Historically, Kenya has had a turbulent relationship with democracy, and during the first three decades of our independence, autocracy all too often superseded democracy.
Since 1992 however, we have enjoyed 26 years of unbroken democratic governance. While far from perfect, we have experienced six hotly contested election cycles, three presidents and two relatively peaceful transfers of power. Notably, neither President Moi nor Kibaki seriously attempted to amend the constitution to enable them to run again following the completion of their second terms, as is the way in many countries in the region.
Thus, I would have thought that of all the problems in Kenya over the past few years, our democratic system of government is now above reproach. Surely there is no going back.
Apparently however, this view is not universally shared. In particular, I was shocked to read that Farah Maalim, the former Deputy Speaker of Kenya National Assembly (a position that should require a basic commitment to democratic principles) does not believe that our democratic experiment should be continued.
Discussing the high prevalence of corruption in Kenya, he took to Twitter to explain why the answer is a scaling back of our democratic system, posting that: “Corruption is a terminal disease like stage 4 cancer in Kenya. You can try a raft of medications such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy etc, but invariably ultimately kills. The system of democracy we practice must die if the country is to survive. Economic Elite run reforms failed.”
This should concern us all. Maalim is not wrong that our democracy faces challenges but blaming them on the system itself is completely missing the point. The problems he cites, corruption and tribalism, have nothing to do with democracy – they preceded it, and cannot be solved simply by changing our system of government.
More fundamentally, viewing democracy as a means to achieve other goals, and therefore negotiable, rather than an end in itself is something that has united the most violent dictators in history, and is now having a renaissance with leaders such as Erdogan in Turkey, PM Orbán in Hungary and even President Trump.
And so, while I agree with Maalim that widespread corruption is a terminal disease in our society, I disagree on the remedy. For I believe that with the right leadership and action, we can fight back against corruption without returning Kenya to the 1980s.
The good news is that this is exactly what is happening at the moment.
Led by President Kenyatta and his new Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji, what we have witnessed in the past few months has been the most concerted anti-corruption drive in Kenyan history.
This began with a series of legislative steps and new practices intended to embolden and empower anti-corruption bodies in their investigations, and also to clarify and increase transparency in the tender process, a main source of graft. These included the vetting of all procurement heads and polygraph tests for procurement officers, the publication of tender details by all public bodies, and lifestyle audits for all public servants.
At the same time, Uhuru set about restructuring the main anti-corruption bodies and hiring new, devoted and hungry leadership. Central to this has been the productive working relationship between Haji and the new DCI Chief George Kinoti, which has led to an unparalleled spate of arrests and prosecutions of governors, parastatal heads and leading civil servants.
At the heart of this is Uhuru himself. His rhetoric when talking about corruption reveals a steely determination, the likes of which we have never seen before. For example, speaking recently at a church service in Nairobi, he revealed that “I have lost close friends over the war on corruption. Many have called me… But I have sat back and said: You know what, I am not able to stop it, because a time has come that we must fight impunity. Let us lose our friends and do what is right…No matter how powerful you think you are, no matter how much money you have, it will not save you now.”
These comments, alongside the hundreds of corruption arrests, are the strongest riposte to Maalim and those who think like him. Yes, the war on corruption must be won, but it can be won without abandoning our democracy.
The key to defeating corruption is not to abandon our democratic values, but rather to double down on them.