Cover Story

What have elections to do with freedom?

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 09/07/2017

As Kenya heads for elections for the 12th parliament in August 2017, it seems pertinent to reflect on the nature of elections and to consider the extent to which elections can be a pathway towards freedom, emancipation, justice and human dignity. These are lofty goals, I admit, but if elections are not a means towards those ends, why do we expend so much energy on them?

True, we are ‘free’ to vote once every few years, and the right to vote was one of the many gains of the struggle for independence. But this freedom has been a limited one, and one which has become too often associated with the freedom of candidates, in the absence of any political programme, to make hand-outs to entice voters, to sow ethnic divisions, to make promises that will never be kept, and to exercise their freedom to proclaim that it is their ‘turn to eat’. And too often the right to vote exists only in principle for the many who are actively disenfranchised through failure of the authorities to provide valid identity documents to particular groups of people (especially those Kenyans who are referred to as ‘Somalis’ and those active in social movements), to say nothing of the stuffing of ballot boxes with mythical votes.

But worst of all, elections in Kenya are today limited to making choices not about social policies or about political programmes, but about which set of villains are going to control the state. While civil society protests vociferously about the way in which access to the state provides a means for personal accumulation (which they call ‘corruption’), they remain largely silent about how these villains will have, and have had since independence, the freedom to allow transnational capital and international financial institutions to exploit both labour and natural resources of the country, often in collaboration with local elites, to rob the country of its wealth and to avoid taxes through both illicit and ‘lawful’ transfers. They mostly remain silent about the collaboration of the state with USA and other western powers over the privatization of the public sphere, security and military interventions, a collaboration that takes on a fearful dimension in the context of the establishment of fascism under the Trump administration. These are not, it seems, legitimate topics for discussion at elections.

At best, the freedoms associated with elections are limited. Cattle in a field have the freedom to roam around the field as much as they want. But they are limited in their freedom by the fences around field that have been established not by their will, but by those of the farmer. There is no question of them challenging the right of the farmer to set the perimeters, nor indeed is there much room for negotiation. The basic premise of the state they find themselves is taken as given.

What has that to do with our situation? The fundamental problem that most of us ignore is that fact that the colonial state that we inherited at independence has remained fundamentally unchanged. As in virtually every country on this continent (with very few but important exceptions), the structure, function and purpose of the colonial state was never challenged by the nationalists that took power at independence. True, there was at independence a systematic de-racialisation of the functionaries and the changing of the uniforms of the armed forces and police in the colours of the national flag. But fundamentally the core role of the colonial state, the fences around our field, remained unaltered.

The colonial state’s purpose was to protect and advance the interests of capital, to enable super-profits to be acquired and accumulated in the ‘mother’ country. To justify the colonisation of the land, use of forced labour, large scale land-grabbing, control over agricultural and industrial production, maintenance of low wages, long hours and insufferable working conditions, repression against resistance, extrajudicial killings, massacres, torture, rape, imprisonment, enforced villagization, mass unemployment, homelessness and landlessness, impunity for the police and armed forces, the establishment of a compliant judiciary — to justify all these criminal features of colonial rule required the rendering of the colonised as inhuman or less than human. These features of the colonial state continue today, albeit now perpetrated by the elites that took over.

But if colonial rule was characterized by the establishment of structures that ensured systematic dehumanization of Africans, the struggles against colonialism were characterized by the constant re-assertion of people’s own humanity. That was a trajectory from the very early resistances such as those of the Giriama people led by Mekatilili in the beginning of the 20th century, to the escalating resistances and rebellions that emerged in the post 2nd World War period, especially those of the Land and Freedom Army (the so-called ‘Mau-Mau’). In these struggles, we witnessed the nascent debates about alternative values and means for self-determination. But it was the defeat, and large-scale annihilation of its members through the use of napalm, bombing, torture, concentration camps, imprisonment and executions that resulted in Kenya’s freedom from colonial rule being stillborn. The aspiration for inventing what it means to be human was brutally crushed.

It was over the detritus left after the suppression of the movements for freedom that Kenya achieved its formal ‘independence’ in 1963. Amidst great fanfare, the new national flag was hoisted. The British Governor’s palatial residence came to be occupied by the president. The freedom fighters were marginalised, while those who played a critical role in the suppression of the liberation movement, such as the Kenya African Rifles established by the British as part of their imperial troops, were incorporated into the armed forces under the tutelage of the British armed forces. The judiciary remained unchanged — indeed until much later, the senior ranks of the judiciary were comprised of retired British judges. As they began to be replaced, they remained nevertheless be-gowned and be-wigged in the costumes of the imperial homeland where even such attire is viewed as an anachronism. The police operated under the same rules and laws that were established by the colonial authorities. The constitution ordained by the British in collusion with the local elites remained in place for many years. The right of capital to operate as before was endorsed, with the proviso only that their local managers had now to include some Africans. Our ‘right’ to be subservient to our old colonial masters has been changed, only now our governments have become subservient to the dominant imperial powers, the USA and its allies.

The parameters of the field within which we could roam (and not always freely) were thus established in the ‘modernized’ colonial state. The colonial borders were held to be sacrosanct. Being humans and not cattle, there were struggles to negotiate the rules governing the territory, including the establishment, eventually, of a new constitution. Much lauded as that document has been, the fact remains it constituted essentially an attempt to establish the rules by which the neo-colonial state should be managed. As the unconstitutional invasion of Somalia by Kenya demonstrated, the constitution is recognised more in its breach than by respect of its provisions.

Some 45 percent of Kenyans are said to survive on less than $1.00 a day (KShs 2,193 per month). This is a level that the Society for International Development claims is the ‘poverty line’, but as Jason Hickel has pointed out, a more realistic level for poverty is closer to $5.00 per day. On that basis, it would be safe to say that an overwhelming majority of people live under destitute and precarious conditions. Life expectancy which in 1989 had reached 60 years, by 2008 had fallen to 56 years. In the same period, maternal mortality ratio has increased from 365 to 488 per 100,000 births. The hundreds of extrajudicial killings by the police with complete impunity for those who execute citizens is a mark of the extent to which the mass of people are considered less than humans. These are just some of the proxy variables from which we can gain some sense of the degree of dehumanisation faced by the majority.

Elections are primarily about deciding which section of the oligarchy will control the colonial state. They are not about social transformation nor about creating the conditions from which people can re-assert, if not invent, their humanity, nor about how people can determine their future. It is therefore perplexing to see the amount of energy devoted by Kenyan civil society to ensuring that the elections are held fairly and that due process and the terms laid out in the constitution are followed. All this hard work to ensure the legitimacy of a process that will decide which section of the oligarchy will rule! That is not to say that there should be no regard for the wishes of citizens as expressed in the ballot box. Properly held elections are of course necessary but, I would argue, not sufficient if the goal is to establish a society built on freedom, emancipation, justice and human dignity.

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that by itself, elections mean little. We ought instead to be engaging our energies primarily to supporting popular movements that emerge out of struggles against injustice. It is there that the elements of a future society will be born. It will be from within such movements that candidates can emerge to put forward meaningful political programmes that represent the real interests of the mass of the impoverished, exploited, oppressed and disenfranchised, and who are accountable to the people of those movements. The purpose of standing for elections should be more about stimulating public debate about the issues that need to be addressed than about being elected as the new controllers of the state. The outcome that we need to fight for is not command over the colonial state. As Amilcar Cabral, the Guinea-Bissau revolutionary leader put it ‘Our objective [should be] to break with the colonial state in our land to create a new state – different, on the basis of justice, work, and equality of opportunity for all the children of our land ...We have to destroy everything that would be against this in our land, comrades. Step by step, one by one if necessary – but we have to destroy in order to construct a new life.’

Last modified on Sunday, 09 July 2017 14:00
Firoze Manji

Publisher with Daraja Press ( and a member of the editorial advisory board of AwaaZ Magazine.


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