Of Kenya’s democratic progress

Mr Michael Buteera Mugisha

What you need to know:

...whereas CSOs exist in Uganda, their influence on politics has been weakened

In a recent article  authored by Daniel  K. Kalinaki, “Why many Ugandans are looking at Kenya and saying, dear Lord, when!?” Why many Ugandans are looking at Kenya and saying, dear Lord, when!?, the author unequivocally suggests that Kenya’s proverbial Crossing of the Red  Sea of her democracy is explained by three main reasons: a vibrant and organised civil society, the 2010 Constitution that introduced and entrenched unshakable constraints on the power of the president, and a decentralisation process that, despite increasing corruption, has expanded regional access to the national budget, and thus diffusing a ‘winner-takes-it-all national contests’ that tended to fuel and exacerbate political rancor and violence.

But Mr Kalinaki’s observations, while intuitive and not completely off the mark, offer limited lessons for countries such as Uganda, that are still languishing in the Egypt of political chaos and problematic transition of power. The article is specifically fraught with two major accounts: First, it reduces the definition of democracy to elections, specifically those that facilitate a peaceful transition of power from one leader to another, a mistake common among contemporary analysts of democracy.

 We, however, need to broaden the understanding of democracy if we are to have a fruitful analytical discussion of why and how some countries manage to make progress on this front while others fail.

In his seminal book Democracy, Charles Tilly defines democracy as the extent to which political relations between citizens and state actors reflect popular influence on public politics, resulting in greater public political control on the actions of state actors.

This consequently results, Tilly underlines, to citizens collectively expressed demands being broader, equal, protected and mutually binding consultations. Therefore, from Tilly’s lens, Kalinaki is perhaps correct in assuming that successfully holding peaceful elections is a sign of democracy, but this is only part of the story.

The other part depends on whether citizens have clear mechanisms to hold those elected to account so that public policy does not end with electing leaders.

Thus, broadening the definition allows the analyst to ask why and how has Kenya managed to transition from a narrow, less equal, unprotected and less mutually binding consultations, or in Kalinaki’s characterisation from the “rapacious” political system under Kenyatta, or “brutal and narcissistic” reign of Moi to currently much more promisingly broader, equal, protected and mutually binding consultations?

But broadening the definition of democracy also allows us to analyse why countries like Uganda have regressed. The latter of course depends on whether the reader thinks that Uganda of the 1980s to mid-1990s was certainly much more democratic than its contemporary state. If so, then why has it been de-democratised, to borrow Tilly’s term.

The explanatory factors pointed out by Kalinaki offer limited analytical power, in large part because Uganda was once the quintessence on all these variables and indeed can be found in other countries. Yet they have not safeguarded these countries’ democracy. So, what then explains Kenya’s progress?

Tilly offers three powerful variables: contingent integration of trust networks into public politics, insulation of categorical inequalities from public politics, which tend to weaken broader citizen collective political engagement and finally foreclosing autonomous centres of power within and outside the state.

For the case of Kenya, the fact that the military has been less involved in public politics partly explains why its civil society has been able to expand, as trust networks have increasingly been integrated into public politics. By contrast, one can claim that whereas civil society exists in Uganda, its influence on public politics has been weakened by the reigning threat of the military.

Michael Mugisha is a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics and a Lecturer at Makerere University.

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