28 February 2013

Kenya: This Is the Democracy Kenyans Fought for


About a decade ago, I met with a Swiss journalist who wanted to consult me about a magazine story he had been commissioned to write.

The meeting had been scheduled long before he got here; and at the time I finally met him, he had already been in Kenya for over a week, and made a quick trip to Tsavo National Park, among other things.

Arising from this trip, he was in no hurry to get to the subject we were supposed to be discussing; rather his whole focus was on the elephants he had seen (and extensively photographed) on his visit to Tsavo.

Rather surprised at this, I said to him, "Surely you have zoos and circuses in Switzerland. And in any case, have you not seen elephants before, on TV?"

He answered that he had indeed seen elephants on TV; and he had also seen them in zoos, as well as in circuses. But none of that had prepared him for his first sight of the power and majesty of elephants in the wild.

He went on and on, about the way the elephants grabbed a trunkful of leaves from a tree, in order to eat; how the playful baby elephants followed the huge matriarchs; how a house-size lone bull elephant had stopped in the middle of the road, stared menacingly at their van, and then turned and slowly walked away.

"It was like seeing a dinosaur" he concluded. "Something you see all the time in movies, but do not expect to ever see in real life."

Well, over the past few weeks, we Kenyans too have seen something which we see all the time on TV dramas, and documentaries; but which some of us never really expected to see in our own lifetimes and in our own country: the inner workings of an authentic democracy.

Right from independence, we have had the freedom to cast our ballots as we saw fit. And many of us defined democracy by this alone: voting rights for all over the age of 18. The only ambitions we might have had back in the days of the single party state, was for the opportunity to have a multiparty electoral system.

But just as important as the right to vote is the creation of 'democratic institutions', without which the right to vote carries only limited benefits. And these independent democratic institutions are what the new constitution has given us, as recent events have revealed.

First, just over a week ago, we had the chairman of the Constitution Implementation Committee, Charles Nyachae, stated bluntly at a press conference that if President Mwai Kibaki did not immediately perform his constitutional obligation to gazette the names of the National Land Commission, and thus 'operationalise' this commission, there would be consequences which might pursue President Kibaki well into his retirement.

As was reported in the Star, "Nyachae cautioned President Kibaki that the immunity from prosecution he enjoys while in office expires once the new government comes into effect and that legal proceedings can be instituted against him for contravention of the constitution".

Then next we had the Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga, very dramatically reveal that his life had been threatened. And while at it, he effectively accused the Head of the Civil Service, Francis Kimemia, of laying the groundwork - via a controversial circular - for a mid-level immigration officer's attempt at preventing the CJ from leaving the country.

In the outpouring of criticism that followed, Mr Kimemia was reduced to fleeing from the media when some journalists had him cornered at some official function - with further indignities yet to come.

Here is a man who is the current occupant of perhaps the most powerful public office outside the presidency. But because he was careless in the use of his power, and stepped outside his constitutional mandate, he is pursued by the media; openly defied by holders of key constitutional offices; and further there were loud demands that he resign at once.

This is where we see the majesty and power of the rule of law, supplanting what we previously had - the arbitrary rule by a few powerful men clustered around the presidency.

We have in the past only seen the grandeur of democratic institutions at work, on TV; or read about it in books; but now we are seeing it close up, in our own country.

To my mind, this is a development far more important than the question of who emerges as the winner in our presidential elections.

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