Provincialising Democracy: Viewing the 2020 American Election through a Kenyan lens

USA Today, 2017

‘On Friday 28th December, Odinga was leading by nearly 900,000 votes, with half the ballots counted. With parliamentary results suggesting he had swept the country, victory seemed assured. However, during Saturday, Kibaki clawed back his position. At midday, ECK reports suggested Odinga was 300,000 votes ahead of Kibaki. By 2 P.M the gap was down to only 100,000 votes. By mid-afternoon, the PNU was claiming victory. The result was uproar’. 

Squint a bit, and read Trump for Odinga, Biden for Kibaki and the Democrats for the PNU, and this account of the 2007 election in Charles Hornsby’s Kenya seems eerily familiar to those who spent days clustered in front of CNN in the days following the 3rd of November. With a few weeks now past, and with the result of the 2020 American Presidential Election now beyond doubt, the time has perhaps come to take the measure of its democratic success. With one candidate disputing the result, and a vast number of supporters sympathetic to this scepticism, it has come as a rude shock to many Americans that their democracy is no longer viewed as the pinnacle of republican democracy. Now, American democracy is measured on the same scale that countries in the Global South have been measured by for decades, whether it be by NGOs like Freedom House or IGOs like the OCSE

Many commentators have jumped to comparisons with African countries, one comparing Donald Trump to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, often relying on orientalist tropes of African incompetence and ‘banana republics’. However, African comparisons can also play a constructive role. Instead of being used as a hyperbolic take on Twitter, lessons can be drawn from the African experience to show that democracy is a fragile institution, which needs buttressing by dedicated institutions and civil society, and can be snuffed out, not only by power-hungry individuals, but a wider citizenry that prioritises sectional interests over national goods. 

A profound American exceptionalism imbues statements by prominent commentators, claiming their country is seeing the ‘death of democracy’, facing a ‘coup’, and, in the weeks before the election, on the precipice of violent action by left-wing protestors and far-right militias. All these statements rely on the profound myth, that the peaceful transfer of power based on a constitutionally ratified popular vote is a self-sustaining, historically inevitable system. This fallacy relies on a form of Whig historiography, with liberal democracy as the inevitable outcome of history, which itself was based on the notion that centuries of British institution-building, marked by quiet progressive evolution, created the ‘mother of all parliaments’ and thereafter a network of democracies in the ‘anglosphere’. To this day, democracy in is perceived as something that is natural in the West, but abnormal in a tribal Africa, authoritarian Asia or corrupt Latin America.

The reality is that democracy is brittle, a lesson that every African from Harare to Cairo could tell you, and can never be taken for granted. The reasons why democracies wither in Africa or are in turn rebuilt, are not unique to the continent, but as contingent as the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the ‘free world’. Kenya, in its sixty years of independence, has gone from democracy to single party rule to democracy again, but has always suffered from distrust in the electoral system. The above quotation illustrates the most vivid example thereof, the 2007 election, whose close and disputed result led to mass inter-ethnic violence, while the 2017 election led to a re-run in which one of the two major candidates, Raila Odinga, refused to participate. 

Just as in America in 2020, one of the key problems in Kenya has always been distrust in the institutions of vote-counting and vote-ratification. The Electoral Commission of Kenya is the barer of the brunt of this critique, with extensive debates about its composition and powers of oversight. When the arbiter of an election is within the frame of political debate, the notion of an empirically solid vote disappears, subject to the whims of partisan rhetoric. The lack of a central, trusted institution in America to do this tallying has made it subject to the exact same controversies that Kenya has been subjected to. This is not to justify Trump’s spurious claims, but simply to say that a nation suffers from a democratic deficit for its leader to even countenance these ideas. In this regard, America can learn from Africa that ratification of vote counts are not inevitable, but require institutions beyond political reproach. This is also linked to regional stereotyping in both Kenya and America. In Kenya, voters are prone to distrust vote-counts in regions inhabited by rival ethnic groups, likely to believe rumours of ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation, while in America the President has spread unjustified rumours about vote-counts in majority African-American cities, playing on white suburban stereotypes of Chicago and Philadelphia party machines.

This latter point goes to some deeper issues that troubles Kenyan democracy, which are also in evidence in America. Kenyan elections are seen by the public as zero-sum games, meaning that if an ethnic group or coalition of ethnic groups win, they are likely to monopolise state institutions and resource distribution. This happened in the 1970s, when Jomo Kenyatta concentrated power and patronage in the Gikuyu community, after which his successor Daniel arap Moi dismantled this dominance with his own Kalenjin. This means that your side ‘losing’ is perceived as an existential threat and this means ‘losers consent’, a necessary facet of smooth transfers of power, is impossible to achieve. The endless rhetoric of the 2020 election being the most significant election in history, besides being ahistorical (1860 seems a good contender), has made this problem appear in America. Many Trump voters are convinced they are to lose their guns and their liberties under a Biden Administration, while Democrats assert that Trump is building a facist dictatorship. The permanence of a politically-appointed Supreme Court in America makes the winner-takes-all nature of elections seem even more real. If democracy is seen as a zero-sum game, meaning that the victors are perceived as receiving the autocratic power to impose their will on the other, then there is in fact no democracy at all. Building impartial institutions such as a non-political, non-patrimonial civil service and judiciary working in the national interest is a program advocated by pro-democracy activists in Africa, which the US could perhaps learn from.

A final point, where America can learn from Africa, is the need to overcome political tribalism. As Daniel Branch has argued in Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, Kenyan politics has been dominated by a tension between a populist politics of redistribution and the mobilisation of a politics of identity by elites. In Kenya, the latter has taken the form of ethnicity or ‘tribe’ which politicians use to create coalitions of support, which they buttress by the selective distribution of patronage to members of their own community. This is not inherent to Africa, but an imaginative structure that is consciously perpetuated by elites for personal gain. When politics became about identity rather than policy, who you are rather than how you see the world,  accepting the victory of an other is difficult. Losing a vote begins to feel like being conquered by a foreign power, which goes a long way to explain political violence. Political tribalism has undoubtedly been created in America over the past decades, with separate television networks, separate social bubbles and separate structures of what constitutes truth and lie. When you augment a politics of identity with politics as a zero-sum game, the conditions for mass distrust and violence are there. This is a failure of civil society, catalysed by ambitious politicians, and requires a conscious choice from both sides of a divide to overcome, as the post-2008 Government of National Unity in Kenya tried to do. This is Biden’s challenge in the USA.

On the whole, it is clear that an election is really two votes, one for one’s preferred candidate, and another implicit vote for the legitimacy of the system and to accept the victory of the other. Voting for the former does not mean accepting the latter. Countries like Kenya have learnt the hard way that an elaborate democratic constitution, with nominal checks and balances at all levels, does not make a well-functioning democracy. Neither does a few centuries of more-or-less successful democracy guarantee its continuity. American exceptionalism needs to be shed, and so do stereotypes about tribal Africa, to learn the lessons necessary to rebuild democratic legitimacy. It does not matter if voter fraud actually happened, it is that without the consent of the loser, institutions will only continue to be eroded. America can learn from Africa that building democracy needs hard work from civil society, but also that denigrating an opposition only deepens divides. Tweeting ‘#StoptheCoup’ is certainly a healthy sentiment, but may only end up consolidating the two tribes and increase the stakes to ever more dangerous heights in 2024.

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