Kenya’s progressive march to democracy must be protected at all costs

By Demas Kiprono,

Kenya’s journey to becoming a properly democratic society has been a mixed bag of fortunes from when Africans began advocating for the right to vote during colonial times to the struggle for independence, post-independence and the new Constitution.

Many observers consider Kenya’s democracy more mature than others in Africa, perhaps because of the peaceful transfer of power and the relative robustness of our institutions. However, even though Kenya officially became a one-party state in June 1982 through a constitutional amendment, Kenya became a one-party state when independence Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union (KPU) was banned in October 1969.

Moreover, other things such as regional governments and the upper house of Parliament (Senate) brought back by the Constitution in 2010 were also reintroductions of devolution and regional representation that were removed soon after independence. It shows that the struggle for rights and representation is a never-ending process that requires eternal vigilance.

The 2010 Constitution was a culmination of a struggle for change in terms of representation, distribution of resources, protection of minorities, separation of powers, capping presidential powers and the installing the rule of law that began in the late 1980s and progressed with the return to multiparty democracy in 1991 and the political reforms of 1997. A big win for our democracy was the peaceful transfer of power in 2002, which marked a very optimistic period in Kenya’s history.

However, it quickly dimmed when old debates and rivalries around the executive’s structure and power and resource distribution and perceived historical grievances culminated in the contested 2007 election and the post-election violence that followed.

For the past three decades, elections have been times when peace, security and stability are threatened. Before the 2007 violence, 1992 and 1997 elections featured politically instigated violence that often took advantage of ethnic allegiances and historical grievances such as land.

Since 2010, the violence surrounding elections has been in the form of protests about perceived electoral injustice and resulting unlawful use of force by police leading to deaths and destruction. In addition, Kenyan economic growth suffered before and after the elections because of the protests, violence and unease among the business community. Observers hope that the 2022 cycle will be peaceful because it is not ethnic-based. However, how the exercise is conducted is a significant factor in how things will go.

The 2017 Supreme Court invalidation of the election results was another landmark that signaled the progressive maturing of Kenya’s democracy, including the competence and independence of institutions such as the Judiciary. The Judiciary raised the bar regarding the standards that must be followed for elections to be considered free and fair, despite many foreign observers giving the elections a clean bill of health. It meant that Kenyans demanded more of the elections body.

Since 2010, the Judiciary has been the place Kenyans run to when the state or others threaten their fundamental rights. The courts have tried their best to breathe life into the Constitution, especially the supremacy of the people of Kenya and the need to follow laid down processes.

However, the Constitution’s novel structures, offices, officers, and institutions that were designed to bring about change, especially capping presidential and executive powers, have all been under attack from those minded to keep the old order. The attacks have been through insufficient funding, smear campaigns and attempted amendments to cap their powers.

As we advance, we must continue to demand better from our institutions to ensure they perform their mandates in our democracy. After all, they draw their power from us, the sovereign people.

First published on Friday Standard 22nd July. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard.

Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and writes in his own personal capacity. His email is [email protected]