A key component of democratic politics is the ability for a singular person to convince others they can speak for the populace. However, there are moments when this relationship inverts and the politician creates national character instead of being its vessel. A study of Kenya’s representational politics, and the ubiquitous influence individual persons have within the country, shows why such an inversion threatens a democracy’s stability. It increases polarization, transfers power from voters to elites, and places countries in a position of precarious dependence.
In 1963 Kenya declared its independence from Britain. Multitudes of people worked to make that moment a reality, with two men, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, leading the charge. Kenyatta, a freedom fighter and embodiment of African nationalism, spent the last 10 years of Kenya’s colonial rule in prison. Odinga negotiated terms of independence with the British government, including advocating for Kenyatta’s freedom. Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s involvement in the independence movement made them figures of unique import within Kenya. They stood as symbols of success and promise in a country trying to recover from the wounds of colonialism. Thus, when the first independent government convened, with Kenyatta serving as president and Odinga serving as vice president, it represented an important moment for a country where these two men inspire uniquely emotional reactions. The momentous occasion did not remain solely revelatory for long.
Divisions between the two men quickly appeared. Kenyatta pursued policies that largely consolidated Kenya’s wealth and land among elites while Odinga advocated for distributional policies. A series of intersectional factors including Kenya’s complex ethnic composition, the influence of western capitalism, the legacy of colonial rule, and the intensity of societal inequality exacerbated these tensions. Pressure rose until Odinga established his own political party in 1966. Such stories of initial harmony followed by acrimonious tumult are not novel within politics. What is unique about Kenya’s political history is how personal competition morphed into an intergenerational fight. What arose from the rivalry were elections that at times felt more like dynastic successions than democratic elections of independent candidates. Today Kenya is led by Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the country’s original president. The younger Kenyatta took office after campaigning against Raila Odinga, the son of Kenya’s first vice president, in a violent and contentious election. Democracy in Kenya is inextricably linked to these two families and what they came to represent.
A politician who runs on the power of who they are – what they represent and how that representation personally relates to a prospective supporter – connects to an emotional aspect of the voting population. Such candidacies don’t inspire debates about policy. Instead, they incite questions about who one intrinsically is, and if that identity is represented in their government. Raising the stakes of an election to such intense heights makes it difficult for voters to find common ground with those who support different candidates. Candidates with the last name Kenyatta or Odinga come with a tacit understanding of who they are because of the long familial history. Thus they can utilize these preconceived expectations and run campaigns based on identity.
When a country’s politics revolve around an axis of personal charisma and authority, as it does in Kenya, one can expect an increase in polarization. In their paper “Polarization and The Global Crisis of Democracy”, Jennifer McCoy, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer establish a set of causal mechanisms linking polarization to democratic instability and erosion. In Kenya, we see the deleterious effects of polarization. The path to Kenyan polarization might have started with a long series of political battles which drove the elder Kenyatta and Odinga apart while transforming each man into a distilled embodiment of disparate representations of Kenya. Each man had a vested interest in stoking the rhetoric that highlighted their differences. On a base level, it fed images of self importance and notions of unique ability. From an electoral perspective, the divisive rhetoric energized the voting populace which allowed each man to maintain political power. Thus, the two families contributed to forces that cleaved the country in two. They each represented a version of Kenyan identity, it was beneficial to bolster that identity, voters were energized by the high stakes of identity politics, the electorate became polarized, and polarization eroded Kenyan democracy.
The negative effects of polarization are not just theoretical, but have drastic consequences. Violence plagued the last decade of Kenyan elections. Oftentimes, the violent acts were enacted in the name of supporting one party or controlling another. In the election season of 2007 and 2008 over 1,200 people were killed and over 500,000 were displaced. In an effort to avoid a repetition of such tragedies Kenya’s constitution was amended in 2010. The reforms surprised many with their robustness, but when put to the test in the 2013 and 2017 election cycles, they lacked efficacy.
In their study of Kenya’s elections Karuti Kanyinga, Gabrielle Lynch, and Nic Cheeseman argue that this breakdown shows the 2010 constitutional amendments failed to ameliorate Kenya’s political woes. They write, “Instead, the 2017 elections in Kenya serve as an important reminder of how formal institutions alone cannot change political dynamics.” In this case, the political dynamics of Kenya are bound to the Kenyatta and Odinga families. Their interactions, both with each other and other elites, control politics much more thoroughly than any formal mechanism found in the courts, legislator, or constitution. This dynamic strips power away from the voters and leaves it in the hands of an elite strata of actors, thus eroding Kenyan democracy. John Githongo, chair of a civil society organization called AFRICO, spoke with The Atlantic about Kenya’s troubled electoral environment saying,“Everything that has happened demonstrates the extent to which we have a ruling elite in Kenya that is determined to continue living as if we have never passed a new Constitution.” The stranglehold individuals have over Kenyan politics allows them to ignore the will of the voters they radicalize and exploit, and instead operate solely within an elite strata. A democratic system that allows for leaders to disregard large swaths of the populace portends a weakening within that democracy itself.
Thorough consolidation of power among individuals leaves countries in a precarious position should those individuals leave the political sphere. In Kenya, despite the violence of recent elections, the broad political climate has remained relatively steady since independence due to the constant presence of an elite ruling class. Should that class, especially the Kenyatta and Odinga families, actually be removed from politics, the future of Kenyan democracy becomes even more uncertain. A potential power vacuum leaves space for further violence and the degradation of democracy.
The stranglehold the politics of personal authority hold over Kenyan democracy threatens its durability. Kenya serves as a warning case for other democracies about the dangers of individual monopoly of democratic politics. How Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga continue to involve themselves, or remove themselves, from Kenyan politics in the coming years will have long lasting implications for the future of Kenya’s democracy.
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