Implications of the Kenyan Politico-Judicial and Electoral Tensions on Democratization in the Horn of Africa

By Hassan Khannenje, PhD

The ongoing public criticism of independent constitutional bodies by the Kenyan political elite over election related issues portends a serious threat to democratic constitutionalism. With a new constitution that is largely informed by neoliberal democratic principles, an apparent challenge to the principle of separation of powers undermines both the spirit of the constitution as well as the cumulative progressive efforts that have defined much on the last three decades. Kenya being an anchor state and a major regional player, events in Nairobi have larger regional implications, in as far as shaping perceptions of democratic governance is concerned.

Despite a turbulent electoral history in its post-cold war era and a relative decline in its regional diplomatic clout, Kenya remains by far a point of reference against which regional performance and political stability are measured. As the gateway to the larger Eastern Africa and a central economic player in the Greater Horn of Africa, Nairobi remains a regional economic and diplomatic juggernaut whose actions, internal or otherwise have wider and far reaching implications for the region and beyond.

For instance, Nairobi has been central in training police and civil service in South Sudan. It is currently involved in pacifying and stabilizing Somalia as a frontline state. It is a leading member of IGAD and the East African Community. Notably, it has embraced a constitutional structure that is largely progressive and politically devolved, theoretically, making it arguably the most progressive country in the region. It is because of this unique positioning that Kenya can ill afford the perception of, or actual continuation of conflict between two of the three main branches of government.

Secondly, the history of Kenya in the age of political pluralism is a chequered one. If the 2007 elections is anything to go by, lack of trust in, or perceptions of impartiality either by government or the opposition in institutions such as the judiciary or the electoral bodies that mediate our democracy can have cataclysmic consequences not only on the idea of Kenya as a nation-state, but also to the stability of the entire region within the Horn and to a limited degree, the African sub region. This is especially true in hotly contested elections such as the upcoming elections in Kenya.

Thus, a strategic and deliberate restraint from such actions will be a first step toward restoring confidence and ensuring predictability for the country and the region. Inflammatory actions must be discouraged by all relevant actors in favour of a more measured approach to political competition. As a country of global interest, it is incumbent upon Kenya’s regional and international partners to implore the main actors in the upcoming elections to observe the principles of democratic constitutionalism upon which the current constitution is based. Further, the main parties must strive to conduct transparent elections free from manipulation and be prepared to accept the election verdict, absent of which might invite the chaos such as the ones that accompanied the 2007 elections.

Dr. Hassan Kannenje, Director HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies

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