Direct democracy in Kenya: a case to be made

While Kenya cannot be classified among the dictatorships or undemocratic nations that dot the African continent, a lot has to be done to solidify and strengthen its emerging democratic culture.
Alan E Masakhalia
3 November 2011

Simply put, democracy is rule by the people, of the people and for the people. Kenya is a democratic country that has embraced the system of representative democracy, where representatives - usually Members of Parliament - are tasked with representing the people as well as their opinions. In a direct democracy, the people’s influence on the state is not limited to electing representatives to the parliament or government. Citizens can express their views and intervene directly on their representatives’ activities via such tools as popular initiative and referendum.

As Kenyans struggle for their basic democratic rights it is worth noting that Kenyan public institutions such as Parliament and City Hall have suffered from a massive loss of credibility. The citizens no longer have much confidence in the capacity of MPs and Councillors to tackle major problems such as corruption, poverty, or HIV/AIDS. Over three quarters of the parliamentarians have lost their seats during the last two general elections. This, however, has not translated into any meaningful change. New parliamentarians swiftly emulate the bad practises of their predecessors.

Direct democracy proponent Jean Jacques Rousseau once opined that citizens ought to be directly involved in the creation of the laws which are to govern their lives. He maintained that, "all citizens should meet together and decide what is best for the community and enact the appropriate laws. Any law which is not directly created by the citizens is not valid, and if those laws are imposed on people, that is equivalent to the people being enslaved. The citizens of a society must both develop and obey laws.”

Democracy rests on the principle that all sane people should have an equal share in shaping their country’s laws. Yet, from the day after the election, the elected representatives claim that they alone are capable of taking the decisions which convert the voters’ broad choices into law.

The Kenyan constitution

The outgoing Kenyan constitution did not allow citizens to trigger a referendum. Citizens could only participate in state-prepared referendums, and this was only when it centred on constitutional change. However the new constitution will cater for popular initiative.   Kenyan citizens will have the right to launch an initiative (backed by at least one million signatures), which is then handed over to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which forwards it to the 47 county assemblies for discussion. If approved by at least 24 counties, the draft bill shall be forwarded to parliament/the national assembly for debate and enactment.  If parliament fails to pass the bill then it shall be up to the citizens to decide in a national referendum.  It is worth noting that all referendums in Kenya are national: there is no provision for regional referendums.       

However, there is still a long way to go on democratization as even the new constitution does not give the citizens a say in which international treaties the government might sign; there is still a clear lack of bottom–up citizen participation; Kenyans still have no role to play in budget making, and other national matters. For example, a few months ago the Kenyan Parliament passed a resolution to compel the government to withdraw from the Rome statute that makes Kenya a member to the International Criminal Court. This was done by MPs in total disregard of the public mood. The people cannot prevent the implementation of such an unwanted law or resolution.

Recall as an instrument of direct democracy is new fro Kenya, and very welcome. The recall clause shall enable citizens to force out of office non-responsive members of parliament and trigger a by-election. The recall is however limited to Members of Parliament – it does not apply to mayors, governors or the president. 

The only aspect of direct democracy that has always been in practice in Kenya is that of holding public consultations, first seen in 1991 when the then president, Daniel Toroitich, asked the vice president and others to go round the country and establish whether the citizens really favoured the introduction of a multiparty system. The practice of holding public consultations is not backed by law and it is usually carried out at the pleasure of the president.

It is very unfortunate that Kenyans have no say in who becomes mayor, Provincial Commissioner, District Commissioner, District Officer, Chief, County Commissioner, Ministers, Nominated MPs and others. Yet these are leadership positions wield a lot of power and influence over the citizens. Most of these are just presidential appointments by decree.

A future for Kenyan direct democracy

Even though the availability of basic necessities such as affordable healthcare, security and food depend on political will, and therefore politicians, most Kenyans no longer trust them. They see them as dishonest, selfish, tribal and largely incompetent in leadership. This has seen the more educated and enlightened urban dwellers becoming more politically active.

Direct democracy urgently needs to be expanded in Kenya so that the voters do not merely get to vote every five years to elect parliamentarians and the president, and then leave it to these people to ‘represent’ them until the next election comes along.  Citizens ought to be able to monitor and check the government throughout its term. They should be able to submit motions and agenda for public debate whether the government favours it or not. Most importantly they should be able to recall underperforming politicians. 

In 1963 when Kenya gained independence from the British most citizens had simple and common needs that could easily be addressed by parliament. Things have changed, however, and people now have varying beliefs and aspirations as well as varying social lifestyles. Hence, the current parliamentarians simply do not fully represent the wishes of the entire electorate.

Most of the voters before 1963 were illiterate and certainly unaware of government operations. But this has changed and the bulk of Kenyan citizens are now educated and quite capable of joining in the debate about their future. Our current parliament, for example, has not a single MP who is an expert in matters of Genetically Modified Organisms, cloning, stem cell research, or nuclear power. Yet there are hundreds of citizens with plenty of expertise in these fields. Direct Democracy should enable citizens to play a leading role in decision-making in areas of their expertise.    

Ironically, instead of this, of late individuals with no meaningful expertise and no professional qualification - even hooligans  - have got into parliament, their actions and deeds being no different from those of common thugs!  More than ever before, the common mwananchi is more convinced that he/she should also play a significant role in policy making.

Kenyan’s are particularly angered by the ineffectiveness of their MPs, since they have been entrusted with overseeing the welfare of the citizens, yet most of them only vote on issues as directed by their political parties. Our parliamentarians don’t vote on issues based upon whether they are effective or right, but rather whether their party  ­- ODM vs. UDM, or PNU vs. ODM - favours it.  As this happens, the people are often forgotten.

The introduction of direct democracy in Kenya could go a long way towards strengthening the concept of dialogue and consensus- building in parliament and in national politics at large. Politicians will always opt to reach a compromise satisfying the greatest number of interests rather than take hard-line positions and be overruled by the people in a referendum.  Major parties such as ODM, PNU and KANU would not be taking chances by ignoring the small parties as legislation passed by narrow margins stands little chance of surviving a referendum. Wider support and consensus will thus be sought in advance, and all this will lead to a better and more unified Kenya.

Since corruption is rampant among the political class, and since it is also naturally possible to sway or influence the decisions of a few people, it would be safer to entrust decision making to the entire citizenry. It is not feasible to sway or bribe 10 million Kenyans – decisions made by the people will most likely be ones that are of societal benefit.

Generally, representative democracy has failed Kenyans as the political class has consistently catered for their own interests which contradict the public will. 

Cases in point include:

- MPs refusing to pay taxes.

- MPs publicly admitting that they only passed the constitution in parliament if they were exempted from paying tax. Implying that they would have sabotaged the new constitution had their financial demands not have been met.

- Kenyan politicians are very petty and cases of councillors exchanging blows and fighting in public are commonplace.

- The Kenyan political class has consistently proved to have misplaced priorities. A recent case is the decision to spend millions of dollars on upgrading the Kenyan Embassy at the Hague, Netherlands!

- It has not been lost on Kenyans that politicians have so far been the perpetrators and defenders of corruption. In fact in the recent case where billions disappeared from the Education Ministry, no single MP has castigated the minister concerned. It is the citizens via civil society organizations that are on the streets calling for accountability and an end to impunity.


Embracing direct democracy would shatter the imbalance of power that currently favours the political class while leaving the citizens alienated and powerless. The chance for citizens to play an active role in political decision-making will act towards raising the esteem of the general public. The populace would also mature politically due to frequent participation in decision making, thereby making them better voters and better citizens in general.

For direct democracy to become a reality in Kenya, regional and local self-determination shall have to be promoted so that stronger, semi-autonomous federal structures can be established. Proper devolution either based on fewer and larger counties in a provincial model is what can take politics within the reach of the average citizen. The current centralized system denies citizens the right to make political decisions locally. They should be free to choose their institutions and have their own bylaws. They should also be free to organize their own unique judicial system, housing, and agricultural policies.

While Kenya cannot be classified among the dictatorships or undemocratic nations that dot the African continent, a lot has to be done to solidify and strengthen its emerging democratic culture. Direct democracy in Kenya is surely the way to go as it will promote political awareness as well as stir public debate on national issues thereby giving broader legitimacy to political decisions.

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