Kenya’s electoral authoritarianism

Willy Mutunga
Former Chief Justice of Kenya

Three decades after Kenyans took to the streets demanding political and constitutional reforms during the first Saba Saba day protest on July 7, 1990 (the leaders were detained and brutalized, but it is credited for ushering in multiparty democracy there), the conditions that prompted this dissent to remain. In this article, the former Chief Justice of Kenya, Willy Mutunga, arrested in an earlier crackdown by Moi’s regime and which led to his exile and then return Kenya after Saba Saba, reflects on this and tackles the following question: “Why after three major successful transitions over three decades—multipartyism, a power transition in 2002, and a new constitution in 2020—are we still being frustrated by our politics and economics?

Three decades ago, driven by a quest to reclaim their sovereignty and recalibrate the power relations between the state and society, the people of this country went to the streets to push for political and constitutional reforms, a major inflection point in the history of our nation. Through a protracted, peaceful struggle by Kenyans in the country and in the diaspora, the country finally transitioned into a multi-party democracy.

The struggle is not over; Kenya’s politics have taken a backward trajectory, moving towards dictatorship in the midst of an intra-elite succession struggle that could descend into violent conflict, chaos, and even civil war.

Kenya is a fake democracy where elections do not matter because the infrastructure of elections has been captured by the elites. There is a danger of normalizing electoral authoritarianism, where the vote neither counts nor gets counted. The judiciary is under constant attack and disparagement by the executive while parliament is contorted into a body increasingly unable to represent Kenyans and provide oversight over the executive’s actions. The security services are unleashed on the poor and the dispossessed as if they are not citizens but enemies to be hunted down and destroyed.

A range of constitutional commissions are in a state of contrived dysfunction while our media business model is failing, accelerated by political interference. Grand corruption—perpetrated by a handful of families and by the elites collectively—has been normalized and the fight against corruption has been politicized. In the creeping descent into dictatorship, civilian public services have been militarized and the 2010 Constitution that was in many ways a culmination of the struggle that started on July 7, 1990 when the late Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia called for a meeting at the Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi, is being deliberately undermined.

We have a duty and a responsibility to defend Kenya’s constitution; to resist efforts to undermine devolution in particular; to resist those determined to continue looting an economy already on its knees; to stand up against efforts to brutalize, dehumanize, and rent asunder the essential human dignity of Kenyans as a people.

Three decades is a generation. The generation that voted for the first time in 1992 is a venerated demographic that is 48 years old today. It is the generation of freedom (the South African equivalent of the “born-frees”), and a significant part of the cohort that participated in the struggle as teens or young adults. It is the generation that bore the brunt of the struggle for freedom but which has been denied the opportunity for real political leadership. That part of its membership that has had access to state power is drawn from the reactionary wing of the group—the scions of the decadent YK’92 and drivers of the “NO” campaign against a new constitution.

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