Kenya is in the midst of a quiet revolution—but many people, even in Kenya, seem to be unaware of it, or the enormous governance improvements that it is likely to bring.
We saw a new Kenya emerging last Friday when President Kibaki presided over an historic event that was hard to imagine in the old Kenya: the launch of a government website, www.opendata.go.ke  , that makes enormous volumes of government data available to the public in user-friendly formats.
For the first time in Kenya’s history, core government data on population, the budget, education, health care and other public services are available to policy-makers, researchers, ICT developers, and citizens in an easily-accessible format. This portal is one of the first and largest government portals with reusable data in sub-Saharan Africa, making Kenya one of the world’s leading exemplars of open data (see Time magazine's "Silicon Savanna ").
But many observers of Kenya are unimpressed. Why is that?
Fighting corruption remains Kenya’s largest challenge, but progress remains limited. The newspapers are full of articles about wealthy and well-connected politicians and private citizens facing serious corruption charges but somehow avoiding punishment. For example, an MP was recently put on the US government’s Drug Kingpin list, but the Kenyan police subsequently cleared him of any involvement in illicit drugs (see the Wall Street Journal blog ).
If there is a revolution underway, it doesn’t seem to be reducing corruption, and so I can understand why some of my donor friends conclude that nothing is changing. But that conclusion would be wrong.
Since Kenyans approved a new constitution in August 2010--by a two-to-one margin—Kenya has entered a period of major reform. To implement the new constitution, the government is working on about thirty pieces of legislation—on vetting judges, appointing a supreme court, regulating political parties, enhancing police oversight, strengthening public sector ethics and anti-corruption efforts, modernizing public financial management, addressing land issues, and devolving government to local levels—to name a few. If that is not reform, I don’t know what is.
The process can be messy. The new constitution left many policy gaps, which the implementing legislation needs to fill. Those for and against the new constitution take different positions on filling those gaps—re-opening some of the very same issues that the new constitution is expected to close. Brinkmanship is not unusual.
But is anyone surprised by this behavior? Do politicians in other countries stop bickering between elections, or avoid extreme positions? No. Legislators in the USA still can’t agree on a new debt ceiling, and some Republicans (see Paul Ryan interview ) are even suggesting that default would be good for the country! Politics does not end at the ballot box. Political differences continue to be asserted, and compromise can be hard to find.
Yet, compromise will be found in Kenya, and the new constitution will provide powerful guidance.
Like any constitution, Kenya’s has room for different interpretations, but it is not endlessly flexible. It will result in stronger checks and balances, a weaker executive, a more powerful legislature, a new judiciary, devolution to 47 counties, and improved citizen rights—however much the politicians may argue over the details.
Just in the last few weeks, Kenyans have seen how the new constitution is creating a new Kenya.
The old Kenya was evident at the beginning of the year, when the executive tried to appoint a new chief justice without consultation. Public criticism ended that process, and the candidate’s name was withdrawn. Later in the year, applicants to the position faced the scrutiny of a reviewing committee—not in camera, as in the past, but in front of the cameras (see KTN clip ), and so in front of the citizens as a whole. The new chief justice seems to be cut from a different cloth than his predecessors—a point that he himself emphasized, when he was sworn into office without having donned a justice’s traditional wig and robe.
The new constitution also says that all Kenyan citizens must pay taxes on their income. You can see the old Kenya when MPs insist that this provision does not apply to them—a Minister even argued that MPs are too poor to pay taxes, evidently forgetting that Kenyan MPs are among the best paid in the world, earning more in a day than the average Kenyan earns in a year!
But the new Kenya is visible too. Under tremendous public pressure from ordinary Kenyans who are demanding compliance, key government officers such as the President and the Prime Minister have duly paid, sounding the death knell of one of the MPs’ most treasured perquisites.
Some of my donor friends are not impressed. “It’s the same old crowd in control”, I hear them saying. “Corruption is worse than ever—last month 100 officials in the Ministry of Education were implicated in misappropriating monies intended to educate schoolchildren. Besides, you have the ICC investigating Ministers for committing crimes against humanity after the 2007 elections. Nothing has really changed.”
Well … yes and no.
It’s true that the same old crowd is in control, that corruption remains Kenya’s biggest problem, and that some government officials continue to betray the trust of the citizens. But it is different today. The people have spoken. They enacted a new constitution. They are demanding accountability, and they are getting it. Ten years from now, Kenya will be a different and better place.