is kenya at last getting limited government?

On Thursday Speaker of the Kenyan Parliament Kenneth Marende ruled that President Kibaki’s appointments to constitutional offices were unconstitutional. The politics of the decision aside (it is a war between Premier Odinga and others intent on succeeding Mr. Kibaki in 2012) it is a good sign that finally Kenya may have gotten a system of political balance of powers. No single faction appears to be able to do whatever it wants, wapende wasipende.

Scholars like Nobel Laureate Douglas North, Barry Weingast (of my Department), among others, have argued that limited government (in which centres of power balance each other to prevent tyranny) is one of the key ingredients in the quest for long-run Economic growth and political stability.

Kenya appears to be on the threshold of obtaining limited government. It began with President Kibaki’s laid back approach to governing which empowered centres in the political structure outside of the presidency. Raila Odinga, William Ruto, Uhuru Kenyatta, Martha Karua etc are all politicians who have elevated themselves to an almost equal footing, politically speaking, with the president himself.

And the change has not just been about personalities, typical of politics in Africa. Institutions have had a hand in it, too. The Kenyan parliament – which Barkan thinks is the strongest in SSA – with its committee system and relative autonomy from the executive has been at the forefront of checking the powers of the executive in general and the presidency in particular. The new constitution reflects this new equilibrium condition.

The new constitution also empowers the judiciary, previously seen as a rubber stamp institution in the pocket of the president. Although nominations to the institution has gotten off on a rocky start, it appears that the law society of Kenya and the Judicial  Service Commission might be strong enough to (self)regulate judges on the bench, regardless of who appoints them.

I am cautiously optimistic.

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