article is as random as our politics. It seems not to have much logic.
It certainly has no consistency. Our President, Uhuru Kenyatta, seems to
have a clearer notion than I have. You will remember when he was tired
of “politics”, he said, the time for politics is over—let us now get
down to work.
Kenyans use the term “politics” in a more pejorative way than I have
heard in most countries. Often it is associated with “tribe” (as indeed
Uhuru has also indicated it is and in this context in a pejorative
Mobilising tribal support (and sometimes abuse against others) is
certainly viewed as an act of politics. Mobilising tribal support is
actually a strategy for getting individuals into power. It’s not even
about the welfare of the tribe, just about using the tribe for the
is not such a dirty word in many other countries. In fact, you might
say that generally, people assume that politics is what politicians do.
Economists make decisions on the basis of economics, often focussing on
what they think of as efficiency.
Church leaders you might expect to make decisions purely on the basis
of morality. Politicians have to take into account what is called
“political realities”: they must remember that the people they serve
have different interests.
It is simply not feasible to focus on the interests of a particular
group and ignore the interests of others — even if that might seem the
most economically efficient. That is partly because those others have
Politicians have to produce workable decisions and ones that are as
far as possible acceptable to the people as a whole. This is not
disreputable, provided it is kept within reasonable bounds
HOW ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION
The Constitution does not despise politics. But it does try to guide
them and keep them within reasonable bounds. We can start with what it
says about “political parties”.
By the way – you can have politics without political parties, and
even without elections. Even dictators have to be sensitive to political
reality – or they risk Omar Bashir’s fate. But in modern society
political parties are – or should be – crucial to developing plans and
policies that are acceptable to the people.
We find what is said in the Constitution
about parties in Part 3 of Chapter Seven. A virtue of the Constitution
is its clarity, so what we are turned to is easily comprehensible. What
we encounter there is not something that would please our “politicians”.
We know that none of the groups for whom Part 3 is especially
established (the IEBC, journalists, political parties, the registrar of
political parties) has written this Part. It is short but full of wisdom
for a state like Kenya: highly diverse (with its at least 44
The seventh chapter is largely about elections and the electoral
process, which are one aspect of politics. It is a short third part,
dealing with parties, has two Articles, and the core is Article 91,
which is the closest one comes, in a formal way, to “politics” in/of the
It is one of the most important Articles in the entire Constitution:
its heading is modest, “Basic requirements for political parties”, but
it prescribes a key aspect of the framework of the state. Many
allegations have been made over the years about violations of the
requirement of Part 3. Its disregard is the cause of what Uhuru would
say is “political”.
It includes “Basic requirements for political parties”; and “what a
political party shall not do”. To be registered every political party
should be nationally oriented, have a democratic elected governing body;
promote and uphold national unity; abide by the democratic principles
of good governance, free and fair elections within the party, respect
the rights of all people to participate in the political process,
including minorities and marginalised groups; respect and promote human
rights and gender equality; promote the rule of law (and importantly
promote the principles of the Constitution).
The Constitution prohibits parties formed on a religious, linguistic,
racial, racial, ethnic, gender or regional basis or that advocate
hatred on any such basis. They must not engage in or encourage violence
or maintain paramilitary or militia; engage in bribery or other forms of
corruption—and as rule not accept or use public resources to promote
its interests or its candidates in elections.
There are other parts of the Constitution that are central to politics. There are the human rights provisions:
At the heart of everything that public institutions, and private ones
like parties, do must be respect for everyone, equal treatment except
to redress past injustices. And there is the much mentioned but little
regarded Chapter Six.
Politicians like to refer you to the “guiding principle” of “election
in free and fair elections”. But they are not so keen on reminding us
that the same Article (73) says that “Authority assigned to a State
officer which includes MPs, Cabinet Secretaries and President) is a
public trust to be exercised in a manner that demonstrates respect for
the people, brings honour to the nation and dignity to the office”.
And the Constitution is clear that politics is not some law- and principle-free zone.
WHAT IS THE REALITY?
It is clear that the office in charge of registering political
parties has numerous times registered them when the legal conditions
were not fulfilled. This means that effectively the rules governing
political parties specified in the Constitution are grossly violated.
It is equally clear that the IEBC has failed in the management of its
responsibility. There are numerous allegations or cases of illegality
on the part of the IEBC. Political parties have frequently and copiously
violated the principle of national unity.
They or individual candidates have actively sought support (often
exclusively) on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and gender. The
violent toll of Kenyan elections is well documented. The government in
power – like its predecessors – has made ample use of the police to
harass or worse supporters of their opposers.
CAN WE RESCUE POLITICS?
Politics is going on all the time. Political scientists sometimes
define it as the process of deciding who gets what, when and how. That
is what political decision making is or should be about.
It is so central to the life of Kenyans that we cannot afford to
ignore it or devalue it. Kenyans need to recognize its importance and
use their power to affect it.
That takes us back to the Constitution: it gives the people the right
to vote, the right to complain, the right to petition, the right to go
to court. The Constitution makes the people citizens – not just in the
sense of being entitled to an ID card (or a Huduma Numba?) but in the sense of being fully involved in the process of decision making that affects their lives.
Our President should not disown politics. Politics is a process that
connects people to public decision making. It is the process that
prevents the government from being something that graciously confers
gifts upon the people.
Equally, abuse is the taking over of politics by the personal ambition of individual politicians and by tribalism.
Kenya is not unique – though it may be a particularly bad example. As
a student, Yash Ghai had the privilege of meeting politicians who were
committed to using politics to serve the people, not for their own
This was in the UK, but he likes to think he would have found the
same thing in Kenya at the time — indeed he enthusiastically followed
politics in the form of the constitutional negotiations at Lancaster
We need to restore politics to an honourable profession — and one of which both politicians and people can be proud.
YASH PAL GHAI and JILL COTRELL GHAIT
IThe writers are directors, Katiba Institute
This article was first published by the Star Newspaper on 21st April 2019