In this article, I want to caution against not dissenting. Dissension is a healthy engagement in any society. It is integral to the enjoyment of all other freedoms that are core to a liberal democracy. While it has become commonplace to speak about the progress Kenyans have made towards enjoying some freedoms since the 1990s, it is equally disheartening to note that some issues that should accompany this progress are increasingly being ignored. With this progress, the tendency has been to ignore fundamental questions and issues of democracy and citizenship, which overtime appear obvious and a given. Is it not true that we have begun to self-sensor in the media? Is it not true that we have ceased to question, the elements that…we used to question the ancien regime about? Is it true that we have begun to cower and look over our shoulders before speaking of issues that we had learnt to discuss without fear? When did these matters become subversive? The most likely explanation is that in a short period we have lost the verve that made the struggle for democratic space in the country a worthwhile cause: the right of the citizen to dissent, to oppose and to hold a different point of view.
I am particularly interested in the subject of citizenship and how this relates to the enjoyment of rights. I also have in mind the idea that the citizen is the bearer of rights: and such, has the right to dissent and enjoy all freedoms appertaining to them. It is instructive to speak to the subject of citizenship by likening it to democracy. And to do this I would like to conceptualise democracy as both a process and a system of governance. A process whereby the rules and procedures of citizenship are either applied to political institutions previously governed by other principles, e.g. coercive control, social tradition, expert judgment or administrative practice, or expanded to include persons not previously enjoying such rights and obligations, or extended to cover issues and institutions not previously subject to citizenship participation. In this sense, democracy is understood as a way of governance firmly rooted in the institutionalisation of a political culture that enhances and guarantees the inclusive and sustainable participation of citizens in decision-making.
Central to the idea of democracy then is the right of citizens to have an input in and to determine their political, social and cultural systems. More so, given that democratisation is associated with popular participation and the search for effective ways of institutionalising this process. Accordingly, the central idea in the concept of democracy is citizenship, which entails the right to equal treatment in the forging of collective interests, and places an obligation on those charged with implementing collective decisions to be accountable and accessible to all members. Citizens thus emerge when ordinary individuals are empowered to exercise civil, legal, political, economic and religious rights. In Goran Hyden’s view, the notion of citizenship catalyses a convergence between the process of democratisation and liberalisation in the institutionalisation of democratic governance.
In linking democracy and citizenship, we therefore gather that, one, citizenship is about free democratic participation in decision-making. Allowing people to decide for themselves raises the prospect that the state might not control the order of things, as it has in the past. This could be a revolutionary idea in Kenya. Though it is happening, there is need for more concerted demands. Secondly, it is about enhancing associational life. One feels a sense of ownership of the development process by engaging in the formulation of ideas and seeing them through to their full realisation. Thirdly, it is to enjoy all freedoms. Fourthly, it entails the right to dissent. There could be more aspects to delve into but space does not allow for that.
For our purposes, let me speak on the last point. The right to dissent or differ with other people’s point of view is often ignored, though it is a basis upon which society thrives. It is equally a gauging point to determine the extent to which democracy is deepening in society. People – as citizens – have to raise concerns and issues be it in in the social, political or economic sphere. They have to criticise their leaders and censure them for their shortcomings. But how often does this happen in society?
Yet invariably this expectation of citizenship – being open and vigorously dissenting – is not available and where it is heard, it is muted. At its worst, it is hunted down and killed. In a sense, I am saying that dissent improves the quality of decisions society makes and ensures that bad policies are revisited and revised more quickly than would otherwise be the case. That is citizenship.
The freedom to dissent or have an alternative view might appear provocative in our context, yet it is unalienable right and needs to be nurtured, guarded and protected. Fear from being ‘marked’ as a dissident feeds into the cowing and self-censorship that media and citizens are going into. The prospects of this are scary and the consequences disastrous. A silenced or muzzled media and citizenry is a true tale-tell sign of the lack of freedom in a particular society. We may be sliding down in that direction.
I also mentioned that citizenship is about free democratic participation in decision-making. De-participation of people in social, political and economic activities disenfranchises people in what is supposed to be societal decisions. It breeds discontent and disillusionment – a recipe for conflict. When people lack a sense of belonging, associational life is undermined. What stimulates participation in public debates dissipates – again a key element in citizenship evaporates.
When a people do not feel a sense of belonging because associational life is often weak, people do not identify with policies of government or the state. This is a case of potential conflict. A lack of sense of belonging is potentially divisive and damaging for society. It is because people do not feel a sense of citizenship.
Finally, conflict ensues when people feel that injustice and corruption are standard and there is little chance of improving their lives. Anger festers among people who feel disenfranchised because they are not citizens in the real sense. They are citizens merely by virtue of holding Kenyan passports; carrying a Kenyan Identification Card, and so on.