Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

World View: African Voters Are Naive about Their Constitutions. Ruthless, Corrupt Elites Will Not Suddenly Start Sharing Power Just Because a Legal Document Says They Must

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

World View: African Voters Are Naive about Their Constitutions. Ruthless, Corrupt Elites Will Not Suddenly Start Sharing Power Just Because a Legal Document Says They Must

Article excerpt

The newspapers are full of it, it dominates our TV screens and radio broadcasts, and no conversation is complete without mention of power-sharing and devolution, sub-clauses and amendments. Yes, I'm talking about the constitution. Not, as it happens, the Iraqi constitution: Kenya, my current base, is in the throes of a constitutional debate as impassioned as anything in Baghdad.

If the shadow of Saddam Hussein has loomed over the Iraqi process, its Kenyan equivalent has been haunted by the former president Daniel arap Moi, who retired in 2002 after an opposition election win. By the time he quit, Moi had concentrated vast executive powers in his hands, subverted the judiciary and crushed human rights, while successfully sidelining Kenya's two largest tribes, the Kikuyus and Luos.

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The incoming government swore to change all that with a constitution that would share national revenue around and, crucially, trim presidential powers. A prime minister's post was envisaged, earmarked for the Luo leader Raila Odinga. Funny how a few months in State House change one's perspective. After much foot-dragging, President Mwai Kibaki has finally asked the public to vote on a constitution that, many experts reckon, would actually give him even more power than his predecessor.

This U-turn is causing much gnashing of Kenyan teeth. The frustrated Raila and four other government ministers have launched a "No" campaign, which may shatter the fragile coalition government. We can expect bloodshed as they take their protest to the streets.

Although the entire process has certainly been an exercise in political cynicism, I can't help wondering whether the expectations of ordinary Kenyans were too high. Gazing across a continent where rewriting the constitution is a near-universal pastime, it seems to me that African voters have become naive about the true force and meaning of a legal document.

A ruthless, corrupt elite that enjoys a monopoly on both power and national revenue is not suddenly going to start sharing just because the constitution says it must. However ingenious the constitutional straitjacket devised by the churchmen, lawyers and activists who make up the groups campaigning for change, the lunatic will thrash his way to freedom. Kenya's post-independence constitution was amended 28 times in 33 years to allow such delights as one-party rule, political detention and the banning of political parties. …

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