About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic



Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Kenya, Rwanda elections

Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) officials make a sweep of electoral material August 7, 2017 at a holding centre in Kagio before their distribution to the polling stations a day before the Kenya general election.
KENYA, RWANDA: How voting in these two East African nations reflects our understanding of democracy

East Africa has recently witnessed two presidential elections – in Rwanda and in Kenya. The two nations are different. Rwanda is a small country with one ethnic group which shares a common language, culture, and a history of nationhood and statehood for the last 550 years. Kenya, on the other hand, is a recent creation of the British; a hotchpotch of tens of ethnic groups that had never formed one unified nation and state. Rwanda has been through military coups, civil war, and genocide. Kenya has been stable.

In Rwanda, the campaign pitted incumbent president Paul Kagame against Western human rights groups and interests seeking to take control of the destiny of the country. This eclipsed any domestic differences that may have existed and caused masses of Rwandans to rally as one nation. The history of genocide combined with a common sense of identity shaped the vote.

In Kenya, the election was hotly contested between the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his rival, Raila Odinga. The leaders on both sides of the Kenyan political divide share a common historic background (as sons of the founding fathers), and a common economic position (they are all wealthy). So they have a common interest to protect their aristocratic political positions and public policies and political institutions that undergird their wealth. What divides them is power i.e. who should control the state. Unable to differentiate themselves around economic interests, Kenyan elites rely on ethnic identity.

There are two main ways to understand democracy. One is by looking at the source of power (i.e. popular consent) and the purpose to which power is put (service to the people). This definition fits Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy as “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” It is an idealistic view that holds that real democracy should have popular control over public policy combined with a responsible government that serves the interests of the general public rather than a few elites; and one that upholds civic virtues such as honesty.

Kagame acknowledges the mass crowds celebrating his victory.. PHOTO flickr/paulkagame
However, in 1942 the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, introduced a counter argument in his book `Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’. He argued that the essence of democracy is not the source of power or the purpose of power but rather the procedures used to gain and retain power. This was popularised by Robert Dahl and has since become a global consensus. For Dahl, democracy consists of two elements – participation and contestation. In this context, a country is democratic if its leaders are selected through free, fair, and regular elections and its citizens are free to join associations of their choice, express themselves freely, and vote without coercion.

Thus, governments produced through adherence to such procedures may be incompetent, corrupt, wasteful, dishonest, short-sighted, irresponsible, and even serve the interests of a few at the expense of the many. These weaknesses may make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. Rwanda’s system reflects the first understanding of democracy; Kenya’s the second. Rwandans get puzzled when foreigners, especially from the West, hail corrupt governments that serve narrow elite interests as democratic and castigate their government which serves the common good. President Kagame personally finds it difficult to agree that form (adherence to rituals and procedures) should be more important than the substance of democracy (popular control of government and service to the people).


Given her history and context, Rwanda cannot afford a democracy where citizens are free to organise around identity and freely and openly articulate ethnic differences to rally political support. The 1994 genocide was incubated and finally executed precisely because of unrestrained freedom to organise around identity and hate speech. To guard against this danger, Rwandans have designed a constitutional framework that promotes popular participation while putting in place mechanisms that reduce the incentives for adversarial political contestation. This has been achieved through a power sharing arrangement where no political party, regardless of its numerical strength, can take more than 50% of cabinet. The result has been more participation, less contestation. But equally it has led to a government that serves the people.

Given its social and political configurations, Kenya cannot afford a government that is honest and serves the citizens equitably. To win elections, Kenyan presidential candidates must build an electoral coalition. Because of the ethnic diversity of the country, such a coalition is built by co-opting powerful pillars of opinion from the different ethnic communities. These pillars may be traditional or religious leaders, respected professionals, articulate youths or successful businesspersons or a combination of all the above who command the respect of the community. These are the personages who rally the vote.

These people need to retain their pre-eminence in their communities. For example, they must get jobs in government for their people, thereby undermining meritocratic recruitment. They must allocate government tenders selectively to companies owned by kinsmen and women; so competitive bidding cannot work well. And they must command money to pay for personal expenses of their followers. Because they cannot raise this money from their official incomes, they must have unofficial opportunities to get it through corruption. The very design of their democracy means that Kenyans can only get a government by official loot.


Now, research shows that most people do not vote on the basis of the public policy promises by politicians. Voting is an expression of their identity. Thus, voters don’t ask: what is in it for me? Instead they ask: what is in it for my group? Therefore, it makes sense to pitch one’s candidature on identity than policy. We saw this in the way the Kikuyu and Kelenjin voted Jubilee by over 90% in the 2013 elections in Kenya because they saw an external enemy in ICC that sought to jail their two prominent sons.

Finally, poor countries lack the human and financial resources to govern by delivering a large basket of public goods and services. Even if they could, politicians are power maximising entrepreneurs. It costs a lot of money, effort, and discipline to promote public policies and build political institutions to deliver public goods and services equitably to all citizens. If a politician can win the support of a given community by appointing a few of its influential personages to powerful positions in government, that is a much more cost-efficient and cost-effective strategy. Kenya’s democracy fits it well because it serves the interests of its ethnic diversity. Rwandan democracy, meanwhile, succeeds by imposing a high penalty on politics of ethnicity.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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