Democracy. For a word so widely used and championed, ‘democracy’ is a term rarely questioned or unpacked in mainstream political debates today. There is a historical reason for this. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, the West emerged as the victors of the Cold War and in turn much of the world succumbed to their model of governance: the neoliberal democracy. This was the case for many African states, whose aid from Western nations became conditional on having certain democratic structures in place.
And so country after country on the continent rolled out their first multi-party elections, including the East African nation of Kenya. Since then, Kenya’s elections have been characterised by ethnic tensions and often civil unrest – most infamously in 2007-08 when a disputed election result led to swathes of violence across the country, leaving around 1,500 dead and 600,000 displaced. In 2013, malfunctioning voting systems and accusations of rigging resulted in over 300 deaths.
It is thus unsurprising that in the run up to the election on August 8 Kenyans were concerned about violence erupting again. Tensions rose when one week before the polls, Chris Msando – Head of IT at the Kenyan Electoral Commission – was found murdered, with signs he had also been tortured.
But (somehow) business continued as usual, and the usual array of foreign journalists and international election observers flooded into Kenya, all wondering the same thing: is it going to get violent, and if so how bad will it be? When early polls indicated a clear win for incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, sporadic violence did break out – particularly in opposition strongholds – and at least 28 lives were lost. Opposition leader Raila Odinga accused the voting system of being hacked and manipulated, but international observers largely declared the election free and fair, with the European Union stating that they saw no signs of “centralised or localised manipulation”.
It therefore came as a shock when on September 1 Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the election result, calling for a new poll within 60 days. This is the first time there has been a successful opposition court challenge against a presidential election in Africa; this was cause for celebration for many across the continent, where so many presidents rule unchallenged into their eighties and nineties. The re-election is scheduled for October 17, with further violence feared.
The court ruling has given rise to a much needed debate about the role of international observers in African elections: Odinga has accused the observers, who urged Kenyans to accept the vote, of putting stability ahead of the election’s credibility. But the choice between stability and credibility should not need to be made.
There is a well known saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The universal acceptance of democracy as we know it means that countries like Kenya continue to stage elections which cause instability and loss of life. Kenya, like every other country in the world, has a specific social, historical, cultural and ethnic context, and the country’s ‘democratic experiments’ indicate that democracy as we perceive it in the West may not suitable for its context. Yet beyond academia, little debate is given to whether a different type of democracy is needed in Kenya. There is no easy answer to questions, for example, of how Kenya could tailor its system to cater for its hugely diverse ethnic makeup, ensuring all groups are fairly represented, but this does not mean they should not be asked and debated.
Should we be celebrating the UN International Day of Democracy today? Of course. But amongst those celebrations should be an open, realistic debate about what democracy is and what it has the potential to be. One size does not necessarily fit all. And the concern is that our unquestioned acceptance of this ideology hampers progress globally; the press are forever calling out threats to democracy in countries like the US and Britain, but this is rarely followed up with action or even meaningful debate. Furthermore, our rigid understanding of the term leaves younger democracies like Kenya with little space to think in an innovative way about what form democracy should take within their country context. Until the world opens up the debate to such questions, who knows how many more people will die for democracy.