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Amidst electoral uncertainty, what to do?

(Photo credit: Ciku Nyawira)

When they said 2017 is an election “year” in Kenya, they meant it!

As I write this, Kenya is in electoral limbo. The Supreme Court has ordered a fresh presidential election, declaring the August 8 poll null and void, after months and months of noisy and expensive electioneering. The electoral body has quickly declared a date for the repeat poll. Both sides have equally quickly found this or that objectionable in the new date, the format, or the impartiality of the poll referee.

Things are changing every day, so by the time you read this, fresh plot twists may have appeared.

Whatever comes next, though, thoughtful citizens should pause and allow themselves a ‘so what’ moment. We need to step back from the heightened drama and tension and ask ourselves what all of this means, and how we should conduct ourselves in the weeks and months to come.

The economy is in a severely straitened condition now. Activity is at a record low for recent years, hampered by a credit squeeze, low spending, ailing companies and wait-and-see attitudes towards investment planning. So things are tight, and may get tighter still as we try to resolve our presidential contest in seemingly unending court battles and campaign trails.

I have three thoughts to offer.

First, this is actually all good, if we can think big picture and long term. The fact that we took this election dispute to court and received a judgement we all have to comply with is a fine thing. There is a reason the rest of Africa and the globe is paying attention to Kenya right now: we are a testing ground for nascent democracy and rule of law. If the August poll had irregularities, so be it. We have to go through the pain, the noise, the expense, the uncertainty of doing it all again, and again, until we do it right. Because the law matters, and fairness matters.

Certainly, we might get trapped in an unending cycle of election-petition-annulment-repeat election, ad infinitum ad nauseam. To which I say: have you ever watched the movie, Groundhog Day? Perhaps we just have to do this thing badly several times, until we do it right.

Second, I think we are going to find out whether we really need an old-fashioned, all-powerful presidency. We still have the culture of big-man leaders, but the structures of leadership changed under our noses. The average Kenyan can get more done by focusing on his county or national assembly representatives, on her senator or governor, than on a mythical president. We need to learn how to make devolution work for us right where we are, rather than being stupefied by far-off contests.

Third, I would like to think that most people in this country are not personally invested in one or the other presidential candidate. There is no reason for all of us to suspend our lives and sit in suspense. It remains the case that personal success is mostly personal; that we still have to individually scramble and hustle and grow and develop in order to succeed. No matter who sits in State House, your responsibility towards yourself and your family sits right there, staring you in the face.

When all is said and done, and winner and loser finally confirmed, a bunch of people will realize that celebrations were short-lived and pointless; and another bunch of people will realize that lamentations had to be overcome. The hard work we all need to do in our lives never went away just because of a presidency.

I realise my three points give cold comfort to those whose lives or livelihoods are imperilled by this endless politicking. But to anyone able to see history in longer waves, there is much to be hopeful about. We are strengthening our democracy, albeit slowly and fitfully. We are realizing the need for strong, independent institutions, even if belatedly. And we are finding new role models, those who uphold the rules – no matter how much pressure is put on them to look the other way.

In the long run, every economy benefits from rule of law; from property rights; from self-reliance; from control of wrong-doing. What we are going through right now doesn’t look pretty, but Kenyans will probably look back on 2017 as a landmark year. We just have to get through it without destroying ourselves in the process.

(Sunday Nation, 10 September 2017)

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