The recent historic ruling by Kenya’s Supreme Court judge: Justice David Maraga on the hotly contested elections spurred the country on a new level of ‘a redeemed democracy’. A definition of democracy that I have questioned now that the country is on the ‘global limelight’. Unknown to many, beyond irregularities that marred elections was also an increase of elected leaders with a questionable track record who were seemingly voted in by a majority of the masses. This was despite concerted efforts by outreach campaigns such as #RedCardKe to sensitize the population on electing accountable leaders.
From ethnicity to populism
This momentous change being observed in Kenya is not far off from the rising era of populism in Europe and North America. Citizens’ intolerance towards traditional political leaders to electing charismatic leaders who are good at challenging power and articulating anxieties of the common man is currently dominating the so called ‘change movement’ in Kenya.
From my observation it seems like populism is extending its tentacles to Kenya from identity politics. A shift from the once dominating identity politics to electing a leader based on popularity that sensationalizes issues and appears to relate or identify with the ordinary citizen’s day to day problems. Experts define populism as politics that are based on emotion to generate a feeling of affective identification.
These popular leaders use wealth to influence votes and cash in on the desperation of the poor. They do solve problems temporarily with short-term solutions often ignoring the so-called status quo systems and frameworks of social development that have existed for a long time.
Accountable leaders shrinking
The danger with this current trend lies in the demand for accountability. While increase in accountability limits abuses of power; the just concluded elections have exuded citizens’ continued tolerance –to some extent- when it comes to abuse of power particularly in management of resources extending to service delivery.
Secondly active citizenship; an important step towards institutionalizing a healthy society is now on the brink of decline especially at the grass-roots level. In as much as public participation is a critical pillar in the constitution; it has not been effective in enabling good governance. Worse still, the participation gap in citizen engagement continues to widen with policy matters left to the majority of the elites while the poor lack the resources to lobby and demand for change. This trend has left the majority of the grass-root population more vulnerable to recent forms of ‘populism’ in Kenya.
Lastly civil society has also not been left out in this margin. The recent directives and legal attempts to suppress the shrinking civic space have proven that the rise of populism has brought with it intolerance to criticism over the mismanagement of public resources ultimately leading to poor service delivery. By nature this trend, threatens the strides made in fighting for human rights. Now more than ever, civil society balances on the nexus between credibility and the fight for survival.
Civil society now needed more than ever
However this does not de-limit our role [civil society] in countering populism with demand for accountability. Opportunities abound in empowering the citizens through several approaches:
Develop a strong counter-narrative on populism through civic education leveraging on channels such as the mainstream media and social media. Citizens need to know short-term solutions are not sustainable. Good leaders should work towards creating enabling environments where citizens can thrive socially and economically. Additional avenues such as community radio can be used as vehicles to inform citizens (at the grass-roots level) on current use of public resources and empower them to demand for accountability.
The rise of artivism
Art and activism can trigger change. The growth of Kenya’s creative economy has been robust from offline to online spaces with thousands of active collective spaces on the rise. These groups have various ways of getting out the message through street theatre, graffiti art, hackathons e.t.c. Working with such avenues give room for public deliberation on various accountability topics such as the use of public resources. Creatives in these spaces have the necessary tools to activate citizens to claim their rights and co-currently partner with civil society to champion for social change
Civil society as ‘infomediaries’
Civil society groups are vital infomediaries in challenging governments to entrench public accountability in areas such as public spending. They can do so by translating data into actionable information. This information is critical in propelling citizen engagement when it comes to monitoring pubic spending. Civil Society can leverage on the open data movement to expand on its niche as an ‘infomediary’ particularly in demanding for the promotion, publishing and upscaling of open data on a national scale.
Let’s not turn a blind eye to this growing trend of ‘populism’.
With contributions from Moses Otsieno, Programme Development Manager, Freedom of Expression/Transparency and Accountability.