By Irũngũ Houghton and Sheila Masinde
Our adolescent Kenyan constitution made it unscathed to its eleventh birthday on Friday. The constitutional moment now behind us, we must not lose sight of the looming political moment. Two recent reports offer profound insights into voters’ perceptions and electoral campaigns. How we act on them determines whether the next elections will catalyse new leadership energies or leave us stuck in another electoral upset.
Thoughts that Kenya is permanently stuck in a bad leadership cycle informs growing murmurs of “siwezivote tena” or “fagia wote”. In reality, our elections are highly unpredictable. Fifteen thousand men and women vied for six levels of elected offices in 2017. Whether the result of intense competition or high levels of disappointment with incumbents, 62 per cent of members of parliament, 50 per cent of governors and 79 per cent of women representatives didn’t make it back. The problem is not that we are stuck with the same politicians, it is that we need to make better choices.
Overall, the Transparency International Kenya’s survey on citizens’ perceptions of ethical leadership reflects a mature electorate. 81 per cent vote for candidates with manifestos and 82 per cent are unlikely to vote for somebody with a history of corruption. However, 59 per cent of voters still accept bribes and 25 per cent of voters think the corrupt should be allowed to vie. Sadly, less than one in five of us are members of political parties and, unable to vote in the all too important party primaries, we are powerless to ensure strong candidates reach the General Elections.
The astronomical cost of campaigning is the second major challenge according to the recent South Consulting Cost of Politics in Kenya report. In 2017, successful candidates spent Sh 49 million campaigning for positions of senators, Sh 32 million for woman representatives, Sh 21 million for members of parliament and Sh 4 million for members of county assemblies respectively. In contrast, those that didn’t win spent less than half these amounts.
Currently, unethical voter perceptions and campaign financing favors deep money not deep ideas or those that want to run clean and transparent campaigns. Recently civic activist Boniface Mwangi declared he would not be running next year. It is profoundly sad how this nation has prematurely disappointed him, other youth, women and persons with disabilities who do not have the resources to compete on these terms.
So how can we create a level field for all leaders? We can give up any apathy with elective politics. Negative voting with the herd against a candidate doesn’t help either. Accepting a one off Sh 500 bribe will eventually allow thieves to take off with the national budget of Sh 3 trillion. Secondly, MPs can vote for Election Campaign Financing (Amendment) Bill and new IEBC regulations that will strengthen public disclosure and monitoring of financing sources and expenditure.
Having acted within its constitutional mandate (Article 88(4)(i)) the IEBC does not require parliamentary approval for the spending limits published earlier this month. The Commission must move to enforcement. Political parties can also invest in their capacities to enforce codes of conduct regulating illicit funds and dirty candidates. Deep national stability requires deep ideas not deep dirty money. As Wangari Maathai would remind us, a mind that knows itself, values and understands itself cannot be enslaved.
This opinion was also published in the Sunday Standard, 29 August 2021