Being ostriches will not save our democracies

Tuesday January 02 2018

We are ostriches: We blame the state of the economy on the elections. Yet our debt level is crazy. FOTOSEARCH


Another year is over. The trajectory for Kenya and its neighbours is not good.

Yes, the government of Somalia is reassuming the responsibilities of a state, including, most recently, control of its airspace. The African Union Mission in Somalia is winding down, even as “targeted” (American) drone attacks on Al Shabaab increase. But neither move seems to have affected Al Shabaab’s ability to execute its attacks. A couple of weeks ago, they detonated a bomb in the capital’s police academy.

Ethiopia finally ended a state of emergency imposed in the wake of protests that spread from Oromia to Amhara and the Southern Nations and Nationalities Region.

Many Ethiopians were detained and “rehabilitated,” but the reforms promised alongside those punitive measures have not addressed the political and economic grievances fuelling the protests.

Then there is South Sudan, where both the region and the rest of the world are unable to bring the government to account. State-sponsored violence continues and the ruling party continues to fracture. The peace agreements brokered by the region are neither respected nor implemented. There is no end in sight.

Uganda has been praised for its refugee-hosting model, while its own politics go to pot. Having succeeded in removing constitutional term limits for the presidency, the latest battle has been for the removal of age limits. There is no universal standard for an optimal presidential stay in office or the age at which presidential reason can be determined to have departed.


But in countries like ours, where the Second Liberation against post-Independence, kleptocratic, one-party and military dictatorships was so hard-won, these limits are a check against the possibility of that happening again.

Yet here we are, marching blithely back into the lion’s den. Which is not to imply that the manner in which kleptocracy is being fought in Tanzania is OK. We have lost count of the journalists, opposition politicians and supporters detained, not to mention “missing.”

Media houses have been arbitrarily closed for innocuous “offences”; the gay community has been openly harassed for organising, even on health grounds; and Burundian refugees are being told it is safe to return when it is obviously not.

The news from Tanzania is surprising, given that, until recently, its only obvious state heavy-handedness was in respect of the Union. Now it seems to be with everything that moves.

And then there’s Kenya, where supposed nationalism is one of the guises for the crackdown on non-Kenyans in the civil society. Even non-Kenyans in the private sector are complaining of a “most favoured nation status” problem in obtaining entry (work) permits.

We have gone through yet another election in which all the safeguards on the electoral process were thrown out. We have perfected the art of enabling the vote and compromising it. We have got better at closing our eyes to the violence that accompanies our elections.

Let it never be said that there’s a dearth of hand-wringing and calls for dialogue on our “inter-communal tensions” while ignoring the elephant in the room. We are ostriches: We blame the state of the economy on the elections. Yet our debt level is crazy. The new railway cost an about four times more than it should.

Being good ostriches won’t save us. But freedom, integrity in public office, constitutionalism and rule of law will.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is the Africa director of the Open Society Foundations. [email protected]