Kenya’s August 8, 2017 election is expected to consolidate institutions and deepen democracy.
But on the road to the elections, an insidious human rights fundamentalism that stalks the country’s electoral scene poses an even great existential threat than Al-Shabaab extremists.
This fundamental truth is likely to evade foreign election monitors now jetting into Kenya.
On June 27, 2017, the European Union (EU) deployed a team of 30 long-term election observers to various parts of Kenya tasked with monitoring the August 8 General Election.
Also in town is a powerful team of African Union (AU) observers led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
In Kenya, election monitors have in the past missed, and are likely to miss again, the hidden hand of two insidious and deep-seated human rights fundamentalisms that cast a dark shroud over the coming elections, raising the spectre of a new cycle of electoral violence.
Election monitoring seeks to buttress a regime based on human rights as inalienable rights with universal application.
Kenya’s 2010 liberal constitution restates the universal principle that all men and women are equal and endowed with inherent and inalienable rights regardless of their geography, nation, religion, gender, race, ethnicity or clan.
This is what the Australian Human Rights scholar, David Kinley (2006), rightly described as “Transcendental Fundamentalism”, which is the cornerstone of modern democracy.
But beyond theory and law, in political practice human rights give way to fundamentalisms that endanger democracy.
Prof Kinley identified two insidious forms of human rights extremisms, now shaping Kenya’s 2017 elections.
One form of human rights fundamentalism, identified largely with a tiny but virulent wing of Kenya’s political class with a long socialist hue, has too little value for human rights, although it has instrumentally and adeptly used the rights discourse to win state power.
This camp of human rights fundamentalism has been buoyed by the new world order of post-9/11 where human rights are seen and manipulated as dispensable privileges in geo-strategic schemes.
The other camp of human rights fundamentalism tends to overstate the value of human rights in new democracies.
The camp consists of lawyers and pro-opposition activists often parodied by rival Jubilee activists as “evil society”— reference to a powerful and well-funded group of activists coalesced around the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG).
In a nutshell, the politics of Kenya’s human rights extremists is seen as a threat to democratic institutions.
It is in the light of this that on June 20, President Uhuru Kenyatta told the Thabo Mbeki-led AU observer mission that the Opposition is engaging in blatant campaigns to force the postponement of the General Election.
In a recent visit to France, Donald Trump extolled the talismanic value of “Western civilization”, reflecting the instrumental use of both ethno-nationalism and supra-nationalism by populists in the race for popularity and votes.
But, in practice, populists parochially use ethnic and family networks and members as political proxies.
In Africa, populists tend to extol the value of pan-Africanism and nationhood while acting local.
This month, Raila Odinga launched his new book, The Quest for Nationhood: Roadmap into the Future (July, 2017), largely extolling the virtues of nationhood.
However, in the same month public debate has centered on claims that he used family ties and members as proxies in ways that undermined the independence and integrity of democratic institutions.
The debate that human rights extremism is assaulting democracy has centered on four core areas.
One, against the backdrop of the chaotic party primaries analysts decried what they saw as an assault on democracy behind the iron-curtains of “opposition stronghold”.
In these zones of “informal dictatorship” (or “garrisoned communities”), disregard for human rights and extreme use of vigilante violence has severely restricted democratic choices and kept ethnic voters in tow.
Second, debate has centered on ubiquitous claims that the opposition is using its familial and ethnic networks to manipulate the Judiciary in a phenomenon that exemplifies institutional capture.
As a result, some judges said to be linked to the family of the Nasa flagbearer (Raila Odinga) have given judgments seen as fostering uncertainty around the August polls.
But a series of court rulings restoring certainty in the electoral process have reaffirmed the integrity and independence of the reformed Judiciary.
Third, a pervasive and unsubstantiated rigging claim is undermining the integrity and independence of Kenya’s reformed security institutions.
Trump, perhaps America’s most illiberal president, warned of “rigging”.
Few took him seriously. He was trailing in nearly all polls.
Similarly, although Odinga is trailing Kenyatta with between five and 16 percentage points – depending on the pollster – human rights activists allied to ODM have embarked on a frenzied campaign that the government is planning to fight Odinga with dire threats of fire and brimstone!
“Kenya will burn if Uhuru wins another sham election,” an Odinga adviser, David Ndii, said.
Another member of ODM/Nasa think-tank, George Kegoro, wrote (SN, June 24, 2017) demanding that, “The President must publicly and convincingly address claims that security agencies are prepared to act illegally, in order to confer an electoral benefit on him”.
Logically, Mr Kegoro should have effusively supplied evidence to back the claim rather than calling on the President to do the job for him!
Finally, family and ethnic relations and connections are said to be undermining the integrity of Kenya’s opinion polls industry.
On July 21, Angela Ambitho, the Chief Executive of the polling company Infotrak, was forced to declare that, “I do not cook polls and I’m not related to Raila”.
This followed public claims that undeclared interests, family and ideological ties with the Odingas have eroded the credibility of Infotrak polls, said to be part of the opposition’s scheme to reject results of the coming election.
Perhaps one key task for election monitors is how to rescue democracy from human rights fundamentalisms.
Prof Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute and Visiting Scholar at UoN.