Prof Nyong’o new essays should strengthen the public debate on constitutional reforms.
In his testimony to the Building Bridges Initiative last month, Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, the governor of Kisumu and former Cabinet minister for national planning and for medical services, reduced his recommendation to two basic dimensions: a parliamentary system of government for Kenya, and the introduction of proportional representation as the electoral system, as opposed to the current first-past-the-post simple majority procedure.
Prof Nyong’o considers enhanced devolution through regional economic blocs as a necessity, but not an urgent priority.
The essays presented in his new book, Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Kenya, underpin the two basic recommendations that he made to the Building Bridges Initiative. They amplify, illustrate and justify in greater detail the need for Kenya to introduce constitutional reforms at this stage in favour of parliamentary government (as opposed to the current presidential system), and proportional representation in the election of legislators at all levels.
His narrative in the book, published by Booktalk Africa, takes the reader to basic theories of democratic government — from the biblical Moses, Robert Michels, St Augustine of Hippo, Karl Marx and Jean Jacques Rousseau — to specific country experiences, ranging from Kenya itself to the United States, South Africa, Mauritius, Tanzania, Congo DR, Ghana and Nigeria.
On Kenya specifically, the essays touch repeatedly on its immediate post-independence experience that saw the elimination, as elsewhere in Africa, of parliamentary government and its replacement by an autocratic presidentialism, the resistance to one-party rule in the 1990s, the betrayals after the 2002 General Election that were won by Narc, and the electoral crisis thereafter. Lessons in favour of the two basic constitutional reforms are drawn from that diversity of experiences, and theories.
Prof Nyong’o is both a statesman and an intellectual. That is a rare combination of skills in Kenya today compared with where the country (and Africa generally) was in the immediate post-independence period. In those days, Africans debated their most fundamental political and economic development policies against the backdrop of the contours of thought charted by their leaders in government or out of it. One thinks of Tom J. Mboya, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkurumah, Leopold Senghor, Dunduzu Chisiza, Frantz Fanon and many others. It became normal for the first generation of African leaders to commit their thought and policy goals to paper and to invite debate.
The goals of African independence, African identity, national unity, African socialism, strategies of achieving pan-African unity, economic development, inequality, non-alignment in international affairs — all these were subjected to vigorous public debate.
Somewhere along the way, Africa lost these lofty intellectual standards and dropped the bar so low that the number of our leaders who can commit thought to paper is now but a tiny minority. Campaign manifestos are increasingly commissioned to consultants, including international ones. For this reason, we are indebted to Prof Nyong’o and the few like him who have bucked the trend of African intellectual denudation. For whether you agree with what he says in the book or not, the truth is that democracy in Kenya and the rest of Africa will be better served by educated and informed debate in comparison with the dreary intellectual flimflam that we hear from our legislators and read on social media and the daily press.
Prof Nyong’o ranks among the top African intellectuals in social sciences, and I should know. Over many decades, I have co-taught university courses with him. I have co-authored and co-published academic work with him. We have taken sides in academic debates ranging from the priorities of democratic governance in Africa, the role of the peasantry agrarian development, and the relevance of the East Asian miracle to Africa, among other topics. Prof Nyong’o never disappoints intellectually, whether you agree with him or not. And this applies to this collection of essays.
These essays should strengthen the public debate on constitutional reforms now underway in Kenya. In that context, one of the ideas I have fully shared for long with Prof Nyong’o is that of the need to replace the presidential system of government with a parliamentary one because the latter is better suited to an ethnically polarised society like ours. A parliamentary system is no panacea, as he states at one point, but it is far better suited to our politics than the highly divisive majoritarian-based presidentialism.
Kenya’s violent electoral conflicts every five years are ever about the presidential poll, and seldom or ever about elective positions further down the political hierarchy, i.e. Parliament and county seats. Under a parliamentary system, Kenyans would vote for parties, or coalitions of parties, the party with the majority in the legislature getting the first shot in forming the government. In my view, it is best to raise the majority threshold in this case higher than 50+ percentage, to enable the governing party to reach out to the smaller parties (and ethnic groups), political allegiances being what they are in Kenya: local and ethnic.
Prof Nyong’o, in addition, makes the case for a party list proportional representation. Again, this is a sound proposal: under it party legislative strengths roughly reflect the percentage of votes cast for the respective parties. Party list proportional representation also tends to be more gender and minority-friendly than first-past-the post majority system.
Its drawbacks, as we can see from South Africa, is that parliamentarians seek to serve and please the party that nominated them more than the constituency allocated them — if any. For that reason, Kenya might consider the Mixed-member Proportional Representation (MMPR) system, under which voters get two votes: one to choose the representative of their single-seat constituency, and the other for a political party. In my estimation, Lesotho presents the best example under which one ballot is used to elect the constituency MP, and to indicate party affiliation, the latter being then used to distribute non-constituency seats to parties in proportion to the ballots cast. Party lists are publicly distributed before the polls.
There are ancillary reforms that often run along those proposed in these essays and Prof Nyong’o mentions them on and off. These include an inclusive “consociational” system of government, in which all ethnic segments of society are represented in the Cabinet and the executive. The other is a devolved system of government, preferably federalism. Again, I share these sentiments. Mauritius is probably the best example of power-sharing across ethnic groups that has stabilised what was in the immediate post-independence years a volatile inter-ethnic condition.
All these are weighty matters that deserve further public discussion. This debate deserves to be joined. And we should be grateful to Prof Nyong’o for guiding us through it.
Prof Chege teaches at the University of Nairobi and is the chairman of the NEPAD/APRM Kenya Governing Council.