Observing in close proximity the US Republican Party Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Democratic Party jamboree in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I could not but admire the way electoral democracy works in the world’s most diverse country.
It is not that I, as a foreigner and an African to boot, expected anything different. I have witnessed and reported, as a journalist, a number of past party conventions and elections and every time I observe them my heart beats with expectations and hope that one day, just one day, my country Kenya would be in a position to conduct its election procedures in a similar atmosphere of fairness, civility, and tolerance.
While I found the event nominating Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate to be shallow, fatalistic, and confrontational, the Democratic assembly was certainly refreshing, with plenty of color, substance, and spirit, and lots of hope and optimism for the future.
The former was largely a white affair while the latter was a congregation of people of all colors, blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos. It had speakers from different religious convictions – Muslims and Christians; of different gender orientation – gays and trans-genders; and of diverse professional backgrounds – the military, politicians, and ordinary middle class.
But what impressed me most about both meetings is that, notwithstanding the attacks flying between the two camps, the atmosphere remained one of forbearance. Protesters within and outside the convention halls were allowed to express their anger either by shouting slogans or by displaying banners; and even when Ted Cruz played tricks and refused to endorse Trump inside the Republican Party convention hall, the only response he got was heckling and jeering.
If Cruz had been living in many of the African countries, he would probably either be in hospital healing his wounds or in prison eating worm-infested beans.
Similarly, the police conducted themselves with professionalism, concentrating on separating rivals and controlling traffic. Other than a few skirmishes all went on well.
Unfortunately, more than half a century later, this model of democracy has not yet filtered through the African political fabric.
And please, don’t tell me about African culture.
That reminds me of the party elections of Kenya’s Orange Democratic Party of Raila Odinga in Nairobi in February 2014. The party had called a National Delegates Conference to choose new leaders for the party. As the process went on, a group of ‘men in black’ descended on the podium, scattered ballots, broke furniture and chased away party leaders.
Dressed in black suits and white shirts, the goons were reportedly hired by those who sensed defeat between two party factions. The idea was to disrupt and abort the proceedings. For a while the meeting was in a state of disarray but calm was restored and the meeting continued without further drama.
It emerged that the group was associated with Raila and the idea was to disrupt the assembly and thwart a take-over bid by youthful politicians. Raila himself confirmed later that the goons were actually ODM’s security officials.
There is no direct comparison between the two events but the logic is there. That others can conduct peaceful election events, and we cant.
Unfortunately in Kenya, party nominations and elections are almost always not transparent. They are fraudulent and peremptory. Popular candidates are either replaced with relatives and friends of party leaders, or, losers are declared winners and winners are dislodged in favor of losers.
Thus, the country always appears to be in a campaign mode. Even as I write, Kenyans are still engrossed in discussions about what actually went wrong during the 2013 elections. It is a time-consuming, wasteful effort. As next year’s polls approach, many are worried about what will happen.
During the last campaign there was an attempt to hold presidential debates but those debates featured people who had already nominated themselves as presidential candidates.
As parties belong to individuals, candidates select themselves for the highest office and expect people to vote for them. Such shenanigans almost always give the incumbent an advantage. No wonder, no incumbent has lost an election in Kenya since independence and this is unlikely to change in the near future.
It is refreshing that top Kenya opposition leaders including Raila, Musalia Mudavadi of the ANC, and Martha Karua of NARC, – all of whom have already nominated themselves as presidential candidates -and representatives from the ruling Jubilee Coalition, attended the Philadelphia Convention to see for themselves how party political meetings are conducted.
Raila Odinga, Martha Karua and Musalia Mudavadi attend the DNC in Philadelphia
I hope they learnt something. If they didn’t, then too bad. I hope also that if they did, they carried those lessons with them and will put them to good use.
If they can apply them in 2017, the party nomination exercise and the elections themselves will be fair, free and democratic. If they can’t, it will be business as usual and nominations and elections will continue to be ridiculed and contested in courts of law.
Joe Khamisi is a former journalist, diplomat and Member of Parliament. He is also the Author of ‘Politics of Betrayal:Diary of a Kenyan Legislator‘, a political memoir about the situation in Kenya between 2001, when the ruling party of President Daniel Arap Moi, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), merged with Raila Odinga’s National Development Party.
The book also narrates cases of corruption in Parliament and in the Media and records Senator Obama’s visit to Kenya in 2006. As a friend of Barack Obama Senior, the author also remembers the times and tragedies of the American-educated economist.
Joe Khamisi’s second book, a biography, ‘Dash Before Dusk’ is also now on sale.
Joe’s latest book is ‘The Wretched Africans: A Study of Rabai and Freretown Slave Settlements‘ which has recently been published and is now available to purchase.