This week witnessed the launch of campaign manifestosfrom both the Jubilee and NASA coalitions. As many commentators have expounded this week, there is little substantial difference between the two documents.
Both talk of boosting economic growth, revamping agriculture and industry, supporting women and the youth, and expanding social welfare.
There is nothing strikingly divergent about the ideas, platitudes or promises; the bulk of the documents actually seem to merely be a brushed-up version of Kenya’s Vision 2030.
This broad convergence of our political imagination as a country could be explained by the fact that Kenyan politics is a fantastic show of swapping, realignments and re-launches of political formations.
There is perhaps no other country in Africa where four election cycles in a row, no incumbent has won re-election on the same party ticket that gave him the initial mandate, and no ruling party has lived to launch a second manifesto.
Home owner is back, Kalonzo tells JP
Home owner is back, Kalonzo tells JP
Mwai Kibaki was chairman of the Democratic Party when he joined other opposition leaders to form the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) on whose ticket he was elected in 2002.
Five years later, Narc was in shambles, split bitterly by a national referendum midway through Kibaki’s first term.
With that, another coalition was cobbled up, the Party of National Unity (PNU) formed in 2007. PNU died a slow death, neglected by the powers that be, particularly after the death of its chairman George Saitoti in 2012.
We all know how the story goes. The now pale PNU did not field a candidate in 2013. Instead, the The National Alliance (TNA) informally merged with the United Republican Party (URP) to field the Uhuru Kenyatta-William Ruto duo that won that year’s presidential election.
In fact, the only candidate and party that has some consistency and staying power is Raila Odinga, party leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) since its formation in 2005, and its presidential candidate for three election cycles in a row.
This would make ODM the only political party since Kanu to have a national profile for more than five consecutive years.
The trend suggests that a typical political party in Kenya – particularly one that wins a presidential election – has a half-life of approximately 2.5 years.
After that, alliances loosen, favours have been paid back, and anxious eyes start wandering.
The waning of the political party, in and of itself, as a vehicle for ideological mobilisation is supported by data from Afrobarometer, which carries out periodic surveys on democracy and governance in Africa.
In one of the survey questions, they asked respondents, “Which of the following statements is closest to your views? Statement A: Political parties create division and confusion, it is therefore unnecessary to have many political parties in Kenya. Statement B: Many political parties are need to make sure Kenyans have real choice in who governs them.”
The results are telling, particularly if you compare how the answers have changed over the past 15 years.
In 2002/3, there was clear support for many political parties, with 74 per cent of respondents saying they “agree” or “strongly agree” that many parties would give them real choice.
But in the latest survey, carried out in 2013/14, that support had dropped to 64 per cent. There was now more of the feeling that political parties create division and confusion, with a full third (33 per cent) of Kenyans having this view, up from less than a quarter (23 per cent) just ten years prior.
The similarity of policy positions and manifesto publications today, and especially that they mostly have their roots in Vision 2030, also suggests that the Kibaki administration was the last time the Kenyan government did interesting things or had imaginative ideas.
It suggests a dearth of thought leadership in at the highest levels of political leadership today in government and opposition ranks. Instead, a kind of technocratic fundamentalism seems to have taken over – the idea that technical skills or academic qualifications is all it takes to govern a country.
This is all well and good – no one is calling for unqualified leadership – but that technocratism has the risk of pushing through to ‘get the job done’, but with no one asking, ‘why are we doing this?’
No wonder, then that both manifestos underscore very strongly on the need to support technical education and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and the national hand wringing on “half-baked” graduates.
It is right to support a technical approach to education, seeing that STEM is the driving force for any country aspiring to industrialise.
Science, in the way that it is taught and practiced today, is also largely apolitical – no one cares about your moral or ethical convictions if your calculations do not produce four when you add two plus two.
But that is not the whole purpose of education – schools are not just factories to churn out workers. They are supposed to produce a certain kind of human being, possessing a certain character and temperament, such as curiosity, reflectiveness, courage, and critical thinking.
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The debate about the intrinsic value of things like books and art continues to plague universities around the world, whose arts and humanities departments are under siege, as today’s competitive, capitalist economy demands to see the ‘bottom-line’ of everything – how studying Victorian novels, Shakespearean theatre or African literature will help you be more ‘marketable’ – to use that blunt word that African parents love to use.
But in Kenya’s case, at least, the triumph of technocratism is clear when for two election cycles, Vision 2030 has essentially been reproduced by both political camps, that are supposedly sworn enemies.
Still, the broad convergence of ideas is also a function of history. A generation ago, policy differences between political adversaries were very sharp, and it was clear who your enemy was.
There were people who wanted a free-wheeling, market-driven, capitalist state, and others who wanted socialism, welfare and nationalised industries.
Then the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down; the capitalist West had won.
But in some ways, it was a hollow victory. The US and its allies realised that they had greatly overestimated the Soviet bloc, whose decay and dysfunction had been endemic for decades.
By the time the system collapsed, most people in the Soviet bloc grew and gathered a lot of their own food, they relied on private, personal connections for social support, there was a very large grey or black market that where people obtained most of their essentials.
The underwhelming victory meant that the capitalist West, and the global institutions that function in their shadow, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, could not really trample on their ‘enemy’ underfoot. Instead, they co-opted some of their ideas, which meant that even the bitterest ideological enemies now adopted a broadly centrist position.
The same convergence happened in US domestic politics with regard to economic and banking policies, for example, though it started a few years before the Berlin Wall came down.
Between 1914 and 1982, there was a clear difference between the Republican and Democratic parties in financial regulation policy – regulations were more stringent when Democrats were in power, and were reversed with Republicans in power.
But that pattern disappears after 1982, when Ronald Reagan began to apply his famous ‘Reaganomics’ policy of drastic deregulation. By the end of that decade, both Republicans and Democrats had adopted a neoliberal orientation and became indistinguishable in terms of the economic policy outcomes they produced.
Instead, they shifted their polarisation to cultural and moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, and recently, immigration.
But everyone had now become a free market enthusiast championing social justice, a statement that would have been an oxymoron just a few years earlier.
– The writer is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data explainer site Africapedia, and a 2018 Nieman fellow at Harvard University.