Barriers to democracy in Kenya

The first step towards democracy in Kenya was taken in 1963, when the country became independent. But it was not until 1992 that different parties were allowed to stand for election, and that democracy consequently took another step forward. When President Daniel Arap Moi stepped down after 24 years in power at the general election in 2002, it was seen as a democratic milestone. 

But despite a lavish and carefully planned election this year, using an advanced voting system and with numerous international observers in attendance, the Supreme Court did not deem the election process fair and ordered a re-run of the election.

“I was surprised. The fact that they had the courage to take an independent decision was a big step forward and massive in terms of democratic progress. It was very brave of them. They received death threats and there was a lot of speculation as to what they would do,” says Inga Björk-Klevby.

What does it mean for Kenyan democracy that the opposition had so little faith in the electoral authority that they did not wish to participate in the re-election?

“There could be real concerns, because the problem lies with the electoral commission, which has been accused of both bias and fraud. Kenyatta clearly won the previous election, but the 2007 election was incredibly disorderly and violent, and we could see the same thing happening again. I don’t know how they will resolve the situation,” says Inga Björk-Klevby.

From a public and civic order viewpoint, the most peaceful solution would be for Kenyatta to stay in power, but from a democratic perspective, this would pose a risk of disorder.

“The opposition will not give up. We are back in the same situation as in 2007. I know Raila Odinga – he will never give up… he’s very controversial, hated by some and loved by others.

Inga Björk-Klevby was Sweden’s Ambassador to Kenya between 1998 and early 2003, after which she became Ambassador to the war-torn Ivory Coast, before working under Kofi Anan as the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations’ Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) in Nairobi. She has also worked as the Executive Director of the African Development Bank.

Since 2012, Inga Björk-Klevby has been a member of the ICLD advisory board. “I have met all these people who are fighting the election, after all. I have met Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, and Raila Odinga several times and followed them closely for many years, and the fact that it is the same old faces fighting for power is indicative of the situation in Kenya.”

Is Kenya’s battle for democracy a dynastic power struggle? Kenyatta vs. Odinga?

“Yes, there is a battle going on between clans and ethnic groups. What Kenya needs is someone younger, something new, that challenges these old clans. There is a democratic immaturity in Kenya: they have not really learned yet what democracy is all about and how democratic principles must be respected. There is a huge need for education in democracy there, not least at local level.”

Inga Björk-Klevby says that Kenyans need to understand what democracy actually means – for many years, they have lived under dictators and autocrats. But there is hope.

“Children are being educated now, new generations are growing up. But there are also a lot of unemployed young men in slum areas who can easily be incited to fight and riot. Unemployment is a fertile breeding ground for violence.”

With that said, Inga Björk-Klevby believes that the country is moving in the right direction. And that ICLD can be part of this trend.

“ICLD is a good fit for Kenya, both in terms of their work with know-how and training, and in terms of their partnership work. ICLD has an exciting structure and I’m delighted by their work with local democracy and their efforts to build it through research and know-how, training and education, as well as partnerships. It’s a very interesting combination.”

There’s a new landscape of information in Kenya, education and urbanisation. What role will this play in the battle for democracy?

“Everyone has mobile phones and there’s a lot happening – a sort of IT revolution. A lot of people also have computers, which helps build knowledge and spread information, and contributes to democratic development. You can see this very clearly.”

Urbanisation is, however, a problem. There is a massive amount of relocation to Nairobi, but job availability is limited – which pushes people towards the vast slum areas.

“Urbanisation is an important issue across Africa, which is experiencing the fastest population growth and the fastest urbanisation rate in the world. There is a critical need for measures that attempt to shape urban planning and community development work down the line.”

Social media and “fake news” are well-known, widely discussed factors in electoral processes. Have these factors played any part in the results of the Kenyan election?

“I cannot honestly say. I did not see any signs of it the last time I was there, back in February, but I am almost certain that it does happen. Kenya is fertile ground for rumours and speculation, so it could be a fertile ground for “fake news”.

Regional political support is good for democratic process and there is a move towards decentralisation and strengthening regional development: is there a danger that national goals take the spotlight off local issues?

“Kenya has seen a comprehensive process of decentralisation and strong development at regional level, and this has created tensions. There are people in positions of power at different levels, which creates tension between the people with power at national level, in the government and parliament, and the regional decision makers. Kenyan MPs enjoy very generous benefits and are very unwilling to share the power this gives them.”

What role do you think ICLD’s work can play in Kenya’s democratisation process?

“A very important one. There are, in my opinion, two elements to the training that ICLD provides – democracy know-how and resource management. Resources are now becoming available at the new local levels and I am already seeing corruption rearing its ugly head at the local level. Corruption is endemic and systemic – it’s like a cancerous tumour that is spreading at both local and regional level. The key here is to establish a culture of openness and monitoring when it comes to resource management, says Björk-Klevby.”

Personal power, money and corruption are a cultural phenomenon in Kenya, according to Björk-Klevby. People’s awareness of the problem is increasing and more and more of them are battling both corruption and the abuse of power, but they need functioning institutions that can address these issues.

“It is vital that they have functioning systems – that is why it was a good sign when the Supreme Court rejected the election results, because the legal system has traditionally been corrupt. Things are getting better, but it takes time.”

Bo Göransson, your successor as Sweden’s Ambassador to Kenya, says that, “ethnic groups’ stranglehold on power in Kenya must be broken. Only then will it become a true democracy.” Do you agree?

“Absolutely. It is critical. But at the same time, I am seeing a change amongst young people. Older people are stuck in the culture they grew up in. I believe change can come about as a result of education and information.”

ICLD’s exchange programme that will bring Kenyan politicians and administrative officials to Sweden to train and share experiences with their Swedish colleagues are important elements of the democracy work. But Inga Björk-Klevby sounds a note of caution:

“A lot of people are very interested in coming to Sweden and ICLD offers a wide range of excellent programmes. But it is vital to make sure the right participants are selected for these important programmes – that is a huge responsibility.”

The regionalisation that has grown out of the 2010 constitution – coupled with Swedish involvement through ICLD – can help lay the foundations for a sustainable democracy.

“It is going to take time. Educating children, education in local democracy, resource management, and respecting the democratic principles are all important issues, and I hope that ICLD will learn from its own work within the framework of the training programmes and partnership exchange – and that they will look at the latest research findings and the results of knowledge sharing,” says Inga Björk-Klevby.

The interview was conducted ahead of the re-election on October 26th. Voter turnout was low in re-election and in some districts the polling stations were unable to open. The election committee IEBC therefore decided to postpone the election in Migori, Homa Bay, Kisumu and Siaya to Saturday the 28th of October. Violence has been reported from several districts in connection to the re-election. The opposition leader Raila Odinga withdrew his candidacy and encouraged his supporters to boycott the re-election. The election committee will have seven days to declare a result.