Kenya at a crossroads

On 4 March 2013 Kenyans voted in historic general elections under a new constitution after nearly 20 years of protracted clamor for reform.

Post-election violence after the disputed 2007–2008 general elections was a major turning point for Kenya, bringing to the fore deep seeded ethnic divisions, land disputes, a complex web of nepotism and a scramble for resources through the political process. A coalition government was formed after President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga signed a memorandum of understanding restoring calm. The country has made significant progress in many socio-economic aspects since President Mwai Kibaki first took office in 2002. However the economic gains have not trickled down to the majority poor. The gap between the rich and the poor has significantly widened according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index.

An era of reforms

There have been sweeping political and institutional reforms in the country over the last five years, key among them judicial reforms, new constitution and over 173 Bills. Pundits argue that parliamentarians probably did not carefully read the draft constitution before passing it, accounting for numerous mutilations of key provisions within new laws. For example, the ramifications in the Political Parties Act and Leadership and Integrity Act were felt in the chaotic party primaries held in January this year.

Ethnic divisions and rising political tensions remain the biggest challenge to social, economic and political stability. Recent death threats to the country’s Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga and allegations of a plot to rig elections have raised political temperatures. Commendably, all presidential aspirants came together on Sunday 24 February 2013 to join hands for peace and call for unity ahead of elections. If the opinion polls are anything to go by, the country is headed for its first ever presidential runoff. All indications are that a recurrence of violence witnessed in the last general elections is highly unlikely and the country will hold peaceful polls.

Do the candidates offer anything new?

The two leading coalitions are the Coalition for Restoration of Democracy (CORD) led by the Prime Minister Raila Odinga and the Jubilee Coalition led by Former Minister for Finance and current Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta. The latter is facing charges for five counts of crimes against humanity and forceful eviction at the International Criminal Court and there are serious concerns about his ability to lead the country if elected. Though his trial is set to begin in April 2013, his campaign remains aggressive and undeterred. The CORD coalition has packaged itself as a champion for reform while Jubilee coalition position themselves as young leaders offering a clean break from the past.

So far the campaigns have focused on personal attacks, accusations and counter-accusations of past misdeeds. Ironically both Raila and Uhuru still serve in a government they themselves accuse of failing Kenyans. Are they offering anything new? Economic experts don’t think so, while Kenya’s partners from the West have raised fears that the country may be isolated from the international community. In a media briefing on economic implications of the political manifestos held recently, The Institute of Economic Affairs, a policy think tank in Kenya, criticised what they see as “splash-the-cash” manifestos. They continue to say the pledges being made by political parties in the manifestos are too expensive and rely on dishing out money and illogical tax breaks. Critically, none of the coalitions have stated how they would reduce Kenya’s debt burden that stands at US$11.15 billion domestic and US$9.6 billion external debt.

Neither coalition has provided detailed policy plans in their manifestos. It would have been useful to consider their response to Vision 2030, a national development plan that is already being implemented with various flagship projects on track. Details of how they would contribute to the key pillars of economic, social, political and macro enablers would have appealed to the 14 million Kenyans registered to vote. The unrealistic promises at political rallies will no longer suffice if Kenya is to make real progress in lifting its majority from poverty. Sober, focused leadership is required.

Steps towards transparency and accountability

Absence of information remains a major challenge. Development Initiatives have long argued that the provision of public data and information is the basic tenet of transparency and accountability. It also gives citizens the power to hold those in power to account. As we head to the polls, most citizens are not fully aware of how the devolved system of government will function. Yet for a country long bedeviled by corruption, we potentially run the risk of decentralising government in the absence of systems to guarantee transparency and accountability in resource allocation and management.

Mistakes of the past must be avoided at all costs. The legal basis exists in the new constitution and the country has clearly made tremendous progress in the quest for openness. The Kenya Open Data Portal was launched by President Mwai Kibaki in July 2011, making Kenya the second African nation after Morocco to launch an open data portal and the first in sub-Saharan Africa. Even though Kenyans are yet to fully reap the benefits of the portal, it is hoped that further steps will be taken to improve governance through availability and access to data and development information. Kenya’s ICT sector has witnessed phenomenal growth over the last 10 years. Mobile phone technology has changed the way people communicate. According to the Communications Commission of Kenya, the mobile phone market had 30.4 million mobile subscribers by September 2012. The country now boasts a mobile penetration of 77.2% and uptake of data/internet services continues to display an upward trend with 34.2% of the population accessing the internet. The ICT sector continues to offer a huge opportunity for social and economic development if combined with political action.

A new constitution and weakened laws are not a guarantee of stability; the country must capitalize on judicial reforms to strengthen other institutions of democracy. It must also take deliberate steps to empower its citizens to effectively participate. Political goodwill and a determined populace can be the catalysts for this change. The elections offer an opportunity for fresh leadership and a renewed spirit for sustainable development. We believe a separate post-2015 framework of goals on availability of and accessibility to information, including budget, resource, fiscal and domestic information, would provide the foundation for the success for the aspirations of the post-2015 agenda. It would enable countries, citizens and societies to use information to create locally owned solutions to daily and long term challenges as they emerge – rather than waiting for official findings two or three years after the fact.

Davis Adieno is Capacity Development Manager at Development Initiatives (Africa). Email