Rwandans who watched the Kenyan presidential debate last Monday must have marvelled at the breadth of the “political space” displayed on stage. Here was a line-up of eight presidential aspirants all vying for the sole post of president, where Rwanda usually has a paltry three. This must be the “space” Rwanda is vilified by the international community for lacking. But, to be fair to Rwanda, in that paltry three, there is usually a female candidate. In Kenya, apparently, it calls for the big number of eight candidates to squeeze in one female.
Whatever the nature of their gender sensitivity, however, Kenyans must be commended for the calibre of their debate. It must be said that it was at the level of the presidential debates in advanced democracies of the world that hold them, as it was strictly issue-based. Moreover, that the sole female voice seemed to steal the show from this otherwise male dominance was a breath of fresh air. Kenyan pollsters are reported to have favoured Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and Peter Keneth, with Martha Karua in fourth position, but that’s as polls go.
It is true that, while the debate lasted, it was exciting. Exciting, that is, until you examined the presidential contenders and the stage they stood on. These were well-fed gentlemen and a lady, slugging it out on how they’ll enforce security, alleviate poverty, improve education, health services, energy supply, road network and others.
However, they were on a stage in an out-of-reach 1.1 million-shs-a-term school. Which means that their audience was a select elite group of voters, a tiny percentage of the electorate that was not exactly lacking in those facilities. The majority that was, being unable to comprehend the debate in English or to get access to TV, would not be in the loop. Not for them, the power of comparisons. But maybe it was as well; the vast majority of voters not represented in that glittering Brookhouse International School hall had already made their choice. Many of those presidential hopefuls had seen to that.
In daily arrangements and rearrangements of their coalitions with other parties, according to tribal mathematics that did not at all pay attention to party policies, the candidates had counted on tribal numbers for success. Whatever chaos this selfish calculus would lead the Kenyan society into did not matter in the heat of their campaigns. Yet chaos under such calculus always portends. For, even if you don’t consider the worst case scenario of tribal clashes, as in 2007/8, there are tribal king makers to reward. For as long as he is in office, the successful candidate will favour some tribes over others.
And that’s tribalism and how it necessarily breeds corruption. As the saying goes, a fish starts to rot from the head. With such a party head at the helm of his country, party manifestos are sacrificed. Their implementation becomes a mathematical equation that is tackled according to the interests involved. Meanwhile, the lower ranks of implementers get down to the rot of a cutthroat struggle to pick their cut, further compromising the citizens.
Security is enforced in areas of interest and ignored in others. Poverty is combated in favoured ethnic groups while others languish in neglect. Education, health, energy supply, road network and others are improved or neglected in accordance with the guiding mathematics. In this land of plenty, you find hunger, fights and other poverty-induced vices. Overall progress suffers.
In the end, that eloquent debate that impressed the small elite group, and thanks to which they were able to make a choice, does not translate into the success of the right candidate, who would genuinely work for the progress of the nation. Candidates like Martha Karua, Peter Kenneth and others fall by the wayside because they refused to be drawn into the dictates of ethnicity. Tribal kingpins like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga carry the day – and their families’ dominance of Kenyan politics. The ordinary citizens, a majority among the 15 million or so voters, are still captive to this ethnic scheme.
But for that ethnic demon that attracts a bloated number of presidential contenders and accompanying greed, Kenya is a democracy to rival the best. The broad “political space”, even if in fits and starts for the moment, is real. Kenyans are slowly but surely exorcising the demon of tribalism and corruption out of their system. And with that exorcism, they’ll find that equal participation of their sisters in the business of government is imperative.
Rwanda, for her very survival, cannot afford that kind of “political space”, that ethnic jockeying, for a single moment. So, for 18 years ethnic manipulation of any kind has been outlawed and the constitution is explicit on that. All candidates must respect the cardinal rule of advancing national unity and the development of the country. In fine halls or in the soil on bushy hills, the presidential debate must be taken to the people. Policies and their rigorous implementation rule the roost.
For pushing the same cause and for being barred from playing on ethnic sentiments, Rwandan presidential candidates themselves limit their number to a paltry number.
Otherwise, Kenya and Rwanda, as partners in the East African Community, are developing their brands of democracy in different ways. But it is all about democracy. In the end, democracy is like a dress: there is never a one-size-fits-all. Come Kenyan elections next month, may the best candidate win! It’s a thin chance, but I mean the best.