Much of the Western media is intent on looking for blood on the Kenyan election trail this week. So far they have been largely disappointed. This is because the real story is about a country on the move and a democratic political process that is working, thanks largely to the engagement of the Kenyan people.
With Europe stagnating, the USA in decline and the East Asian powerhouses of China and Japan facing serious problems, Africa is increasingly being recognised as the final frontier for global progress. Behind the habitual knee-jerk bad news about the continent, significant economic and political development has already been achieved by numerous African nations over the last couple of decades and there are plenty more advances to come.
One such country is Kenya, which is conducting a crucial general election this week. Kenya is visibly a country on the move economically, with increased construction and business activity evident in the big cities. The capital, Nairobi, in particular, is rapidly becoming a “global hub” city, with numerous international companies basing their new African operations there to take advantage of some of the continent’s best communications infrastructure.
Kenya is a global leader in innovations such as mobile phone banking. This, along with other smart initiatives like pre-paid credit cards, are rapidly bringing many more of the young and growing population into the productive, formal economy. A tell-tale sign of the country’s upward mobility is that young, well-educated expatriate Kenyans are flocking back from their comfortable lives in the West to take advantage of the burgeoning opportunities at home.
Perhaps the most inspiring development in Kenya over recent years, though, is the triumph of democracy. I have lived in and visited many countries but contemporary Kenya is by far the most politically engaged of any of them. Informed political debate is a constant feature at all levels of society, from elite restaurant tables to neighbourhood hairdressing salons and the “matatu stage” (bus stop). When I was in Kenya during the referendum campaign on a new constitution in 2010, it felt like almost everyone had actually read and analysed the document – a scenario I cannot imagine being matched in the more established democracies with which I am familiar.
The public is aided and abetted in its political engagement by a vibrant free media. This runs the range from the more traditional sources such as TV, radio (which is particularly crucial in the rural areas, where many Kenyans still live) and newspapers to “.com” (meaning stylishly up-to-date in Kenyan colloquial parlance) outlets like Twitter. A particularly striking development is the rise of satirical TV shows, which mercilessly lampoon the candidates’ policies, dance moves and language mangling. These programmes play a healthy role in holding politicians to account and prove that any lingering fear of the powerful has long gone.
In many respects, the public and the media are ahead of the political class in Kenya. Civil society organisations such as ELOG will play a vital role in ensuring that the vote is free and fair by fielding 30,000 volunteers to monitor polling stations. And, following the violence that marred the last election in 2008, there has been a huge grassroots effort by community organisations to counteract incitement, ease tensions and set up conflict resolution mechanisms.
In fairness, the politicians are showing signs of responding to the public pressure on them and learning the lesson that they need to serve the people if they want to keep their jobs. They are certainly put through the mill on the Kenyan election trail, where they are required to master the whole gamut of campaigning styles, from articulately answering probing questions during slick televised debates to singing and dancing in colourful clothes at populist mass rallies. Most importantly, all of the leading presidential candidates have felt impelled to issue regular and apparently heartfelt appeals to their followers to respect the election results and refrain from violence. This was most impressively demonstrated at a huge rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, when religious and civil society groups brought the candidates together to plead for a peaceful election in front of the eyes of the nation.
All of these efforts reflect Kenyans’ strong self-image as a peaceful, sensible people living in a stable country. The country had a look over the precipice in 2008 and did not like what it saw. Consequently, much work has also been done since then on strengthening the country’s institutions. The judiciary has been made more independent from the political executive, as has the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) which runs the election process. Importantly, the new constitution provides for the devolution of more power from the centre to better manage the great regional and cultural diversity of the country. Apart from the President and the parliament, this week’s election will select the occupants of these new regional posts.
There is no doubt that Kenya still faces challenges such as ethnic division and the associated issue of land distribution that will take time to resolve. In the meantime, the public’s political engagement and the rapid development of Kenya’s democratic institutions are ensuring that this tense, tightly contested election is being conducted peacefully. And, even if there are a few flare-ups once the results are announced, there are good grounds for believing that the underlying political and economic progress in the country is strong enough to avoid being derailed by any short-term strife.