• Irungu Houghton

Let's go beyond 5-minute democracies

Updated: Jul 2



By Irũngũ Houghton and Daniel Nyakora


Like meals, five-minute democracies have their limitations. We knew this when we voted for Article 1 of the constitution. With the General Elections 39 days away, several communities have begun to exercise their right to interview political candidates. What are they saying so far?


The first elections held under British colonial rule happened in 1920. Only settlers of European, Indian, and Arab descent voted. It took four decades of anti-colonial resistance for every human being to have the right to vote. Unlike American electoral history where it took one hundred years for women to be handed a ballot paper, African women and men voted together for the first time in the 1961 General Elections. A further five decades would pass before Kenyans extended this fundamental freedom by writing Article 1 of the constitution.


Article 1 states that all sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya either directly through their own thoughts and actions or through those of their democratically elected representatives. Furthermore, every person is constitutionally bound to respect, uphold, and defend the constitution. There are no less than seven additional references to public participation in the constitution.


The articles are our very own expression of that famous phrase by American democracy founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who once said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Vigilance means public participation in the governance cycle. It starts with electing the right men and women to office.


Inadequate investment in state civic education and the roadblocks placed before development partners contributed to the apathy during the recent voter registration drive. Public suspicions that the electoral commission will either be incapable, divided or partisan is another factor. So are the arguments that politicians are driven more by their private interests and elections will not change the lives of ordinary Kenyans. Influenced by these preoccupations, the IEBC reached only 30 per cent of their six million registration target and most political candidates have resorted to voter bribery, an election offence, to attract voters to their rallies.


Fortunately, several communities across Kenya’s 47 counties are organising local townhalls to interview candidates. Public dialogues have distinguished parental neglect by children unemployment, violence, gender and disability-based discrimination (Uasin Gishu) as well as insecurity and police brutality, high cost of health and sexual crimes and the lack of safe houses for victims (Kisumu). The lack of physical planning, water shortages and the high cost of living has also featured (Nairobi) and insecurity for the elderly, gender-based violence (Kilifi) and labour rights abuses and insecurity (Nakuru). Youth unemployment and rising levels of crime are cut across several counties.


Public outcry by victims’ families and human rights organisations catalysed swift police and interior ministry responses to recent gang related violence connected to Nakuru politicians this week. We can welcome Monday’s community security dialogue attended by opposing candidates Lee Kinyanjui and Susan Kihika and the promise of stern action by the Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi.


The Cabinet Secretary’s request not to be lectured on human rights was, however, confusing. A former lecturer himself, it is worth reminding the good Minister that lectures are educational and specifically, of that 16 April 2020 lecture by President Kenyatta. Police officers who exercise illegal, excessive, and lethal force will face the full force of the law alone, in a court of law.


This is especially not the time to open the door to police lawlessness. We risk more incidents of police officers abusing their oath to protect and throwing tear-gas at the Azimio rally in Gusii stadium. There is a fine line between human rights-based policing and evoking the disastrous violence and mishandling of protests in 2017. Let’s hold it.

Organising our own Kilimani ward and Dagoretti North constituency dialogues has given us the opportunity to create the power of respectful rapport with candidates. Requiring future employees to sign charters, memoranda and declarations is an effective first-step in building accountability post-election.


Residents’ associations and media associations must lead public dialogues over the few remaining days. All several party manifestos must be debated for the elections to make sense. Issue based dialogues are fundamental for restoring the power of the vote for cynical and undecided voters. The quality of our elections cannot be left to five minutes in a voting booth.


Co-authored with Daniel Nyakora, Kilimani Project Foundation Chairperson, this opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 1 July 2022