The Star (Nairobi)

9 February 2013

Kenya: Peaceful Polls Paramount Than Appealing Manifestos

Last weekend, I opened the papers, took one look at the deluge of 'aspirants' coverage, and then closed them again. I just couldn't. I do get paid, sorta, to read the papers - my clients expect me to keep up with the news. But at that point, I really had enough of the divorced-from-reality meaningless statements of aspirants of all sorts, whether for local wards or the presidency, Jubilee, CORD, Amani, whoever.

Everybody accuses everybody else of tribalism, emphasising their own non-tribalism, and in the same breath order their own community to stick together and vote as a block. Tribalism is what the others do - when you do it, it's looking out for your own people. Hate speech is what the others do. We just stand up for our own people. Corruption is what the others do. We just look after our own people. The others committed tribal violence. We just helped our people.

With just a few weeks to go, the gloves are off. There's a hardening of attitudes in the two big camps that worries me. Looking at the opinion poll results, it will be a close election again. Any small lead - two percentage points or so - will be instantly disputed by the other side of the two main camps, no matter which side. Yes, we promise to accept the results and concede defeat - but if we lose, it wasn't democratic, and it's our democratic right to fight against rigging and betrayal. It doesn't matter which one of the two big sides you're looking at: it will be the same. Mirror images.

Back to business. So parties launched manifestos. No small irony in the fact that these manifestos - which should ideally tell you everything about a party's policies - were launched a mere month before the elections. And then there's also this: Since there is no such thing as a proper political party in Kenya - they are, truly, vehicles for their owners -, there is no party that has a think tank, a research division, no party that will have done a couple of years of systematic thinking.

These manifestos are laundry lists underpinned by nothing much. There were many, many promises in those manifestos, falling mostly into two categories: things and services that will be provided for voters, and all sorts of abstract good things to happen, like integration, unity, peace, equitable growth. Bad things will be ended - insecurity, hunger, tribalism (you know, what the others do. Whatever I say is just true and honest, but the others are always bringing up tribalist arguments. Shame on them).

I'm obviously all in favour of world peace and cake for everyone. But get real - how's that going to happen? For one, there's the whole issue of financing this. And that's not even really the main point. You probably wouldn't need that much extra money if you'd stop the waste and theft. Having better basic medical services for everyone isn't really a function of money - it's a function of running competent institutions.

This is the same everywhere: Yes, money helps, but money alone will fix hardly anything. It is the same with primary education, the police, any other public service or institution. Those services are often lousy because the institutions are corrupt, and that's an enormous challenge to overcome: institutions are, and stay, corrupt because that works for someone (Maybe your buddies. Because they will want a pay-back for supporting you in the elections. That's not corruption, just looking after your community). Unless you can tell me, credibly, how you will do this, I'm not buying your shiny manifesto.

And if your recent performance is anything to go by (I'm looking at all of you), then you have no management capacity as a political party to do much of what you promise. Your big parties aren't parties, they are loose groupings of smaller tribal and owner-based entities. You're not united by policy because you have none apart from the cookie-cutter promises on food, security, integration and so on - and if you had policies, actual policies, with a plan on how to implement them you wouldn't be made up of numerous shaky little entities, but you would be one strong, coherent party. Whichever side of you wins will fall apart at the speed of light again.

Your party nominations made it ever so clear how you have very little internal capacity to just keep things together. Ballot papers not being available, returning officers going AWOL, multiple candidates declaring themselves winners, 'aspirants' supported by thugs, beating down the doors of public institutions - I'm sure it wasn't just me who had flashbacks to late 2007.

When it comes to the manifestos, I realized that they don't matter to me. They have no importance. What has importance is that Kenya gets through this without another nascent civil war. Then the rest will fall into place, into its usual, plodding, corrupt-but-hopefully-gradually improving place. Back to normal: normal is certainly not ideal, but better than another round of PEV. Kenya has looked into the abyss and learned the lesson?

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