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From an imperial presidency to the will of the people: Kenya’s new dawn

Kenya has been spared from sliding into more crises. Yesterday, its Parliament unanimously passed into law two crucial Bills that seek to operationalise the power-sharing deal between the ODM and PNU.

This was a historic moment for Kenyans as they watched the live parliamentary session, which was attended by both Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. The two Bills created the post of the prime minister and his deputies, and entrenched into the Constitution the accord signed by Kibaki and Odinga back in February. Although this is a milestone and a new dawn in the Kenyan political landscape, challenges still abound.

This week I hoped that I would continue writing on issues of masculinity, gender and the postmodern deconstruction of parenthood, following last week’s piece on absent fathers. But given the fact that I am in Nairobi, I decided to make use of my stay here and write something about the political developments.

I must confess upfront that this is not a scientific analysis of the situation in Kenya. These are just my observations. Kenya, as I discovered, is a difficult terrain to analyse. I am even wondering if Kenyans themselves can analyse their situation objectively at the moment, given the sensitivities and biases involved. I sense much polarisation along ethnic lines, be it from academia, the media, laypersons or politicians — and the list just goes on.

I immersed myself into this divide as soon as I got here. The first person I talked to was a taxi driver from one of the minority tribes. He narrated to me how the Kikuyu have been advantaged. Then I spoke to yet another taxi driver; this time, a Kikuyu man. He told me how hard-working the Kikuyu people are and how lazy the other tribes are. His analysis of the post-election violence — especially against the Kikuyu — was that it was motivated by jealousy. It seemed to me that everyone I talked to analysed the situation from their ethnic prism.

My anxiety to know what was happening slowed down. I wondered if any of the people talking to me were objective. Nevertheless I continued my discussions with various people, especially around the question of power-sharing. There was a heated debate regarding the legality of the deal. Many were sceptical about the proposed amendments to the Constitution.

As interesting as these debates were, I was fascinated by what the common men and women thought about their situation and the political deal. To help me appreciate the complexity of the situation, I made trips to Kibera and Mathare slums. I talked to taxi drivers and many security guards. I also visited internally displaced camps. I must say, even in the slums and internally displaced camps the political divide is very much alive, even as political leaders seek to return the country to normalcy. I have no doubt that one of the main challenges facing Kenya is the demon of negative ethnicity.

What is evidently clear is that the common men and women on the ground are worried about bread-and-butter issues. They want their leaders to address inequality, cut down rising prices and attend to the question of unequal distribution of resources, land and jobs. They want the government to write a new constitution that will build and strengthen pillars of democracy. They want their leaders to heal the nation.

Many of them think that the power deal will benefit the leaders only and that very little will trickle down to the ground, especially to people living in slums. One taxi driver said that the people are waiting to see if this deal is just about positions in the government; if it is, people will go back to the streets. I was shocked to hear him say: “People are ready to kill again or be killed … you take away one’s hope, there is nothing to live for.”

Meanwhile, there is much jostling among the political elite for positions. This feeds into the arguments that politicians are naturally greedy people who will do anything to get to power. It would be a big mistake if Kenyan politicians failed to rise above individual interests at this point in their history.

This takes me back to the two Bills that came into being as a result of the power-sharing deal brokered by Kofi Annan. They are the Constitutional Amendment Bill and the National Accord and Reconciliation Bill.

There was much talk about the implications of the Bills before Parliament met to scrutinise them. One writer argued that if the National Accord and Reconciliation Bill was passed first, the ODM might be the loser. He argued that Kibaki and the PNU could easily renege as this would not be entrenched in the Constitution. Further, PNU MPs could just walk out and not vote, and the ODM would fail to get a two-thirds majority.

On the other hand, if the Constitution was amended first, the PNU would be the greatest loser, especially if the numbers were used as a variable. The PNU could in the future lose the presidency and the premier. The ODM has higher numbers than the PNU: it has 90 MPs while the PNU has 45.

However, as I write this piece, Parliament had just passed the two Bills and President Kibaki has already signed the Constitutional Amendment Bill into an Act. He is expected to do the same soon with the second Bill. Interesting was the fact that both Odinga and Kibaki attended the parliamentary session as members of their constituencies. Also for the first time, the parliamentary session was broadcast live on national television. This was indeed historic for the nation of Kenya. The mood in the House was that of a nation in search of answers, and all members urged everyone to rise above themselves and serve the nation.

This is a crucial moment for Kenya. It is an opportunity to address some of the contentious issues that the political elite have avoided for many years.

Firstly, the passing of the two Bills is a shift from a presidential system to a parliamentary democracy. Hopefully this will translate into popular will and rule by the people. The current imperial system is often accused of centralisation, exclusion and authoritarian tendencies. This is therefore an opportunity for Kenya to change. It is a window for equality and equity. It is an opportunity to write a new constitution and address imbalances of the past — chief among these are land reform and youth unemployment. More significantly, this is an opportunity to deal with tribal and ethnic tensions.

Secondly, the passing of the Bills also marks the first step towards substantive developmental objectives. The Bills should be seen as a means to an end. More still needs to be done. For example, more than 350 000 people are reported to have been displaced and more than 1 200 were killed. Resettling internally displaced people will be very difficult, but it must be done. No country can allow its citizens to live in camps.

MPs will have to confront their constituencies, provide leadership and even confess their roles in the violence that led to the current situation. This will be the difficult part compared with the fast-tracking of the two Bills.

One of the things that I find intriguing and very hard to understand is that Odinga has been an MP for Lang’ata (where the Kibera slums are situated) since 1992. It boggles my mind why there does not seem to have been any development in the area. When I asked his supporters in the slums, they argued that he was never given the chance to improve their conditions. They blamed the government for blocking his efforts.

Whether this is true is immaterial given Odinga’s influence not just in Kenya, but also internationally. His supporters, though, say they are watching the political space and are convinced that he will address their situation. I hope so. This is going to be an uphill task. What will be done for the more than one million people in the Kibera slums?

Thirdly, the fast-tracking of the Bills is a test for the leaders to walk the talk. Kibaki said something very interesting during the vote — most of the people in the House have been MPs for more than 10 years and they have been calling for a new constitution. The question is: Why haven’t these members written a new constitution?

This is a critical question, for it smacks of resistance to change and an unwillingness to walk the talk. A comprehensive review of the Constitution will obviously not just target the executive as the two Bills have now done, but such a review would transform the status quo. That means many individual interests will be affected and, as in many countries, this would affect many of the political elite.

It may therefore be the case that a review has not been conducted for it would affect the very people calling for it. Let us hope that now politicians mean what their say. If they don’t, I am afraid the taxi driver’s threat might be proven right and the country will again be plunged into crisis. One of the criminal acts in Kenya is that there are many graduates who are not employed. My taxi driver studied psychology at Moi University. A country with so many unemployed educated youths is a recipe for implosion.

Kenya has been given another chance. It must not squander it.

Next we go to Zimbabwe: the opposition there is not hoping for a grand coalition, I hope.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.