by IEBC mandarins at the national tallying center in Nairobi. That opened the door for the media to run independent tallies and, despite largely empty government threats of having their licenses cancelled, even call the election. And indeed, many already had this capacity. In January, Samuel Macharia, the owner of Kenya’s largest TV and radio network, Royal Media Services, told the Senate that his network had independently tracked records at every presidential election since 1992.
Yet, it appears that this did not happen. Today, all the press is crowded at the national tallying centre at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi, hanging on every word that issues from the IEBC. They have been content to run its unofficial tallies rather than get the official counts and tallies from the lower levels. And worst of all, as the politicians and IEBC officials haggle in Nairobi over which numbers are correct, the media is happy to play along rather than spare us the drama by simply heading down to the 40,000 polling stations where, even now, the official and final results are posted outside for all to see.
Rather than preaching peace, the Kenyan media has been earning its 30 pieces of silver by ignoring and editing out citizen frustrations in order to maintain a façade of normality. But there’s nothing normal about this silencing, the delegitimization of those, however many or few they may be, who feel the need to express their discontent through peaceful marches, or by ignoring of those who have died at the hands of the police.
Imbuga’s play has an ignominious character who uses his closeness to the supreme leader to secure corrupt advantages and to sell out his countrymates. At the end of the play, Mulili’s duplicity is laid bare and he is executed, signifying the passing of the oppressive order and the birth of new hope. Similarly, Kenya’s media needs to get out of Kenyans’ way so they can get down to the business of saving their future.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Kenyans Are Deathly Afraid Of Presidential Elections

Another election. Another failure of systems. Another dispute, another anxiety laden wait. Another bout of violence. The routine has become depressingly familiar. Over the past week, Kenya has been at a standstill, holding her breath as votes were counted, announcements made and politicians bickered over the results, praying these would not summon the spectre of 2008.
Kenyan presidential elections have always been contentious - a legacy of our history dictatorship. Within a decade of independence from Britain in 1963, the country had been transformed into a de facto one party and as long as the centre was not challenged, other aspects of a competitive, democratic system were allowed to function.
This meant that for the first 30 years, while parliamentary races were fiercely competitive -with more than half of incumbent Members of Parliament regularly thrown out- at the presidential level, they remained a placid affair. Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, as heads of the party were “re-elected” unopposed at every turn.
A year to the 1992 elections, however, everything changed. Following a sustained two-year campaign of protests and international pressure, Moi was forced to reverse a decade-old change to the constitution which had formally banned political parties other than his own. This led to the first ever competitive race for President, which set the tone for all presidential contests to come -it was marred by large-scale, ethnic-based, violence, irregularity and outright theft.
The 1992 polls were preceded by government-instigated “tribal clashes”, in which 5,000 people were killed and another 75,000 displaced in the expansive Rift Valley. Just months before the 1997 elections, politically instigated violence killed over 100 people and displaced an estimated 100,000. While both 2002 and 2013 election campaigns were marked by several incidents of violence, with no incumbents running, the violence was somewhat limited.
At first glance, the violence of 2007/8 seems to sit pretty well within this picture. But, on closer inspection, there are fundamental differences. All previous large scale electoral violence was instigated controlled and perpetrated either by the government or with its acquiescence. The 2008 violence was the first time Kenyans confronted the prospect of a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, with the opposition also able to mount significant violence.
Kenya’s electoral violence had previously been controlled and limited in geography and scope. Though the 2007/8 was not the worst the country had suffered, it provided a glimpse of a possible and very scary future, where the threat of violence did not stem primarily from the state, but from one’s neighbours and friends.
Kenya has always been a violent country, one silently at war with itself. The colonial state is at the center of that conflict. The various communities and fractions of communities that make up the nation are constantly fighting to control the state which ironically was created to facilitate others preying on them. At independence, rather than reform it, the clique that inherited it, which includes both Uhuru’s and Raila’s fathers used it to enrich themselves and their friends and relatives at the expense of the rest of society.
Throughout it all, as Matt Carotenuto writes, the state has learned to weaponize the language of “peace” to avoid scrutiny of its actions and a discussion of the past. “From the days of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime to the Presidency of his son Uhuru, Kenya’s five decades of independence have been marked by wide ranging uses of “peace” to silence more messy notions of reconciliation and political change.”
As Kenyans settle down to the daily grind, there is a danger that they will once again be urged to as Kenyatta put it in 2002 “forget the past, however bitter we may be, and forge a common front to be able to overcome our emotions”. But that would be a mistake because, if there are any lessons to be learnt from Kenya’s history, it is that a true “common front” will not be forged through “forgetting he past” but by facing and dealing with it.
Kenya is thus has a choice. The country can either try to recreate the brutality that its colonial state wielded previously and attempt to force the genie back into the bottle, or it could actually attempt to confront and deal with its traumatic past and to begin to create a state that works for all.  Kenyatta appears to have settled for the former, judging by the viciousness with which post-election riots have been put down – at least 24 people have been shot dead and many more, including a six-month old baby, badly beaten.
What prevails in Kenya now, what has always prevailed, is not peace but rather, an uneasy calm -a ceasefire of sorts. But it won’t last, nor be translated into a deeper peace unless the country has the courage to fix its frayed national fabric.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Game of Thrones - Kenya Edition

I am a big fan of Game of Thrones, the American fantasy drama television series centering on the struggle by various political dynasties to succeed to the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms in the fictional land of Westeros. Now in its seventh season, the various plot twists and turns, the rise and fall of the fortunes of characters keeps me glued to the TV whenever it’s on. Missing any of the weekly episodes, or even having to wait months for the next season to start is an anathema.
In a way, my angst is reflected in the reactions this week to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to skip the Presidential Debates. Politics is Kenya’s version of Westeros, complete with skullduggery, moral nudity, incestuous liaisons and, of course, a throne all covet, fear or manipulate.  We revel in the gladiatorial contests for power between scions of political dynasties, in the intrigues and betrayals, in the gore and mayhem. As I have written before, and as was reiterated by Dr Wandia Njoya and Dr Peter Kagwanja in this week’s edition of the Cheche show on Citizen TV, our politics is a show put on by politicians that has little to do with addressing the everyday struggles of ordinary folks. In fact, it is meant to distract attention from those very problems.
There is an implicit compact. We will be content to ignore the fundamental questions and issues facing our polity so long as our politicians do the dance. The rhetorical contests of election campaigns, manifestos and TV debates are the stuff of this performance which plays out on our TV screens and on political dais across the nation. It is this compact that President Kenyatta violated.
What was promised was a no-holds barred, blood-on-the-floor cage match with the media providing the stage and acting as both promoter and referee. After weeks of priming and waiting, we had taken our ringside seats, enjoyed the curtain raisers in the form of the debate between the three of the other six candidates and were waiting for the headline event which was to pit the President against his main challenger, Raila Odinga. Thus the disappointment and anger was palpable, even within supporters of his Jubilee Party, when the reigning champion failed to turn up.
What we instead got was a tepid performance of shadow boxing, where Raila, alone on stage, ducked, weaved and parried the moderator’s poor attempts to pin him down. In the end, we learnt little that was of value, that we didn’t already know. But that is not why we were there. Few in the audience were particularly interested in the intricacies of policy and in understanding how NASA or Jubilee would pay for the fantastical promises of brand-new stadia, roads and free everything. We wanted blood and gore and broken teeth and spilled guts.
This is show we had paid for with our stolen taxes and our enduring poverty and oppression. It is what we had sacrificed our pensions, health and children’s futures for. And we’d been had. We were left feeling short-changed and vented our rage in bars, meeting places, TV screens and on social media, always careful to couch it in the acceptable language of accountability.
We have, we will keep saying disingenuously, been denied the opportunity to question our leaders, to hold them to account, to understand the issues on which the election campaigns are supposedly being waged. But this is not true and we know it. The manifestos are online if we want to interrogate them. Nothing stops us debating the issues and demanding that the media reflect them in the questions they pose to candidates and politicians and not be fobbed off with non-answers. As Dr Kagwanja asked, "What are Kenyans lacking?" The truth is we had been denied a show, a performance.
What we should ponder is less whether the President should have turned up and more why we engage in this charade. Politics and political debates should be about much more than entertainment and should definitely be about finding real solutions to our very real problems. Not a distraction from them. We already have Game of Thrones for that.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why Kenyans Must Learn How To Talk About Elections And Violence

Last week, I wrote about our propensity as Kenyans to bury our heads in the sand when confronted with ugly realities. Many have thus continued to either defend or condemn David Ndii for his prediction that Kenya would burn if President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in a sham election but there has, sadly, been relatively little discussion of how the “burning” can be avoided.

If we were to lift up our heads, we would see that the situation may be dire, but, regardless of the election, violence, though entirely predictable, is nonetheless not inevitable.  We still have choices we can make.

Part of the dilemma is that we seem to have painted ourselves into a lexical corner. Today, the public discourse appears to conflate calls for non-violence with acquiescing to electoral disenfranchisement by the Uhuru regime on the one hand; and to see demands for a free and fair election as coded calls for Raila Odinga be installed as President, on the other. Simply put, we do not know how to talk about credible elections and non-violence.

For much of our independent history, we were described as "an island of peace in the sea of chaos" and that "peace" was undergirded by our silence over the ruling elites malfeasance including the manipulation of elections and especially, presidential elections. In 2008, the rallying call, as the country burned, was "no peace without justice".  By 2013, the pendulum had swung back to "peace"as we were asked to "accept and move on" and not ask too many difficult questions about the obvious failures that permeated the entire electoral system.

The pendulum is once again in motion. This was evident in the online reaction to the sentiments of yet another public figure, this time from the Jubilee neck of the woods. The melodramatics of her video and tenuous grasp of South African history aside, Julie Gichuru had made some valid points on Twitter about the merits of committing to non-violence and got pummeled for it. Partly, I suppose, this was a reaction to her as opposed to her message. She, after all, was one of the stalwarts of the 2013 “accept and move on” brigade and perhaps this was seen as a continuation of that campaign.

Yet, as she correctly says in one tweet, “This is not Justice v Peace. Seek justice through non violent means.” And in another, “It is key to reject the normalisation of violence to achieve ends. NonViolentAction is harder but protects the most vulnerable. It is just.”

And, it seems, it is not only Kenyans who are struggling with this. A report in the Daily Nation quotes former US Ambassador to Kenya, saying that though the Donald Trump administration wants to help prevent a repeat of the 2007-2008 election violence, it is not clear if they are “willing to do that at the expense of sanctifying what could be a seriously fraudulent election.”

However, it is possible to stop the pendulum, to preach non-violence while at the same time refusing to legitimize an illegitimate election. Despite the abandon with which some talk of the country burning, I doubt many Kenyans on either side of the political divide who lived through the violence of 2008, are anxious for a repeat. Even those, like me, who believed (and still believe) that Mwai Kibaki stole the election, did not consider that a justification for the violence that followed. In fact, up till the unfortunate politicizing of the cases at the International Criminal Court, there was massive support among ordinary Kenyans on the need to bring those responsible to book.

Ironically, we all seemingly want to avoid a 2008-style conflagration but appear to think we do that by avoiding a discussion about it. Yet it is crucial that we engage in a serious discussion about how we respond to the actions of the political class and of the government they control, especially in the case of a disputed poll. I propose three NOs: NO acceptance, NO violence, NO forgetting.

First, I am encouraged that many are explicitly rejecting the “accept and move on” message that permeated the 2013 election, which encouraged people to silence their doubts about the election for the sake of “peace”. A non-credible poll is what threatens the peace, not the querying of it. So there must be no acceptance of a fraudulent election. The insistence must be on the IEBC delivering the free, fair and credible election it is required to by the constitution. Kenyans must not be scared off making such demands by the fearmongering of those who assert that the August 8 date is set in stone. The country still has the options it did in the last election (remember, the election was held in March, not August) and better to delay the election if necessary, than to conduct a sham one on time.

Secondly, in the not unlikely case of a disputed poll, there must also be also commitment, by those who feel aggrieved, to exclusively non-violent means of resistance and to avoiding a repeat of the scenes of 2008. Concurrently, the government must also undertake to respect the rights of all Kenyans to peacefully express any dissatisfaction they may have with the conduct of the election, as it is required to do by the constitution. We must not forget that the government has historically demonstrated little tolerance for peaceful citizen action. There must be no blanket bans on public demonstrations or their violent disruption as has happened after nearly every election. There must be no resort to tear gas, water cannon, truncheons and bullets to meet peaceful protests.

Finally, there must be commitment to exorcise the ghosts of the past. Regardless of the outcome of the election and whether that outcome is disputed, there is to be no return to business-as-usual. Kenyans must collectively demand that the TJRC report is implemented and that we finally have the long overdue and uncomfortable conversations with the past that we have been avoiding for the last half century.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Kenya: There Is No Peace. There Will Be No Peace.

Let's get one thing straight. Whatever happens on or after August 8, Kenya will not have peace.

Regardless of whether either it is Uhuru Kenyatta or his main rival, Raila Odinga, who is declared the winner of the presidential election; whether the election is stolen or is free, fair and credible; whether people stay in the streets or go out to protest the result; the country will not know peace. We will not have peace because we have not earned it, because we do not deserve it.

"Peace is not simply about the absence of violence. It is defined by the presence of fundamental liberties and the prevalence of economic opportunities. We will not settle for a perfunctory peace that is disrupted every five years by an election cycle." So declared President Kenyatta in his inaugural address four years ago following yet another divisive election. Yet, as the all-pervasive fear shrouding us today reveals, we did settle for "a perfunctory peace" which is no peace at all.

We have done none of the hard work required for peace. We have not secured the fundamental liberties or economic opportunities that he spoke of. We have rather been only too willing to trade those freedoms in for an elusive safety from terrorists. We have been only too content to celebrate economic growth that does not produce jobs or create wealth except for a very few at the very top. We have refused to demand accountability for the many times our military and civilian security bosses have failed Kenyans in places like Westgate, Mpeketoni, Garissa, Mandera, El Adde, Kulbiyow and most recently, Pandanguo.

More importantly, we have failed to that which the President was careful not to mention: deal with the ghosts of our past. Over the last four years, we have been content to let the sleeping ogres lie. The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission has been allowed to gather dust in Parliament, the interrogation of the last hundred years of Kenyan history it was meant to spark, smothered. We have been afraid to clean our wounds, to take the bitter medicine, instead allowing them to fester and the infection to spread.

So today we will pray for peace but peace will no come. We will feverishly pray for healing for our diseased body politic, but healing will not come. The best we can hope for is "the absence of violence" and the extension of the fragile ceasefire.

Therefore, the current debate over whether we should prefer peace to the injustice of a sham election is somewhat misplaced -peace is not on the table. This is not to say the election is inconsequential. For many ordinary Kenyans, disputed elections imperil and already imperiled existence. Kenya is an incredibly violent place at the best of times. Wananchi have to endure the violence of poverty; of hunger; of state incompetence and oppression and murder and disappearing; of terrorism. The added violence elections bring exponentially increases their hardships and suffering while only slightly inconveniencing those in whose names the fighting is done. So, yes let' demand a credible election. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that this will preserve peace.

There is no peace to preserve. There is not even "absence of violence" for most. Let's not talk about peace unless we really mean it. Not unless we are serious about addressing, not just the potential injustice of a rigged poll, but all the injustices of the past whose bitter and painful consequences Kenyans are forced to live with every day. Let's not talk about peace unless we are ready to confront the injustice of inequality, of poverty, of hunger, of dependence on handouts, of the deprivation of rights, of the institutionalizing of ignorance through the public education system.

No, my friends. Let's not talk of peace. Let's say what we really mean. We want calm. We want life to go on pretty much as it has over the last four years and over the half-century before that. And that is not peace. This election cannot bring peace. Only our commitment to working hard every day, election or no, to confront and undo injustice, and to demand accountability, can. And there is precious little evidence of that.

So don't tell me about peace. There is no peace. There will be no peace.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Evil That Kenyans Will Not Name

Dr David Ndii is once again at the center of a public storm. On Sunday, the renowned and outspoken economist  tweeted a quote from his controversial March 2016 article titled Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talk divorce. In the piece, he correctly observes that every election in the multiparty era in which an incumbent President is defending his seat has been violent. He then warns that “if Uhuru Kenyatta is declared winner in another sham election, this country will burn”.
It this quote that has caused an uproar this week, just as it did 16 months ago. Many appear to have taken it as evidence of Dr Ndii, and by extension the National Super Alliance (NASA) -one of the political outfits contesting in the coming elections and where he has a policy advisory role-, calling for violence in the event of a disputed election.

However, as even a cursory reading of the full article would show, Dr Ndii was just articulating the likely consequence of a sham poll, one which most Kenyans, were they to be honest, would admit was more than a distinct possibility. Further, a multi-agency government security team in Nairobi has already identified most informal settlements as potential violence “hot spots”, and both the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and an observer team from the European Union have similarly warned of the possibility of violence. In fact, the visceral reaction to Dr Ndii’s quote says more about Kenyan’s propensity to bury our heads when confronted with uncomfortable realities.

Four years ago, in the aftermath of the 2013 election, I wrote about the “peace lobotomy”, the fear that had engulfed the country leading to a reluctance to question the shortcomings of that poll. At the time, just five years after the traumatic post-election violence of 2008, the possibility of violence seemed so very real and we had been inundated with calls to keep the peace and accept the results in order to avoid it. Yet, as I observed then, “the terror and the frantic attempts to mask it were a terrible indictment… [I]f we continue to lack the courage to exhume the bodies and clean out the foundations of our nationhood, we shouldn’t be surprised if in 2017 we are still terrified of the monsters under the house.”

Well, 2017 is here and once again many are afraid. Across the nation, as Dauti Kahura reports in The Elephant, people are quietly moving their families out of what they perceive risky areas and into ethnic enclaves where they feel safer. Others plan to vote then retreat to “ancestral homelands” and flights out of the country around election time are reportedly fully booked. Yet publicly, we carry on as if all is normal and no one expects any violence.

Today, just as in 2013, talk of violence is itself taboo. But, strangely enough, so is talk of peace. Most media houses have disavowed the “peace journalism” they practiced and were widely condemned for four years ago. “This time I will not preach peace”, veteran journalist and political commentator, Macharia Gaitho, declared on NTV’s Press Pass show. He writes in his column that “peace does not come from songs and processions and media campaigns. Peace does not exist in a vacuum. It comes from consciously addressing the violent environment.”

But therein lies the problem. How can we “consciously address a violent environment” that we are unwilling and afraid to consciously acknowledge?

“Fear can make people do strange things,” I wrote in 2013. And we are still doing strange things. Instead of dealing with the root cause of our terror -the divisions sown by the humiliation, dispossession, violence and trauma of the last 100 years- we have sought to bury it and to build our nation on top of it. But the ghosts of the past cannot be so easily ignored.

We are due for another haunting. And our terror is showing. The fervent hope that the spectres will not rise if only we do not speak their name is as desperate as it is forlorn. And they will not rest until we summon up the courage to face them and to dialogue with them.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Why Kenyans Are Sick Of Voting

Kenya is today truly in the grip of election fever. Political temperatures are rising, the economy is feeling lethargic, shenanigans at the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission are causing severe headaches and hateful political speeches are inducing nausea.

Why do we endure this? Every five years, we are harangued into registering for the vote and into casting our ballots on voting day. Many commentators go so far as to declare your vote to be your voice and that a failure to vote is an abdication of the right to complain about government policy. In fact, President Kenyatta was, earlier in his term, fond of telling opposition supporters to stop complaining about his government and to wait for elections where they could do something about it. 

“You had your chance to lead. Now it’s our turn,” his deputy, William Ruto, said in response to sustained criticism from opposition leader, Raila Odinga. “Let us do our jobs. Help us, but give us room to do what we were elected to do. In a few years there’ll be another election.” In this formulation, there is the idea that in order to “do what it was elected to do” the government must be spared criticism.

It is all hogwash. Voting is just one of the many mechanisms democracy should afford the people to partake in governance. In fact, it is not the casting of a ballot once every five years that is the crucial characteristic of democracy; many authoritarian systems feature elections. Rather, it is popular participation in everyday governance -in enforcing accountability and influencing the decisions government makes in between elections- that marks a system out as a democracy.

Elections only gain life and death importance when all other paths to accountability and participation are blocked. And given the way their rules have been fixed, electoral contests have become more about legitimizing elite ambitions rather than solving the people’s problems. The manifestos that have been unveiled this week illustrate this, focused as they are on highfalutin visions rather than fixing mundane, everyday problems.

This sets us up for a horrible cycle. Because there is no accountability and minimal participation of the voting public in governance after the election, politicians will promise anything knowing they do not need to deliver it. Voters, also knowing this, will prioritize what they can get during campaigns since there is no way of guaranteeing that you will get anything after. Thus voter bribery and improbable manifesto promises.

It also incentivizes corruption. Literally. Kenyan elections have become the most expensive in he world, judged on an expenditure-per-voter basis, largely because they are avenues of extraction by a thuggish elite. 

For the candidates, there are incentives to spend huge amounts of money getting elected because it opens the gates to a world of looting and self-enrichment through corrupt contracting. And the more one can steal, the more largess one has to bribe the public at the next election, and so on.


Regardless of the nature of the system, there is little recognition of the fact that not voting remains a legitimate choice. One may either not wish to legitimize the outcome of an obviously flawed process or may prefer to participate in other ways. Just as voting should not be construed as the end of democratic participation, not voting should not be seen as surrendering all rights to other forms of democratic participation including complaining about the way leaders elected by others govern.

Contrary to the prevailing notions, Kenyan history shows us that change does not come via the vote. It was not standing in line that forced the dictatorial regime of Daniel Arap Moi to loosen the reins on society. Rather, it was demands for accountability by the masses using other equally legitimate avenues of democratic participation such as the street, organized civil society and the media that ended the single-party state, reformed the electoral system and paved the way to regime change. 

Those old enough will recall that in the euphoria following the election of Mwai Kibaki, the church, media and civil society eased the pressure for reform thinking we now had allies in power. In short order, many of the bad habits of the Nyayo era resurfaced. We quickly went from citizens arresting policemen in the streets for demanding bribes to Kibaki sending the GSU into Bomas to stop the constitutional reform talks and to a proliferation of corruption scandals. The important lesson here is not that voting is unimportant, but rather that it is not the only, or even, the most effective form of citizen participation. The election of Kibaki did not bring democracy but rather was a product of the democratic space created by citizens prior to the vote.

Instead of a ballot box fetish, our focus should be on participation in between elections. We should examine the many ways our system makes it difficult for ordinary people to participate in lawmaking or express their opinions and easy for the government to ignore them when they do. We should be concerned when peaceful protesters are beaten down, or online activism is disparaged and when MPs, under the pretense of giving effect to the constitutional right of recall, pass a law that makes it well-nigh impossible for their constituents to recall them.

In what is perhaps the most memorable phrase in his famous address at Gettysburg in the aftermath of the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. A democratic system is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and always keeping government accountable to them.

If this were the case in Kenya, then elections would not make us sick.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

How To Spot Empty Campaign Promises

In the coming days, especially as we approach August, we will be inundated with politicians each seeking our endorsement and more importantly our vote. We will be encouraged, harangued and shamed into exercising our democratic right to wake up incredibly early, endure frustratingly long queues in order to mark a bunch of ballots and toss them into a bin.

But what exactly will we be voting for? What should we be looking for in this campaign period? Ideally it should be a choice between competing ideas about how Kenya should be run. However, our politics has not exactly been a crucible where clear thought is forged and many times it is reduced to something of a piñata breaking challenge as we blindly strike out hoping to break loose some promises of “goodies” to come.

To try and infuse some sanity into this charade, and to separate sophistry from sophistication, here’s a short list of six things we should remember when it comes to whacking that piñata.

Plans trump promises and manifestos are not plans
They are little more than public declarations of policies and aims. A manifesto may say -to pick a completely random example- that a political coalition will deliver laptops to every primary school within 100 days of candidates taking office. This is not a plan. A plan would say how said laptops would be procured, how much they would cost, where the money would come from, etc. Basically, a plan would prove that the candidate and his team have thought through what’s in their manifesto.

There are no silver bullets
Anyone who tells you they will pay for their election promises by stopping corruption or recovering previously stolen loot, and cannot tell you how they will stop said corruption or recover said stolen loot, or even how much they expect to raise by stopping corruption of recovering stolen loot within a specific time frame, does not have a plan. Ditto for tales about paying with money to be raised by  cancelling waivers of coffee debts and other similarly fanciful and vague policy notions. Demand specifics. Take anything they tell you with a healthy pinch of salt.

Integrity is not enough 
Similarly, anyone who tells you to vote for them simply because they have integrity but have no concrete plan for delivering on their visions is hoodwinking you. Integrity is important, but no substitute for thinking. Also remember the lessons of the 2002 election when we voted in the cream of civil society and religious leaders -people with proven records of integrity. It did not take long for them to turn. Integrity does not come with a guarantee.

Everybody has a record we can interrogate
Many Kenyan politicians like to pretend that they represent a clean break for the past. In doing so, they also like to disavow their own past and any responsibility for it. Do not be cheated that just because some candidates have never been MCAs or Senators or Governors or MPs or Presidents, they get a free pass. All their prior actions and statements in previous capacities, whether in public or private spheres, are relevant to assessing their suitability for the offices they are vying for.

The election is not just about what candidates want to do
Elected politicians like to think of themselves as “leaders”, but they are really representatives whose job is not to lord it over you but rather to speak on your behalf. Remember Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who during the French Revolution is said to have declared: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." Elections should be about what you want and what matters to you. So, what issues would you like to see the government address? How do you want your taxes put to work? What do you see as priorities for the next administration? Look for candidates who reflect that and who can give you solid plans not wooly promises.

It does not end on election day
There will be much hype about the need to vote and some will even suggest that if you do not vote, you should not complain. Pay them no heed. Voting is just one, and not even the most important, aspect of participation in a democracy. Elections matter most to politicians since that how they get their jobs and access power. What should matter most to the electorate is what the politicians do with that power in the period in-between elections. Your continued participation after the elections, the ability to hold winners to account as well as contribute to and shape the decisions that affect your life and the lives of your family -this is the stuff of democracy. Not merely standing in line and casting a ballot at election time. So, beware any candidate who has at some point suggested that if you were unhappy with the way office-holders behaved or with the policies they implemented, you must wait for the next elections to do anything about it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why Do Kenyan Politicians Dance?

Over the past few weeks, I've been obsessing with a single question. Why do our politicians dance? At every political function nowadays, it has become customary for them to do a jig before addressing the crowds. Where did that come from? When did it start? And, more importantly, why do they do it?

One thing's for sure. Boogieing politicians are a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that we danced for them. In the days of my youth, no political function would begin before a troupe of "traditional dancers" or some choir had performed for the big men -and they were almost always men. Of course, they would sometimes perfunctorily join in, doing their best to look dignified and restrained as all around them, the people let loose. However, it was always clear who was dancing for whom.

We danced for them.

Dancing for rulers' entertainment has a long and not too proud history around these parts. The colonials, in the era before late night radio jams and funk and discotheques enjoyed a little live performance by the firelight as they downed their evening drink. Further, parading the conquered folks has ancient roots. The Romans would do it at their triumphs. And our parading ourselves to our British conquerors was a demonstration of our subjugation; our "culture", our very lives, beliefs and existence, were now to be for the entertainment of our rulers, exoticised commodities and curiosities they could entice their friends to part with money to experience -and thus the tourism industry was born.

Following the charade that was independence, our newly minted black potentates adopted many of the old habits of the colonial society they had always secretly aspired to join. They moved into the colonial houses and neighbourhoods, became fellow members of their country clubs, took their kids to the same schools, and kept us dancing to the tune of oppression.

Wherever Jomo Kenyatta, and Daniel Arap Moi after him, went, the dancers had to be hastily assembled to offer welcome. The book Kenya: The Politics of Participation and Control
by Henry Bienen speaks of regular reports of Kenyatta regularly receiving traditional dancers at his home. In a system where power was seen as both a source of prestige and patronage, our dancing for our Presidents and politicians marked them as purveyors of such. Just like their regular enthronements (again in the same manner as their colonial forebears) as "elders" of the communities they have brutalized, our dancing was, and continues to be, designed to curry favor.

So we danced for them.

It was not until the late 1990s that the Presidents started to dance for us -in a manner of speaking. At the height of the Nyayo dictatorship, a trio of three brilliantly impudent comedians burst onto the national scene. The climax of Redykyulass' shows, always guaranteed to floor audiences, would depict the then President Moi, a rather sternly conservative old man, breaking into an almost lewd hip-thrusting dance routine -the Ndombolo. It was the first time any of us had seen the President, or in this case a parody of him, truly dance and the effect was electrifying.

As Prof Grace Musila recounts in her essay Violent Masculinities and the Phallocratic Aesthetics of Power in Kenya, "the very thought of the President dancing to Ndombolo was itself a powerful subversion of the carefully choreographed iconography of the dignified "father of the nation" who had hitherto been seen in local currency, on national television making speeches and staring out contemplatively in framed portrait photographs all over the country." Via their dancing, Redykyulass "removed President Moi from his revered position in framed portraits, legal tender, patriotic songs and various elevated podiums associated with political speeches on public holidays and, instead, represented him as an ordinary figure who Kenyans could laugh at."

Today, the dancing we see on political podiums across the country is similarly farcical. As we have seen, the state used to invest a great deal in "the carefully choreographed iconography" of power. So when we suddenly have State House releasing videos of President Uhuru Kenyatta doing the dab dance as his rivals try to out do each other in comical dance, something fundamental about our politics has changed. While the politicians doing the shakey-leggy are perhaps hoping their gyrations make them seem like one with the people, what stays in the mind is not the idea of common cause so much as that of comedy. It is the reverse of the Redykyulass skit. And this time, the joke is on us.

Politics has always had an element of performance, even farce. A good example is Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who during the French Revolution is said to have declared: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." During much of the post-independence era, Kenyan politics has been all show with and little substance, more about abetting elite plunder than fixing the people's problems. Still, there was felt a need to portray it as a game for serious people.

Not any more. Politics has become entertainment, our very own, home-grown reality soap opera. Making fun of a ponderous authoritarian in the 1990s was a way to undermine his grip on the people, to allow them to see him as someone they could hold to account. Comedic dancing today is a sign that both the politicians and the citizenry have abandoned even the pretense of seriousness. This is also reflected in the rise of farcical characters such as Mike Sonko, Ferdinand Waititu and even Miguna Miguna. You no longer need to be a serious person, or even to pretend to be a serious person, in order to participate. Entertainment is today's currency.

Compare our politics with soap operas. One study describes the features of a soap as 1) portraying personal life as the “core problematic”; 2) marked by melodramatic excess, necessary for their emotional impact; and 3) lacking narrative resolution, thereby maintaining their continuous existence. Our politics problematizes politicians personal political fortunes, appeal to ethnic sentiment via exaggerating ideas of threat as well as fantastical promises, and issues, be they scandals or questions about the proper role of the state, are never resolved. Like soaps, our politics is infested by outlandish characters and insane plot twists incestuous and ever changing relationships between the relatively small cast of players, and death, murder and betrayal are constant themes.

And like all soaps, the objective of our politics is not just entertainment, but distraction. Just as many seek respite from reality by watching trashy TV, so too they entertain trashy politics. But for the politicians, the pay off is much greater. To understand why, think back to Roman times. The first century Roman poet and satirist, Juvenal, referred to the provision of free wheat and entertainment as a means of achieving political power. He wrote:

"Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."

Kenyan politicians too have become adept at using their control of bread and circuses to maintain their grip on power. Aside from generating food crises -either deliberately or through sheer criminality, negligence and incompetence- and swooping in as saviors, they also provide the gladiatorial contests that keep the citizenry too distracted to concern themselves with the root causes of the country's problems. And like Juvenal's Romans, we too have abdicated our duties of citizenship.

But it would be a mistake to blame the citizenry, whether in Juvenal's Rome or in present-day Kenya for the state of affairs. The Roman Empire’s decline has been blamed by some, like 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, on the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizenry which allowed demagogues to gain power. And some have attempted the same explanation for Kenya's woes. However, this has it back to front. In both cases, the loss of public trust was a consequence, not the cause, of politicians misbehaviour.

As those in power concentrate on enriching themselves rather than on the interests of their subjects, corruption, incompetence and insincerity come to dominate mainstream politics. A disillusioned populace either switches off altogether or driven into the arms of populist demagogues promising easy solutions. The new rulers, unable or unwilling to deal with root causes, resort to distraction. Free wheat, circus games, and feeding Christians to lions in Rome; a political reality soap opera in Kenya. The sole purpose being to keep the commoners from focusing on the pillaging of society by the same politicians.

Berating ordinary Kenyans -or Romans- for their poor electoral choices thus misses the point. Why should they be invested in a game they seem destined to lose? Rather, we must seek to remove the wool that is pulled over their eyes and allow them to see the real roots of their immiseration; see how the game is rigged against them and the opportunities that exist to change it. This means learning, not ignoring, the history that politicians work so hard to hide. It also requires understanding that there are many different ways to approach problems and we do not need to be constrained by the frameworks and blinders they have imposed on us. In short, we must learn to look beyond the dance. 

Monday, May 01, 2017

Development Is About People Not Economies

Last week I was invited to what was described as a “Global Think In” event, basically a series of conversations between academics on Columbia University’s New York campus and scholars and participants in nine Columbia Global Centers in cities around the world. The question we were asked to ponder was: What issue relating to the changing world do you find most urgently pressing in your region?

Now the world is changing in many, quite drastic ways which pose serious challenges to people in Kenya and on the African continent. These include the perils of climate change as evidenced by the current drought ravaging the continent. The twin march of globalization and technology is both creating and decimating opportunities, jobs and wealth, and enabling small groups of disenchanted folks to terrorize entire nations. At the same time we must fight both newly emerging and more familiar diseases as a consequence of changing lifestyles, and figure out how to prepare our kids to deal with an uncertain future.

To do any of this effectively, we will need governments that are focused on and responsive to the welfare of their citizens as well as able to cooperate to address the wider, global issues.
Yet across the world, we are witnessing a retreat from these very values. While some may point to the rising tide of populism and xenophobic nationalism with the preference for “strong” leaders as represented by the election of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of far right in Europe, I think something more insidious is at play.

“My personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism,” Friedrich Hayek once remarked on a visit to Pinochet's Chile. Today many seem to lean simply towards economically astute dictatorship in the belief that democracy, especially of the liberal kind, has not only not worked, but actually militates against the ability to solve problems. The role models for this are regimes in China, Rwanda and Ethiopia, which foster high rates of economic growth while curtailing political freedoms and human rights.

Yet this privileging of economic numbers above people only produces chronically fragile states. Ethiopia, which has been growing at double digits for well over a decade, has been under a state of emergency since October sparked by protests over repression. Many here forget that the 2008 post-election violence which pushed Kenya to the brink of anarchy, came after the longest period of sustained economic growth in twenty years.

Economic growth is no panacea. It is no substitute for the real work of ensuring governments are rooted in and accountable to the people they rule over. And as the recent party nominations across the country demonstrate, Kenya has done little to ensure that political processes are an unambiguous reflection of the will of the citizenry.

Another thing to consider is that since the end of the Cold War, the international community has served as a critical check on governmental excesses in Kenya and the region and has been an important ally of those fighting for greater respect for human and democratic rights as well as better governance. The International Criminal Court, for example, was a big factor in tempering politicians’ appetites for violence and why we did not have a repeat the 2008 violence in 2013.

As Kenya gears up for another round of elections, the ICC’s stature has been badly damaged the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto cases and is now seen as little more than a paper tiger. Further, the rise of inward looking populists such as Trump means our governing elites will also be less concerned about international reactions to human rights violations and stolen elections. The fragmentation of the global liberal order and the growing international power and prestige of illiberal states such as China as well as the preference for transactional foreign policies that elide human rights and governance concerns means brutal and corrupt regimes here have little fear of international delegitimization and ostracism.

Given all this, there is thus a pressing challenge to recreate the coalitions of both citizens and international allies necessary to hold the political class in check during the elections and to deliver real reform in the post-election phase. We also need to build new development models, ones that recognize development is about people, not economies.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Uhuru Should Stop Getting High On American Supply

Much has been made about the alleged flooding of the Kenyan coast with illegal drugs. President Uhuru Kenyatta has vowed to stop them and to prosecute all involved in the trade. But like his “war” on alcohol, his stance against illicit drugs is informed less by reasoning and evidence but rather by hysteria.

Kenya is not on the brink of a drugs epidemic. As Kalundi Serumaga puts it in an article in The Elephant’s edition on drugs, “ordinary Africans simply do not have enough numerical strength to make up the necessary aggregated monetary demand, and rich Africans are simply too few to consume the volumes necessary to make fixed supply lines to them worthwhile.”

In fact, across the world, the criminalization of drugs like heroin, cocaine and marijuana has had little to do with public health concerns. Heroin was created at the close of the 19th Century by the German company Bayer, and marketed alongside aspirin as a remedy for coughs, colds and ‘irritation’ in children. Its criminalization in the US, along with opium from which it is manufactured, grew from resentment of Chinese workers and racist hysteria over accounts of white women being lured into opium dens. Cocaine, first isolated in 1859 and marketed as remedy for toothaches in children and as an ingredient in Coca-Cola, was similarly criminalized for due to US whites’ fear of economic competition from freed slaves. The banning of marijuana was a reaction to the influx of low-wage Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, sparked in part by the Mexican revolution.

The rest of the world has blindly followed the US lead with disastrous results. Not only has the drugs war failed to stop, or even significantly slow, their production, trafficking and consumption, it has destroyed countries and communities and made some of the most unscrupulous and ruthless people on the planet fabulously wealthy and immensely powerful.

The specific aim of the war was to destroy and inhibit the international drug trade — making drugs scarcer and costlier, and thus unaffordable. That has only been partially achieved.

Prohibition has prevented some drug abuse by making forbidden substances less readily accessible and vastly more expensive than similar agricultural-based stimulants like coffee or tea but, despite this, the price of most illegal drugs has actually plummeted. The cocaine sold on the streets may be more expensive than coffee but it is much less expensive and much more potent than it was two decades ago.

A small part of this can be attributed to stagnating demand in the West. The 2016 UN World Drugs Report cautiously concluded that “the global cocaine market has … been shrinking,” and attributed this changing consumption patterns. Yet, perversely, it is on the producer and transit countries such as Kenya, that the war on drugs is focused. In fact, it amounts to a transfer of the economic, political, social and environmental costs of prohibition from rich consumer countries to them. 

To paraphrase a thought experiment related by Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo in their essay, Why Is Strict Prohibition Collapsing?: “Suppose all cocaine consumption in the US goes to Canada. Would the US authorities be willing to confront drug trafficking networks at the cost of seeing the homicide rate in cities such as Seattle go up by 3000% in order to prevent cocaine shipments from reaching Vancouver? If your answer to this question is ‘perhaps not,’ well… this is exactly what Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries have been doing over the past 20 years.”

As their coffers swell up, narco-traffickers are able to corrupt governments and law-enforcement agencies and purchase political power across the global south. In Kenya, at least two County Governors, a Senator as well as members of the National Assembly have been implicated in the drug trade. Further, drug traffickers launder approximately $100 million a year through the country’s financial system, much of which ends up in the country’s real estate, inflating prices and making decent and safe housing unaffordable for the vast majority of the urban population.

By regurgitating the tough talk from the West’s failed war on drugs, President Kenyatta is essentially selling the country down the river. He would be better advised to adopt an approach more informed by the evidence of what has happened in the last century as well as by the interests of the people of Kenya. 

A version of this article was first published in The Elephant

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Why The Doctors' Strike Is A Missed Opportunity

It is now nearly three months since Kenya’s doctors went on strike. The dispute centers on the Comprehensive Bargaining Agreement the national government and the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union signed in June 2013 and which the latter is insisting must be implemented.

The Executive has been at pains to disavow the very agreement it signed and the doctors have had to defend the legality of their strike. The quarrel has caused untold misery in hospitals and drawn in the other arms of government as well as the Central Organisation of Trade Unions and the Kenya National Human Rights Commission. However, for all the sound, fury and chest-thumping, the sick and dying in Kenyan hospitals have little explanation for their calamity. Both sides have privileged spin over substance and confusion over clarity.

The government first claimed the CBA would be too expensive to implement, then argued that the document was not a legitimate agreement anyway since it had not been registered, then that the doctors were not its employees but those of the county governments and it was only playing a “facilitation” role; and finally that the CBA was illegally signed by an illegitimate official on behalf of a Ministry that did not exist.

On its part, the KMPDU has ignored court rulings and orders regarding the legitimacy of the CBA and the legality of the strike it has called; and courted public sympathy by seeking to portray the CBA as the solution to Kenya’s health problems and themselves as warriors for the common good not just for improvements in doctors’ welfare.

These mental gymnastics merit some attention. It is not the first time the government is making offers to its workers to avert industrial action that it later claims are too expensive to implement. Far from it. In fact, it is a tactic the state has developed into something of an art. The same ruse was pulled on teachers in 1997 and again in 2015. The country’s university lecturers are today on strike claiming the government has reneged on a similar promise for a 300 per cent pay rise.

Further, it is strange, to say the least, that the government was unaware that the doctors were not its employees when it signed an agreement with them. The CBA many times refers to the Ministry of Health as the employer, not the county governments. Further, in interviews with this writer, doctors themselves have claimed that their contracts, despite the devolution of health, are still with the Public Service Commission, not with county governments, to whom they say they are seconded. That when, in January, President Uhuru Kenyatta tried his hand at brokering a deal, he left the county governments out of the talks is an indicator of the government’s attempted sleight of hand, as is the idea that it took nearly 4 years to realize the document it had signed and that has been the subject of a dispute in the courts, was fraudulent. In any case, the courts have already declared the signature on the document, if not the document itself, is valid.

Some of the claims advanced by the KMPDU are similarly disingenuous. That the legitimacy of the CBA is problematic cannot be gainsaid. The Labour Court last October ruled that it must be negotiated afresh. A judge has already declared“there is no CBA.” While one can sympathize with the doctors as victims of a government confidence trick, that still does not render it a legally enforceable document. 

If anything, by calling the strike, the KMPDU spurned an opportunity offered by the courts to apply to get the CBA registered in January if talks with government had failed to generate an agreement. In so doing, they put themselves in their current predicament, where their officials have a one-month jail sentence hanging over their heads. Further, even a cursory reading of the CBA will reveal that, contrary to the spin being put out by the union, it is primarily about enhancing the welfare of doctors, not that of their patients. In an interview with Citizen TV in December last year, Secretary General Ouma Oluga stated “categorically” that the strike was about doctors’ suffering, not that of patients.

It is of course obvious that improving the welfare and training of medics as demanded by the CBA will have beneficial effects for Kenyans in general, including in helping to stem the hemorrhage of skilled workers out of the public health system. However, the KMPDU has blown these benefits out of al proportion, with claims such as that implementation of the CBA would end shortages personnel in the hospitals. By Oluga's own numbers, the country has about 8,000 doctors and trains just 600 annually against a requirement of 83,000. That means, even if each and every doctor, including those currently in private hospitals, were employed in the public service, it would still take over a century just to cater for the needs of our current population. The CBA thus does not even begin to scratch the surface.

More than anything, the lies and distortions by both the doctors’ union and the government have denied Kenyans an opportunity to deal the failures in the health system. The problems therein stretch beyond the welfare of doctors and encompass the motives behind the decisions that policymakers in the government have taken. Only by moving beyond the empty spin and honestly addressing the real issues can Kenyans begin to craft a system that works for both our long-suffering doctors and their even more traumatized patients.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What Somalia Can Teach Kenya On Elections And Power Transitions

Incumbents losing an election and graciously conceding is not what most associate with the continent, let alone Somalia. By contrast, the Kenyan experience is rather typical. Here, no incumbent President has ever lost an election. Whether by hook but more often by crook, they manage to cling onto either the end of their terms or their lives, whichever came first.

But a graceful concession from a losing incumbent is exactly what the world witnessed in the Somali capital on Wednesday. The election of former Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo as the country’s ninth President upheld a rather curious, perhaps unique tradition: Somalia has never re-elected an incumbent as President.

It’s a tradition that goes back to the founding days of the Somalia republic. In its first election following independence and unification in 1960, the popular Aden Abdullah Osman Daar was elected President. Seven years later, he would become the first African head of state to peacefully hand over power to a democratically elected successor -his former Prime Minister, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke.

Now this week’s election in Mogadishu was not, by any stretch of the imagination, one to be emulated. Due to the ongoing terrorist insurgency perpetrated by the Al Qaeda-allied al Shabaab, universal suffrage was out of the question. Instead 135 elders picked 14,000 delegates who elected 275 MPs and 54 Senators who elected the President. The process was marred by allegations of corruption, vote buying and intimidation, which is perhaps not surprising for a country that ranks at the very bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The head of the country’s police publicly supporting the incumbent and security concerns led to both the shut down oftransportation across the Somali capital and the moving of the election to the airport, which is secured by troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia.

Much of this would be familiar to Kenyans as our own general election looms. Though not as dire as that of our neighbor, our system is not without it controversies. There are credible suspicions of attempts to steal it right from the voter registration stage, with public officials, especially chiefs, illegally co-opted into an effort to help boost registration numbers in areas perceived as supporting the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee party. Further, our global corruption ranking is not that much higher (relatively speaking) than Somalia’s and the expected deployment of thousands of police and security agents to safeguard the election speaks not just to the legitimate security concerns in the wake of our invasion of Somalia, but also to the government’s fear of its own people.

President Kenyatta has recently said he is willing to peacefully hand over power if he loses and to his credit, he has already delivered a historical first: in 2002, he became the only losing Presidential candidate from a major party in Kenya’s electoral history to deliver a concession speech. Whether he will remain true to his word remains to be seen, but, as Somalia illustrates, the fact of a chaotic and problematic electoral process need not preclude it.

Somalia also provides an object lesson in the dangers of the ethnic mobilization and military takeover of civilian affairs. Despite being one of only two largely ethnically homogenous sub-Saharan African states, fragmentation along clan affiliation is one of the main reasons the civil war has persisted for so long. Kenya itself had a taste of it in the violence that followed the disputed elections of a decade ago.

Another factor in Somalia’s disintegration was the military takeover that followed the assassination of President Sharmake in 1969. The Siad Barre dictatorship that followed set the country on the path to destruction. Kenyans should therefore be wary of occurrences that diminish civilian control over the military of give it a taste for civilian responsibilities. Thus the decision by President Kenyatta to appoint Gen Chief of Defense Forces Samson Mwathethe to chair a committee overseeing the implementation of government projects should be of concern as should the seeming inability of civilian authorities to hold the military to account following the debacles at Westgate, El Adde and most recently, Kulbiyow.

Somalis are a fiercely independent-minded lot, not as reticent in expressing their opinions as Kenyans are generally perceived to be. “Every man is his own Sultan” is how one 19th century visitor described them. Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, in 2011 recounted an incident in which a waiter publicly berates a government minister in a restaurant in Hargeisa, capital of the northern breakaway -and far more peaceful- Somaliland republic. Such a scene would be unlikely to be repeated here (except perhaps on our famously noisy online platforms). But maybe we could learn from that waiter the value of confronting, rather than accommodating, our lying and thieving politicians.