kenya: a model of conservative revolution?

An ambitious project is in the works to build a new city from scratch in Kenya, a sign that things are indeed changing in the economic engine of the wider eastern African region. The stock market voted for the new constitution with a bullish run on the eve of the ratification of the document. Investments in property – the property class has outdone most asset classes in the last two years – serve as a sure marker that Kenyans are confident in government’s commitment to protection of property rights. I am one of those who remain optimistic that Kenya is on the verge of take-off. And here is why.

Not long ago the idea of a cabinet minister resigning in Kenya was a pipe dream. Even more improbable was the idea of parliament defying the president. But these days ministers resign and the Kenyan parliament routinely defies State House. More importantly, the august house has continued its march towards independence from the executive – both functionally and financially. By controlling their own budget and calendar and building a functioning committee system, members of The House have acquired enough muscle to expose lapses in the management of public affairs – including the present scandals involving the Kenyan foreign ministry and the Nairobi City Council.

The biggest question, however, is whether the reforms embodied in the new constitution will last. My answer is yes they will, for two reasons. Firstly, the reforms are not as radical as some commentators think they are. The Kenyan establishment still stands to gain the most from the institutional reforms embodied in the new constitution. Land ownership, taxation, regulation of business, among other topics of interest to the elite are still firmly in the hands of the conservative centre and their provincial allies. Secondly, the emerging culture of bargaining, as opposed to Nyayo era “wapende wasipende (like or not) politics,” provides opportunities for amicable settlement of disputes resulting in self-reinforcing deals. No single political grouping can force its will on Kenyans. Mr. Kenyatta needed to only convince the Kiambu mafia for his policies to fly. Moi only needed a small group of collaborators. The new dispensation, however, requires that a significant number of elites, with varied political interests, buy into an idea before it can fly. This is progress. It is stable and sustainable progress.

Kenya’s dark hour in early 2008 was an eye-opener to the political and economic elite. The more than 1300 deaths will forever be a reminder of the evils of strongman rule. The broader legacy of the 2007 election will however be positive. The elections showed the core conservative establishment that they cannot run the country on their own, and that the peripheral elites also have significant de facto political power. By forcing the elite into agreeing to a self-enforcing arrangement, the regrettable events of 2007-08 facilitated elite compromises culminating in their new Kenyan constitution. The yet to be established supreme court will provide the final piece of the foundation needed for sustained institutional development in a predictable environment. Paradoxically, the biggest plus of Kenya’s new constitution is its conservative bent. And for that reason it will endure beyond the current teething phase. A more radical document would have been eviscerated just as the Kenyatta and Mboya amendments decimated Kenya’s independence constitution.

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