Dictating Democracy

In Kenya, a change in leaders may not mean all it seems.

G. Pascal Zachary

When the handpicked candidate of aging “big man” Daniel arap Moi was defeated by Mwai Kibaki in Kenya in December, the change was greeted with the usual hosannas that flow forth from the rich world whenever a corrupt, dangerous and deteriorating African regime loses power. But the West has a guilty conscience: Its leaders bemoan having to give permanent assistance to Africa, and it is all too ready to see turning points in the spectacle of African political failure.
Kibaki, Kenya’s new president, is speaking the language of reform, but lacks experience in doing. A sitting member of Kenya’s parliament for 40 years, Kibaki broke with outgoing President Moi a decade ago, only to lose two straight presidential elections against him. His win in December benefited from the deepening crisis now faced by Kenya, which, in diplomatic protest against Moi’s erratic and self-defeating role, has seen foreign assistance greatly reduced in recent years. But Kibaki’s victory was also a rejection of Moi’s chosen successor, the son of Kenya’s legendary independence leader Jomo Kenyatta.
In most of sub-Saharan Africa, elections remain family feuds, and democratic transition often means a game of musical chairs between members of an elite cut off, courtesy of corruption, from the grim reality of ordinary African life.
For the moment, Kibaki talks the language of reform. “Corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya,” he said at his inauguration in December. “I call upon all those members of my government and public officers accustomed to corrupt practices to know and clearly understand that there will be no sacred cows under my government.”
These words are designed to bring aid donors back to the table, but corruption in Kenya is deeply rooted: Payoffs are essentially a tax against the low wages paid to civil servants and the high level of joblessness tolerated by a government without conscience. An indication of the limits of Kibaki’s options came soon after the New Year, when parents—taking seriously the president’s call for an end to primary school fees—rushed the academies with their children, only to find the places full and the government caught short with no plans or funds to expand school enrollment.
Kibaki may indeed find a way to improve conditions in Kenya, the cradle of humanity that still contains a remarkable range of wildlife. The country exports specialty vegetables to Europe, is a prime tourist destination for many (as the recent terrorist attack on Israeli visitors to Nairobi underscored) and is the transportation hub of East Africa. But with 30 million people and a generation of unmet social and infrastructure needs, Kenya does not require a 71-year-old political hack who compares favorably only to a tyrant. What it needs—along with much of sub-Saharan Africa—is a mass movement for social and economic justice.
There is no sign of one coming, not even a flawed campaign of the people. The next big election in Africa comes on April 19 in Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent, home to about 150 million people. The election, if it comes off, will be the first time in Nigeria’s 43-year history that a legally elected government has completed its term and stood for re-election.
Surely this is cause for cheer. But the sitting president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is a former military dictator who, while a man of rare principle in Nigerian politics, has presided over the implosion of what ought to be the jewel of West Africa. He has failed to curb Islamic fundamentalism in the northern region of the country, where strife between Muslims and Christians has taken hundreds of lives. And he has neglected the country’s crucial oil industry, allowing regional inequities to fester—the people of the oil-producing Niger Delta are impoverished, while oil wealth goes to ethnic groups elsewhere in the country, including Obasanjo’s own Yoruba people.
Obasanjo was even impeached by his own parliament and forced to survive a re-nomination challenge within his own party. Yet his likely chief challenger in the coming election is not a Brazilian-style “Lula”—a man who can speak to the grinding poverty of Lagos, the violent gangs of Iboland or the capricious injustices of the North. Obasanjo’s challenger is another former military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari, who ruled the country for 20 months nearly 20 years ago.
To those who understand the sham politics of democracy in Africa, two former dictators running against one another, in a country with perhaps more immediate social conflicts and economic injustices than Brazil, makes perfect sense. “Obasanjo is an elected dictator,” says Melford Okilo, a member of Nigeria’s Senate. “So perhaps experience as a dictator is a qualification for the presidency.”

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G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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