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

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The recent indictment of leading and powerful Kenyan politicians by the International Criminal Court (ICC) presents as a serious dilemma. By all conventional accounts, Kenya is one of the most successful democracies in Africa. It has a free press. It has a multiparty political system. It has seen change of government from one president to another; and from a ruling party to an opposition party in 2002. Its leaders are elected through competitive elections.

In January 2008, there was widespread violence in the country resulting from a disputed election. Thousands died. Powerful politicians have been named as masterminds. There have been domestic and international pressures on the Kenyan government to bring them to justice. But the government, itself a coalition of all the key political players in the country, has been reluctant to do so hence the intervention of the ICC. Opinion polls suggest that 85 percent of Kenyans support this move.

I have talked to many Kenyans who support the ICC indictments, arguing that this impunity should not be tolerated. I respect the motivations behind this particular reasoning. I also feel the emotions of those who lost loved ones; having to suffer the pain of seeing the perpetrators of this injustice walking scot free. All this shows the major limitation of most discourse on democracy in Africa; the tendency to reduce it to a few rituals while ignoring its substance. In this case, we see a divergence of interest between the popular will of the people of Kenya and the interests of elected leaders.

Yet given a choice between the limitations of Kenya’s democracy and the human rights fundamentalism that drives the ICC, I choose the former. For whatever the constraints on the ability of Kenya’s democracy to reflect the will of the ordinary person, its politicians are connected to the electorate and can be punished in elections for their actions. If their decisions cause a disastrous political outcome, they will suffer the consequences; they bear responsibility for their mistakes.

On the other hand, the ICC is led by international bureaucrats armed with an abstract notion of justice that has little reference to the Kenyan context. If their blind pursuit of justice undermines political stability in that country, they do not suffer the consequences of their actions or be held accountable for their actions. Theirs is power without responsibility; for Kenyans, misrule without redress.

The ICC indictments are yet another step in the increasing efforts of the “international community” (actually read the West) to regain control of African affairs lost through decolonisation half a century ago. The accused politicians may be guilty. However, who really should have the final say on justice in Kenya: the elected leaders of that country or some remote and non-elected bureaucrats in an international institution far removed from the day-to-day challenges of the country.

A blanket attempt to impose abstract notions of democracy, justice, human rights, free markets etc on societies without reference to context undermines stability of our nations. For example, you cannot plan markets; they emerge spontaneously from people’s desire to trade. Bill Easterly’s comment that “free markets work, free market reforms don’t” captures it best. You can create conditions that favour the growth of free markets, but you cannot impose a free market system on a society.

Justice, democracy and respect for human rights grow out of a people’s political struggles for their own emancipation. They cannot be a political imposition from the international community. A significant cause of Africa’s continuing crisis has grown from this attempt to impose textbook solutions on our countries.

Efforts by the “international community” to wrestle control of key decision-making power from African decision makers to international institutions are counterproductive. For example, there is a belief that multiparty politics and competitive elections are the solution to every political problem regardless of context. This is the solution that was imposed on the Ivory Coast and the results are already beginning to show. The “solution” is now threatening to lead to the dismemberment of the country.

Like old fashioned colonialism before it, the new struggle to take away our right to self determination is couched in the language of “humanitarianism.” The imperial powers that colonised Africa in the 19th century claimed they were doing so for our own good – to liberate us from slavery, slave trade, the tyranny of our customs and the despotism of our chiefs; they were intervening to protect us. That is how Uganda became “a protectorate”.

After a few decades of retreat, this attempt to regain control over how we manage ourselves has regained currency. Today, we are being presented as hapless victims of our rulers. The defence of our human rights is not a product of our own political struggles to liberate ourselves from domestic tyranny. It is a product of an international obligation “to protect” us. We are not active agents in our own emancipation. We are passive recipients of international charity.

Thus, every aspect our social life is being shaped by those who say they care deeply about us – more than we care for ourselves. Reporters Without Borders is the agency that fights for our freedom of the press. IMF and World Bank fight for us to have free markets. ICC renders to us justice against our elected leaders and war lords. Human Rights Watch defends our human rights. World Food Programme feeds us. The UN gives us peace keepers. Red Cross treats our sick. French or British troops defend our sovereignty. The EU monitors our elections.

The subjective motivations of those who seek to be our saviours may be noble. But the objective outcome of this blind pursuit of ideals without regard to our context is likely to cause more problems than it purports to solve. In any case, behind this humanitarianism lies other sinister interests whose motives are not noble. Our founding fathers did not sacrifice so much for independence to see it just taken away in the name of a self righteous international obligation to protect us. It is my prayer that the African Union stands united in opposition to attempts to subject our political problems to bureaucratic solutions through institutions over which we have no say.


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