Dateline Kenya: Democracy as a Nation Breaker?
Has the West’s insistence on democracy contributed to the current turmoil in Kenya?
January 29, 2008
In 1971, I watched in admiration and astonishment as rural Kenyans waited three or four hours, in long lines and the hot sun, to vote. Even though there was only one political party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), and everyone knew that President Jomo Kenyatta was untouchable, parliament was up for grabs.
Kenyan voters threw out many incumbent scoundrels, and while many of the replacements themselves turned out to be scoundrels, it was all done in the spirit of truly free elections.
President Kenyatta forbade multi-party politics because, he claimed, that would facture the country on ethnic lines, threatening fragile nationhood. And he did not countenance any direct questioning of his personal authority. In patriarchal, top-down Kenya, nobody disrespected the "old man."
Was this "democracy"? Kenyatta called it "one-party democracy." Suppressing the impulse to get bogged down in definitions, I was very impressed by the seriousness with which ordinary citizens took the election — and with the high turnout under difficult circumstances.
At least, ordinary poor people had their day to either express approval of or reject the people who played a significant role in determining new laws and how tax money would be spent. That looked like democracy to me.
With colonial arrogance, it was the aid donors who pressed unremittingly for an end to "one-party democracy." The foreigners could have pressed for things that really matter — such as an end to the state-run agricultural marketing boards. These bodies are a key means by which farm prices are depressed — so that insiders can become rich on the backs of peasants.
Or the donors could have twisted arms to get more resources into tertiary education, which became shallower and shallower as it spread wider and wider.
The West should have been concerned with two things — economic growth and human rights. Instead, donors believed they knew how Kenya's political and economic institutions should be structured.
Under presidents Kenyatta and Moi, Kenya did not have first-rank human rights problems. Unfortunately, the economy barely grew fast enough to feed its rapidly growing population. Kenya needed to build a stable society and to undertake measures to accelerate economic growth. What's two-party democracy got to do with it?
Today, we Westerners are reaping what we sowed. The tragedy of Kenya's disintegration into ethnic battles is the fruit of policy to force upon the country our vision of democracy.
The very country of Kenya is a construct of arbitrary decisions taken in Berlin, London and other remote places. It brings together people with language, customs and ethnic pride no more similar than those of the Mongolians and the French.
Its borders run through the middle of communities and were set down in accordance with the vagaries of history, European wars and topographical convenience.
And given such trivial pursuits, we Westerners really presume to know that one-size-fits-all democracy is what this still-new country needs?
To be sure, the tragedy of Kikuyus fleeing Western Kenya, while Luos are murdered in the Rift Valley, is not entirely the result of failed western policy to promote democracy. The candidates for president have behaved disgracefully themselves, putting personal ambition above the preservation of the nation.
But we should have known that the fragile construct called Kenya always has been a tinderbox of ethnic misunderstanding. We should have known that incumbent heads of state outside a few countries — India is notable among developing countries — do not allow themselves to be humiliated by being voted out of office.
Before the recent election, Kenya was on the verge of becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to entertain the realistic hope of becoming an economic tiger. The continuing ethnic disintegration is cutting this off at the knees.
From this tragedy, we can hope that western policy will change from promoting abstractions, such as our vision of democracy, to promoting stable and growing economies where everyone can live without terror.
The West should have been concerned with two things — economic growth and human rights.
Instead, donors operated on the premise that they knew in detail how Kenya's political and economic institutions should be structured.
Today, we Westerners are reaping what we sowed. Kenya's disintegration into ethnic battles is the fruit of policy to force upon the country our vision of democracy.
President Kenyatta forbade multi-party politics because, he claimed, that would facture the country on ethnic lines, threatening fragile nationhood.