It is the politics, stupid: (Not) Kenya Style

This 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 context).

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 individuals.

“Politics” 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 votes.

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


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 acknowledged tribes!).

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 Constitution.

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.


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.  


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 benefit.

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 House.

We need to restore politics to an honourable profession — and one of which both politicians and people can be proud.


IThe writers are directors, Katiba Institute

This article was first published by the Star Newspaper on 21st April 2019


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