Kenyan political leadership: the more things change...

2015-03-24

The Kenyan constitution of 2010 proposed to revolutionise the way in which the country’s political leadership interacts and functions by devolving power to county governments.

This was aimed at promoting a more participatory, interactive and inclusive system of governance. Political leadership was to play a vital role in sustaining this new system, as outlined in the chapter on leadership and integrity.

The guiding principles here include selfless service based on the public interest; honesty in the execution of public duties; accountability to the public for decisions and actions; and discipline and commitment in service to the people.

What Kenyans are witnessing today, however, contradicts this vision of a better-governed country. Some political leaders have rather focused on ensuring impunity for their corrupt activities, in many instances by hiding behind their political parties and ethnicity.

The post-2010 political leadership has been unable to adapt to the devolved system of governance, which calls for transparency and accountability. Instead, leaders continue to engage in a way that is combative and confrontational, punctuated with negative political posturing.

The political leadership has restricted accountability and entrenched impunity within the public sector

This has created an ‘us-versus-them’ situation between different parties and leaders, with those seen to be close to members of the other political side labelled as traitors. The situation continues to worsen. Political parties and coalitions threaten members with party disciplinary action and expulsion for their working relationships with those perceived to be ‘enemies’ – including the government, in the case of the opposition.

This continued form of abrasive political engagement shows that the country’s leadership has neither been dynamic nor innovative enough to measure up to the new political systems.

This has led to high levels of intolerance, which can be witnessed even at grass-roots level. On 14 September 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta was heckled by rowdy youths in Migori County – a stronghold of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD).

A similar scenario occurred during the funeral of Fidel Odinga, son of the CORD leader, Raila Odinga, when individuals sympathetic to the ruling Jubilee Alliance were heckled while addressing the mourners. County governors from both sides of the political divide have been subjected to this trend. CORD governors Alfred Mutua and Evans Kidero Machakos, and Nairobi governors, have been taunted, accused of being Jubilee moles and threatened with party disciplinary action for their relationship with the government. Jubilee-affiliated governors were likewise also asked to quit and were called traitors due to their Pesa Mashinani referendum initiatives.

Political leadership ought to transcend the social, economic and political divides of society

This leadership crisis should be viewed against the backdrop of the hotly contested 2013 general election, as well as alignments ahead of the 2017 elections. The Jubilee administration seems to have acquired a ‘winner takes it all’ attitude and looks set to govern without input from the opposition. CORD has been pushing for national dialogue with the Jubilee government, but without success.

The hard stances adopted by members of the Jubilee Alliance is based on a belief that engaging with the opposition would make the government seem weak, failed and lacking leadership acumen. This stems from a perception that the opposition’s calls for dialogue is a strategy by CORD to negotiate their way into government, as Alan Duale, the National Assembly Majority leader, has stated on several occasions.

This model of political leadership has a negative impact on governance, as every national concern is politicised and approached in a partisan manner. Consequently, the leadership has been unable to unite the nation even when it comes to important national policies and strategies. This has resulted in crucial national initiatives being contested and lacking in legitimacy due to their partisan origin. The Security Laws Amendment Act 2014 is an example, given the contestations the act elicited after it was acrimoniously passed in the National Assembly. The lack of dialogue led to valuable resources being lost at a time when the country is facing increased security risks, as different stakeholders filed court cases to challenge the legality of the act and seek judicial interpretation.

When leaders are involved in corruption issues, the matter is usually dismissed as a witch-hunt

The governance style of the current political leadership has severely restricted accountability and entrenched impunity within the public sector. This is because whenever senior political leaders are involved in ethical or corruption issues, the matter is usually politicised and dismissed as a political witch-hunt.

Recent allegations of bribery and corruption against the National Assembly oversight Committee on Public Accounts is a case in point. The committee's Honourable Ababu Namwamba has recently been facing a vote of no confidence to remove him as the chair. His party (CORD) came to his rescue, however, saying that the vote against him was a scheme by the ruling coalition to install a Jubilee-friendly chairman. Consequently, the matter shifted from ethical to political, despite the fact that there were audio recordings which allegedly demonstrate how six committee members of Parliament had received bribes. It is reported that CORD leaders met with their members of the committee and urged them to back down.

The inability or unwillingness of the political leadership to become dynamic and innovative, and adapt to new institutional mechanisms, threatens to erode the principles of good governance in Kenya. This will inevitably result in a confidence crisis: the public will only become more mistrustful and disillusioned as the leadership appears to be dedicated towards self-preservation instead of public service. Political leadership ought to transcend the social, economic and political divides of society to promote sustainable and equitable development. It’s time for our politicians to show that kind of leadership.

Sebastian Gatimu, Researcher, and David Wamugo Wagacha, Intern, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi

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