Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Yahya Jammeh's Ouster Was Not A Triumph For Democracy

In an article published on Aljazeera, Solomon Ayele Dersso, a senior legal scholar and an analyst on Africa and African Union affairs, avers that the lesson from Gambia for African countries is that “not only should [the opposition and citizenry] forge unity during elections, but also prepare to work with regional and international bodies for a negotiated exit guaranteeing peaceful transfer of power”. This may be true but the ouster of Yahya Jammeh also has another lesson for the continent’s despots:  accountability is dead.

The facts speak for themselves. Jammeh lost an election and, after initially accepting his defeat, subsequently chose to contest it. This was a first. In all other cases of disputed elections on the continent, the incumbent has from the very beginning declared himself winner. The Kenyan experience following the 2007 elections as well as that of the Ivory Coast four years later amply illustrates this.

In the respective cases, both Mwai Kibaki and Laurent Gbagbo refused to acknowledge defeat. What ensued was violence, international intervention (military in the case of Gbagbo) and ICC prosecutions. In Jammeh’s case, the avoidance of accountability is now presented as a win for the country.

The deal offered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and the United Nations assured the former dictator of “the kind of dignity befitting a citizen, former president and party leader”-shorthand for immunity from prosecution- and allowed him to keep the loot from his 22 years in power (presumably including the $11 million withdrawn from state coffers in his last two weeks in power).

This is the problem with the Gambia transition. It is not a case of the incumbent losing power and gracefully handing over power. Rather, it is the legitimization of the idea that heads of state who lose power can use their incumbency, and the implicit threat of violence, as a bargaining chip to escape accountability for crimes committed during their tenure.

This runs counter to the tenets of democracy. Giving up power once an election is lost should not be perceived as a particularly heroic act. It should rather be an inevitable consequence of the withdrawal of popular consent. There should be no requirement for quid pro quos, negotiations or international interventions.

Transfer of power in a democracy, as former Czech President and playwright, Vaclav Havel noted, should be mundane in a democracy. However, in the case of African countries, it is portrayed as an act of benevolence. When then Kenyan strongman Daniel arap Moi accepted the loss of his chosen successor or “project” (current President Uhuru Kenyatta), he was hailed as a statesman. Yet he should have never had a choice in the matter. Similarly, Yahya Jammeh should not have been allowed to think he somehow “deserved” a dignified exit. That was up to the Gambian people.

As a Kenyan who lived through the 2008 post-election violence and the pain it wrought, I can appreciate the imperative to avoid such eventualities. However, it is incumbent on all of us to consider the lessons that the folks in power draw. If, in fact, power transitions are to be negotiated between incumbents and the international community with immunity from prosecution offered as an incentive to peacefully vacate office, then that is a dilution of democratic norms, not a reinforcement of them.

International interventions in support of democratic norms should not seek to perpetuate the idea that incumbents can negotiate exits from power. Rather, they should simply seek to enforce the choice of the people. Unfortunately, the African Union, which has already committed itself to the profoundly undemocratic ideal of Head of State immunity as evidenced by its stance in the Kenyan cases at the ICC, sees things differently. Incumbency is still perceived as an implicit guarantee of impunity.

With support for Jammeh collapsing, and even his army chief saying he was not willing to fight to defend him from the ECOWAS forces at his doorstep, there was no imperative to cut a deal. By choosing that option, the international community did not secure democracy. Rather it validated the idea that losing despots can use their hapless populations as hostages to barter for a guilt-free departure. As Solomon Dersso puts it, “they can get a dignified exit, if they allow free and fair election.”

During last year’s US election campaigns, Donald Trump was heavily criticized for refusing to state categorically that he would accept the outcome of the election if he did not win. Four years hence, he will be up for re-election. If he loses and rejects the results (not as farfetched as one would think given his continued lying about voter fraud), does anyone imagine he would be offered a cushy retirement package to facilitate a peaceful handover of power?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why Kenyans Should Keep An Eye On The Trump Presidency

Despite the major changes inaugurated by the 2010 Constitution, the Kenyan Presidency still sits comfortably and unchallenged at the pinnacle of our politics. It is propped up by many of the norms that developed in the last half-century, especially during the dictatorships of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. Over the period, many looked to the United States for a model of how a powerful Presidency could be constrained. However, since last year, goings on over there have had a distinctly familiar ring.

During his unorthodox campaign, Donald Trump, who is to be inaugurated as President of the United States this Friday, violated with almost total impunity many of the norms, if not laws, that have served to keep American politicians in check for decades and centuries. "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," he memorably described it.

“The American presidency has never been at the whims of an authoritarian personality like Donald Trump,” John Dean, White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, told McKay Coppins of The Atlantic. “He is going to test our democracy as it has never been tested.”

Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Research Professor in the University of Hertfordshire, defines institutions as “systems of established and prevalent social rules that structure social interactions. Language, money, law, systems of weights and measures, table manners, and firms (and other organizations) are thus all institutions.” In their insightful book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, describe institutions as simply the rules, written and unwritten, that influence how systems work.

While the language may be slightly different, the intent is essentially the same. Institutions are about the way things work rather than merely a set of formal organizations or even formalized rules.

The United States system is a case in point. Americans love to hold up their constitution as the ultimate defense against tyranny. But while the formal rules regarding governance it proposes are an important bulwark, arguably American democracy is built on a foundation of social norms and expectations much more so than formal rules.

For example, the two-term limit for presidents was not part of the Constitution. Rather, it sprang from George Washington’s decision not to run for a third term and held for the better part of a century and a half until Franklyn Roosevelt violated it in 1940. In fact, it was not until 1951 that the US constitution via the Twenty-Second Amendment finally imposed term limits. Similarly, the fundamental role the Supreme Court plays in assessing the constitutionality of legislation is not expressly provided for in the Constitution either.

It is for this reason that Trump poses such a big threat to American democracy. His refusal to release his tax returns, for example, bucks a near-5 decade old practice observed by all major party candidates which is designed as a measure to enhance transparency. The multiple conflicts of interest he carries into the White House and his statements about similarly flash the finger at years So does his post-election lack of moderation and disdain for “political correctness”. Yet the latter has been crucial in helping to keep the ugliness of overt racism, xenophobia and bullying out of mainstream American politics. Trump’s demeanor during and after the election have however legitimized conduct previously considered beyond the pale.

Donald Trump already has changed America, and not necessarily for the better. In the next four years, he will continue to affect not just the US, but also attitudes towards it in countries across the globe. The question is whether he will fashion it in his own rather grotesque image or whether the country’s institution will prove resilient and tough enough to contain him. In either case, there will be valuable lessons to be learnt from the continuing American "experiment in democracy". For Kenyans, struggling to implement our own democratic system of governance and to develop the social norms and attitudes that will underpin it, it would be wise to pay close attention.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Tyranny Of Numbskulls

Over the last few weeks, the country has been embroiled in an acrimonious and largely inane debate on changes to the country’s elections laws. The controversial revisions to the Elections Act seek to introduce a “complementary mechanism” to the integrated electronic electoral system for identifying voters and transferring results from polling stations to tallying centres.

Yet no one knows what this proposed “complementary mechanism” is. It not defined in the law but has been widely interpreted to refer some sort of manual backup to be employed in case the biometric and electronic devices fail as they did in 2013. That would allow voters to be checked off a physical register, basically a printout of the electronic one, and for forms containing results to be physically transported from polling stations where all the voting and counting happens, to the tallying centres where results are ultimately announced.

If such a manual system is what is contemplated, it is not clear whether it would be different from the system that was in place prior to 2013. In essence then, the law would not be proposing a backup but taking the country back to an era where elections were routinely stolen. In his presentation to the Senate, Royal Media Services proprietor, SK Macharia, noted that of the five general elections held in the multiparty era, in only one had the candidate for President receiving the most votes been declared the winner.

In fact the move to an electronic system was in response to these repeated failures, which were the trigger for the 2007/8 post-election violence. In a 2010 paper, the immediate former chair of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission, Ahmed Isaack Hassan, declared that “based on the recommendations of the [2008 Kriegler Report], the Commission was determined to have a fully automated electoral process, from e-registration, e-voting and finally e-transmission of results.“ While the system the IEBC eventually settled on had both manual and electronic components, it is nonetheless clear that the latter was introduced as a cure to the former. The amendments seek to reverse this and now present the discredited manual system as the cure.

And remembering that the electronic system was meant to deal with specific problems in the manual system, it is notable that there has been little articulation by the amendment’s proponents of what has been done to fix those. That the experience of the 2013 elections where the IEBC was forced to revert to a completely manual system has not featured prominently in the debate is also telling.

But what is most galling is the fact that the entire debate is conducted without benefit of an understanding of how the electoral system as a whole is meant to function and where gaps and opportunities for mischief exist. There is also much conflation of issues which leads to confusion. For example, the case for a “complementary mechanism”, not as a backup, but as a check on abuse of the electronic system is much stronger when dealing with transmission of results than with voter identification.

In transmission, the two systems could function together simultaneously, each as a check on the other, as the IEBC had apparently intended in the 2013 election, with the instantaneous results transmitted via the electronic system being provisional until verified via the physical delivery of the form. The idea was to discourage the practice of election officials disappearing en route to transmission centres and eventually turning up with doctored forms. With the information having been already sent ahead via the electronic system, any discrepancy would immediately raise a red flag and the ultimate back up would be the ballot boxes and the ballots contained therein.

Since there is no dispute about biometric voter registration, the identification of voters via a physical printout of part the information contained in the electronic register has much less appeal. The requirement for the biometric registration was designed to solve the perennial problem of ghost or dead voters, first by ensuring the register is populated with details of real, living voters and secondly to ascertain that the person who turns up to cast a ballot is the actual registered person. It also eliminated opportunities for mischievous electoral officials to “vote” on behalf of registered voters who didn’t show up.

If the electronic voter identification system was to break down entirely, as it apparently did in 2013, any credible “complementary mechanism” would have to be robust enough to handle these challenges. A physical printout simply does not cut it.

Further, the lack of an audit has meant that we are reduced to putting out sporadic fires instead of addressing the system as a whole and dealing with root causes. We fail to see the wood for trees. Yesterday we were fighting over IEBC commissioners. Today it is voter identification and results transmission. All are important to fix but are only a small part of our dysfunctional electoral system which requires a complete overhaul. Everything from ID issuance to security to disposal of petitions needs to be looked into. 

For example, there is little discussion about the weaknesses shown up by Raila Odinga's 2013 petition against the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta. The Supreme Court had only 14 days to deal with it. The IEBC essentially ran down the clock by refusing to provide him the documents he needed to make his case until compelled to by the courts. As a result, was not heard on its full merits. In fact, as reported by George Kegoro, one Supreme Court Justice openly admitted that he might have ruled differently if he had had more time.  Yet we still have no law compelling the IEBC to hand over documents to petitioners nor are we contemplating changing the constitution to give the Supreme Court more time as recommended by former Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga.

Clearly, the current debate has been held hostage to the narrow interests of politicians as opposed to those of Kenyans in general. The manner in which the Jubilee coalition has bulldozed the amendments through Parliament, despite its own Senators acknowledging that the Bill contains unconstitutional provisions, amply demonstrates this. In fact, the entire discourse on electoral reform has been polarized by politicians seeking advantage rather than attempting to reason out and fix the problems with the system. What they want is to win. Whether that win is secured in a fair and open manner is of secondary importance to them. 

Yet it is a matter of life and death for the rest of Kenya. Thus the passage of the amendments and their imminent signing into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta should not be the end of the matter. We still can and must free ourselves from the tyranny of numbskulls and insist that needed reforms are not left to the whims of politicians but are discussed and agreed in for a that include a much wider array of stakeholders and interest groups including but not limited to academics, professional associations, media, civil society and religious leaders. The reforms must also be about resolving the historical problems that have plagued our elections and ensuring a transparent, free, fair and credible vote, rather than a win for particular candidates.