- Kenya’s Quest For Democracy: Taming Leviathan
Despite the strides it has made in expanding political space, Kenya continues to have a highly repressive colonial constitution. Makau Mutua’s thoughtful book shows clearly how critical further democratization of state–society [End Page 181] relations is in Kenya, and why that process is such a Herculean task, full of challenges and pitfalls. Mutua takes us systematically through the excruciating twists and turns of the struggle to transform Kenya’s constitution and devolve power to citizens. He demonstrates the tragic pattern of lost opportunities for peaceful change and the ability of Kenya’s problematic political class to promote narrow interests at the expense of the interests of the nation and common people.
With the enormous, opaque power of the presidency, the fight for this office is a high stakes game that almost plunged the country into a full-fledged civil war during the last election and may yet do so in 2012. Mutua argues that “dictatorship by a callous executive spawned mass atrocities, corruption, economic deprivation, and denial of basic rights across the board” ( 264). However, he also suggests that the failure to transform this configuration is linked to a moral failure of some of the leadership “who lack the cultural tools and the requisite normative political behavior to translate an intellectual consensus [around political democracy] into the practice of politics” (262). The impunity allowed by unaccountable central power and often corrupted courts of law has spawned a deeply problematic political culture that Kenyans must fight and transform.
Fortunately, Kenya has a wealth of talented people of integrity, like Makau Mutua himself, a distinguished professor at the State University of New York, the founder of an important civil society organization called the Kenya Human Rights Commission, and a strategic and influential actor in the politics of change. Kenya’s Quest for Democracy is thus one of those all-too-rare books that is full of insightful analysis by a key player with a privileged vantage point on the struggle for a democratic constitution.
However, precisely because of Mutua’s insider’s view, I would have liked a more extended reflection on the lack of focus and autonomy in Kenya’s civil society, which will need to play a key role in galvanizing citizens and generating pressures for change. As this last election made clear, civil society— even the well-known religious organizations—failed to constrain political society. It was fragmented and weak; it played partisan politics and lost moral authority. These features allowed both government and opposition reactionaries to commit atrocities and spew out unprecedented amounts of hate speech that nearly destroyed Kenya.
Finally, the lawyerly focus on formal negotiations over the constitution detracts from the possibility of a deeper analysis of disturbing patterns in Kenya’s informal politics, “behind the scenes.” What, for example, are the implications of the trend since the 1990s toward the use of militias, violence, and ethnic ideology to win elections? Although illegal under the current Kenyan constitution, such militia groups, carrying out their campaigns of violence, are becoming more pervasive as politicians bargain for power within a multiparty context. The more politicians get involved in these disturbing activities, the more likely they are to collude across political divides to avoid constitutional changes and public discussion [End Page 182] that might allow for more accountability. Then, the democratic space that Kenyans like Mutua worked so hard to open may contract yet again. We are already seeing signs of this in the plethora of recent arrests of citizens who speak out against corruption, police brutality, and torture. How can this be stopped? The culture of impunity must be punctured. Kenya’s civil society actors also need to reconcile, unite, and heed Mutua’s call for a new social movement that trumps ethnic divisions—focusing not only on a new constitution for all but also on an agenda of economic empowerment for Kenya’s poor majority.