Democracy Lab

The Kenya Puzzle

In Kenya, progress and dysfunction go hand in hand.

Late last year Nairobi audiences were enthralled by the movie Nairobi Half Life. A German and Kenyan co-production, the film is a rare but successful attempt to break the stranglehold of Bollywood, Hollywood and Nollywood on audiences in East Africa. Received rapturously in Nairobi movie theaters and then at international film festivals, Nairobi Half Life is now doing a brisk trade in the small market stalls selling bootleg DVDs that thrive in towns and cities around the country.

The film's plot is a familiar one. It follows Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) as he leaves his rural home and job -- ironically as one the countless hawkers now selling the film -- to find work as an actor in Nairobi. He subsequently falls into a life of crime while simultaneously playing a criminal on the stage. In its depictions of corruption, violence and crime, the movie offers an unvarnished view of contemporary Kenya. Nairobi is, after all, ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit as better only than Tehran in its most recent index of major capitals and Kenya is only a better place for a child to be born in 2013 than Nigeria. But Nairobi Half Life also warns against binary depictions of what is a dynamic and fluid society.

The audience see Mwas and the city's residents moving across the invisible but all too real boundaries that divide Kenya's capital. They cross the barriers between the informal and formal economies, legitimate trade and criminal activity, and those between the aspiring middle class and the poor. As the film's director, Tosh Gitonga, told journalists, Nairobi Half Life "is the story of a city. We did not exaggerate. It is not about a positive or negative view. It is simply Nairobi."

Fine detail of the sort depicted by Gitonga is inevitably lost when viewed from afar. Seen from the West, Kenya, like so many other countries in the region, seems to veer from boom to bust; in one era it earns praise for a thriving economy, while in the next it's cited for poverty and corruption. In the 1960s and 1970s it was frequently held up as a shining example of growth and political stability in a volatile region. On the back of a calm transition in 2002, when outgoing president, Daniel arap Moi, gave way to his successor, Mwai Kibaki, and a peaceful constitutional referendum in 2005, Kenya was briefly a poster child of the African Renaissance. Just as common as these moments in the sun have been the periods in which Kenya has been seen as an example of all that is bad about contemporary African politics. The 1980s witnessed increased authoritarianism and the 1990s gross corruption and state-sanctioned ethnic violence. The democratic gains of the half decade to 2007 gave way to the violence that followed the last presidential election in 2007 that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 people.

Even at moments of great optimism and deep despair, however, Kenyan politics have always been best listened to in stereo. That has, perhaps, never been truer than today. In one sense, Kenyans have never had it so good. Investment in infrastructure, prudent economic policies, and private ingenuity have set the country on course towards middle-income status in the next two decades. Oil and gas finds promise to consolidate that trend. The country is well-positioned to make economic and political gains from processes of regional integration that are tying together North Eastern and Eastern Africa to an unprecedented degree. Kenya's technology sector is the envy of the region it serves so well and its banks demonstrate creative ways of aiding commerce. Add in a vibrant cultural sphere, a robust free press, a progressive constitution, and a reinvigorated judiciary determined to flex its muscle, and there is much to be optimistic about.

But this dynamism is not reflected in the upcoming presidential election. Standing on the threshold of a brighter future, the country is confronted with the choice of two main candidates who are products of a troubled past. Fifty years after independence, the 2013 presidential election will be contested by two princelings of the nationalist generation: Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyatta's father, Jomo, was the country's first president until his death in 1978. Odinga's father, Oginga, was the elder Kenyatta's greatest rival and critic. The two differed greatly on a wide range of issues, from land polices through to the pro-Western stance adopted by Jomo Kenyatta and his successor, Daniel arap Moi.

By contrast, there are many more similarities than differences between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Both were born into power and have worked together in the past. They shared a platform as recently as the 2010 constitutional referendum. There is little disagreement between them about the need for foreign investment and economic policies designed to produce growth. In terms of foreign policy, both support continued regional integration, Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, and the measures taken to counter the threat of domestic terrorism by al-shabaab sympathizers. Both have pledged to implement reforms promised by a new constitution introduced in 2010, including the devolution of substantial powers from central government to new county authorities led by elected governors.

So what divides the two candidates? Both have good personal reasons to contest the presidential election that preclude compromise. Odinga is 68 years old and there will be few better opportunities to fulfill his ambition to be president. A distant third in the 1997 election, Odinga stood aside in 2002 to allow Kibaki to take victory. He was then narrowly but dubiously defeated by Kibaki in the 2007 election. Kenyatta has even more pressing concerns. Facing charges of committing crimes against humanity, he is due to stand trial at the International Criminal Court. He may well be in prison by the time of the next election.

His case, and that of three other Kenyans accused of crimes against humanity, have dominated this election. Kenyatta, his running mate William Ruto, the former head of the civil service Francis Muthaura, and the broadcaster Joshua Sang will be tried in pairs for their alleged role in perpetrating crimes against humanity during the violence that followed the dispute 2007 election. Many commentators have warned that Kenya faces the prospect of a Sudan-style isolation should Kenyatta be elected and try to use his new status as head of state to escape prosecution. If Kenyatta and Ruto travel to The Hague to face trial as president and deputy president, as they have promised to do, other commentators worry simply about how they will manage to run the country while also mounting their defense.

The ICC cases have split the country in two. Odinga is commonly believed to be supportive of the ICC process, but Kenyatta's supporters accuse Odinga of encouraging the prosecutions in order to remove his main rival from the presidential ballot. Moreover, the ICC and Odinga are depicted by Kenyatta's supporters as vessels for Western interference in Kenyan politics. Such claims are groundless. For their part, critics of Kenyatta and Ruto think that they are standing for election in order to gain some sort of democratic mandate which can be later used as either leverage in negotiations aimed at seeing the charges against them dropped or as justification for ignoring any summonses that may be issued by The Hague.

These are bitter arguments because the election is so close. Although Odinga is the frontrunner, he is unlikely to win an outright majority in the first round of voting. A second round will probably be necessary and the outcome of that run-off is unpredictable. What is clear is that ethnicity will determine voting patterns to a great degree. There are always anomalies, but Kenyatta will have the backing of his own Kikuyu community. His running mate, William Ruto, will bring Kenyatta the votes of the Kalenjin in the Rift Valley. Odinga will be supported by his own Luo community and by Kamba supporters of his deputy, Kalonzo Musyoka. Between them then, the two main candidates have carved up the support of four of the five largest ethnic groups in the country. The unpredictable variable in this is the Luhya voters of Western Kenya. The community is renowned for its unwillingness to vote as a bloc. The main Luhya candidate, Musalia Mudavadi, will almost certainly be eliminated in the first round of voting. Where the votes of his supporters and those of the other minor candidates go in the second round of voting will determine the outcome of the 2013 election. Muddying the waters still further, the ICC trials were meant to begin the day before the run-off -- although the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has  now admitted that an adjournment until later in the year may be necessary.

The story so far of the 2013 elections will seem familiar to the casual observer of African politics. It is being contested by two perennial candidates who owe their prominence as much to their fathers as to their own records in government. Ethnicity will be extremely important. Taken together, the experience of significant electoral violence around the 1992, 1997, and 2007 elections, as well as incidents of localized violence stretching back to last year, suggest that the election will not pass off peacefully. Militant secessionists along Kenya's seaboard and the country's own ethnic Somali population, disgruntled by the Kenyan mission in Somalia, both promise to further disrupt the election campaigns. Moreover, the chaotic conduct of the recent primaries points to the institutional weakness of political parties and the electoral commission. These are all reasons for concern.

But there is some good news too. Kenyans are not just voting in the presidential election. As usual, they will vote also for their representatives in the national assembly. But under the 2010 constitution, significant power is being devolved from central government to local authorities. County assemblies with significant powers will be filled by representatives selected in the forthcoming election. Voters will also choose county governors and senators who are to sit in a reconstituted upper house of parliament charged with protecting the interests of the counties. The collective effect of these new institutions will be measurable once they begin work after the election. They may, as critics fear with good reason, increase corruption, drive up the costs of government, and further encourage ethnic competition. But what is clear is that these new elected positions are provoking new sorts of conversations about the suitability of particular candidates.

Writing in The Nation newspaper, the human rights activist, Maina Kiai, argues that devolution has led "to deeper thinking about the qualities required for various positions." The effects have already been seen in party primaries where supporters of all the major parties rejected potential candidates they saw as being too close to the party leadership. Clumsy attempts to impose unpopular candidates were the subjects of protest across the country. In many cases, candidates that secured their party's nomination present choices quite different from those that normally confront voters on election day. According to Kiai, the post of county governors in particular has attracted "a preponderance of professionals, managers, and non-traditional types."

This change to the substance of political debate has come too late to shape the presidential vote, but it is influencing other races. The election for governor in Nairobi has developed into a remarkable contest between Ferdinand Waititu, the former Member of Parliament for one of the city's poorest constituencies, and Evans Kidero, CEO of one of the country's biggest companies. It pits the street against the boardroom as debates about class have escaped from inside the ethnic box into which they are usually crammed. And those debates are taking place on an unprecedented number of platforms. Cheap cell phones have brought the internet to the Kenyan masses and with it an unfathomable amount of information and misinformation about politics.

The penetration of social media, the reach of existing newspapers and broadcasters, and an entrenched history of free speech mean that this will not be an election decided by ignorance. With the ICC cases and the risk of international isolation hanging over the country, the temptation for well-meaning outsiders to preach to Kenyans about the perils of voting for particular candidates is great, but it will prove fruitless. Voters understand the issues confronting their country and the flaws of their candidates. They worry about the instability and uncertainty that a victory for Kenyatta will produce and the relationships with foreign governments and investors that may be jeopardized as a result. And there are many good reasons to vote for Odinga besides the simple fact that he is not about to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

However, the tendency to dismiss those that vote for Kenyatta as simply ethnically driven or deluded is, to be frank, wrong. Kenyatta's supporters are skeptical of the vague promises of reform made by Odinga, who has, after all, spent most of the past decade in government. Furthermore, they have reason to doubt the sincerity of their foreign friends who talk of democracy, human rights, and international cooperation when discussing the suitability of the presidential candidates. They remember that during the Cold War positions of principle adopted by American and European governments tended to be dropped when they jeopardized more important strategic matters. With good reason, Kenyans can look around them and ask what has changed. Kenyan troops are critical to on-going efforts to stabilize Somalia, a task that is prioritized by the same Western governments that champion the ICC Kenyans know too that their country is at the heart of East African integration and part of a new frontier of energy exploration that will make any diplomatic isolation a serious problem for neighboring states and foreign investors. And if they need to find a current example where the state's half-hearted commitments to democracy and human rights can be tolerated by international partners more worried about stability, growth and security, they only have to look across the western border to Uganda to find one.

Kenyans know that theirs is an imperfect country. The marketing material for Nairobi Half Life poses the question "Have we chosen to be the way we are?" The answer is (of course) no, but it is only Kenyans that can fix the situation that they find themselves in. From Nairobi Half Life, through the novels of the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, to journalism, social media, and music, a sense of energetic agency runs through much of Kenyan popular culture produced over the past fifty years. But that agency is hard to find in much of the reporting or analysis of the country. Kenyans find a way of getting by, of getting things done, of thriving in difficult circumstances. Although the country's politics seems set to enter another bout of crisis, Kenya will survive. 

Photo by PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Venezuela's New Era

Venezuelans are contemplating the possibility of a new life without Hugo Chávez. But can the existing system continue in the absence of its creator?

"The painter -- the one who holds the brush, who mixes the colors, the artist -- is Hugo Chávez. If I hand over the brush, even to the person most dear to me, that person might begin to use other colors, because he has a different vision, and begin to alter the outline of the painting."

-- Hugo Chávez, 2007

All the signs indicate that the Hugo Chávez era is over. After more than two months of intensive care in a Havana hospital, and following his fourth operation for cancer in eighteen months, the Venezuelan president is now back in Caracas. Confined to a bed and unable to speak, thanks to a tracheotomy, he seems unlikely ever to resume his presidential duties, despite official assurances that he remains in charge. The outsized ego that dominated the country's politics for a decade and a half and that aspired to continental leadership is in the process of leaving the stage. Unable to conceive of life without power, he sacrificed the former for the latter. He leaves behind a political system adapted to satisfy the whims of one man, and an economy more dependent than ever on the international market price of a single commodity: oil. His departure threatens to shatter the illusion of stability that authoritarian rule invariably seeks to instill. 

For most of its history, Venezuela has been ruled by men in uniform. For four decades, however, from 1958 to 1998, it maintained a civilian, two-party system which in its early years resisted attacks from both the militaristic right and Cuban-trained leftist guerrillas. At its height, this system was regarded by many as a model democracy. But by the end of the century its flaws had become more apparent. A significant decline in per capita oil revenue contributed to a dramatic increase in poverty and exclusion. Social and economic indicators were in long-term decline, while botched or incomplete political and economic reforms merely opened the door to the forces that would deliver the coup de grâce. 

A mid-ranking army officer who had staged a failed coup in 1992, Chávez strode to power over the wreckage of the ancien régime. He was elected in 1998 as the embodiment of "anti-politics," the ultimate outsider. Explicitly committed to the dismantling of all existing institutions, he began by having the constitution rewritten and approved by referendum. To the three classical branches of government, Chávez added two more: An electoral authority and a "citizens' branch", consisting of an ombudsman, the public prosecutor, and a state auditor. Their autonomy, however, would soon be fatally undermined. 

In 2006, Chávez declared himself a radical socialist. Despite his evident nostalgia for Stalin and the Cold War era, and his umbilical ties to Castro's Cuba, he was careful to distinguish his "twenty-first century socialism" from the communism of the gulags. It was, he said, "humanistic." But he warned that, though peaceful, his "revolution" was armed and would not relinquish power to "the bourgeoisie." In fact, however, the leftist rhetoric and the increasingly frequent seizures of private property were less about ideology than the concentration of power. 

Shortly after leaving jail in 1994, Chávez had made contact with an Argentine neo-fascist sociologist, the late Norberto Ceresole. Their relationship had ended by the time Chavez was elected, but it had a lasting effect. Ceresole was a proponent of what he called "post-democracy." Disdainful of parties and politicians (especially those around Chávez), he advocated rule by the triad of "strongman-army-people." The Venezuelan electorate, he said, had given Chávez an indefinite mandate. 

In the hands of Hugo Chávez, the executive came to dominate not only the legislature (whose chavista majority never questioned presidential commands and several times granted him extensive powers by decree), but also the justice system, the electoral authority (CNE), and the "citizens' branch," too. The regime is avowedly "military-civilian," and around 2,000 active or retired military officers hold positions in the state bureaucracy. Half of the country's 23 states are run by former members of the armed forces (officially the "National Armed Forces of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," or FANB). The high command swears public allegiance to the "revolution," in defiance of the constitution, as does a 125,000-strong militia. 

During his last presidential campaign, Chávez spoke of "making the revolution irreversible." He envisioned that, by 2019, two-thirds of Venezuelans would live in "communes," defined as the building blocks of a socialist society. The "communal state" is an aspiration of the radical left faction of chavismo, to which Nicolás Maduro, Chavez's vice-president and anointed heir, belongs. It would run parallel to the "bourgeois" state (based on representative democracy and enshrined in the constitution), and would steadily appropriate more of its resources and powers. 

Since Chávez disappeared from view, however, little has been heard of the communal state. There are more urgent matters to be resolved on the economic and political fronts. Moreover, chavismo has always been an uneasy alliance of the hard left, the purely pragmatic, and those who are more interested in wealth and power than revolution. Encouraged to believe, like Italians under Mussolini, that Il Duce ha sempre ragione (the leader is always right), will grass-roots chavistas now simply transfer their allegiance to Maduro? Or will a power struggle within the regime split chavismo and derail the revolution? 

For now, there is every indication that the movement's disparate factions are being held together by the well-founded fear that internecine warfare would cause them to lose the impending presidential election. Before leaving for Havana in mid-December, Chávez unequivocally named Maduro as his political successor, declaring that he should be the candidate if a fresh presidential election were to be called. That left the civilian radicals around Maduro, including members of Chavez's immediate family (notably his brother Adán, governor of their home state of Barinas), in at least nominal control. 

The all-important supreme court (TSJ), along with the citizens' branch of government, is dominated by individuals loyal to Maduro, whose most visible rival is former army lieutenant Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly (parliament) and vice-president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Cabello was re-elected to his post in early January, but the Maduro faction holds the two vice-presidencies of parliament. 

Cabello, who took part in Chavez's failed 1992 coup (and whose contemporaries are now generals), is widely believed to wield decisive influence in the FANB. But although he undoubtedly has many military allies, and may be favored by some of those who regard Nicolás Maduro as too close to the Cuban regime of Raul Castro, it is an exaggeration to say that the PSUV vice president controls the armed forces. Senior generals, and in particular the high command, will likely remain loyal to whoever represents the best guarantee for their personal interests. Discontent among middle-ranking officers -- over corruption, for instance, or the presence of Cubans in the barracks -- would be unlikely to benefit Cabello. On the left, meanwhile, he is regarded with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. 

In the absence of Chávez, the new, collective leadership must improvise a fresh way of resolving disputes. In the past, the presidential fiat represented the final court of appeal. Candidacies -- for state governor, for instance, or parliamentary deputy -- were ultimately decided by the leader himself. The clearest evidence that things have changed is the decision to hold party primaries to determine candidacies in the upcoming local elections, set for July 14. If that process proves successful it will suggest that rival factions can work out a modus vivendi, at least in the short term. 

On January 9, one day before Chávez was supposed to be sworn in for his next, six-year term, the TSJ's constitutional branch ruled that the ceremony was a mere formality. Citing "administrative continuity," it said the re-elected president, along with his entire cabinet, would remain in office pending a fresh date for the swearing-in, to take place whenever the president's health permitted it. Sweeping aside constitutional provisions for "temporary" and "permanent" absences on the part of the head of state, the court determined that Chávez was merely enjoying indefinite parliamentary permission to leave the country, and that he would only be "absent" in the constitutional sense if he himself issued a decree to that effect. 

All this leaves the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance in something of a quandary. Its presidential candidate, Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, lost the October 7 presidential election by over a million votes, despite an energetic, imaginative, and largely gaffe-free campaign. In regional elections on December 16, the opposition lost four of the seven states (out of 23) that it controlled, including key strongholds Zulia and Carabobo. It is under strong pressure from within its own ranks to take a more aggressive stance towards the government, whose disdain for the constitution is more apparent than ever. But despite a re-launch currently under way, major changes in leadership or tactics look unlikely with an election looming. 

Vice President Maduro, who self-evidently lacks the Chávez charisma and has a rather weak public profile, is (on paper) a rival who can be defeated, despite the government's control of the CNE and its blatant abuse of state resources in elections. But Maduro has already embarked on a barely-disguised presidential campaign. One poll gives him a large lead over Capriles. The MUD, on the other hand, which has strongly hinted that Capriles will once more be its candidate, cannot be seen to launch a campaign without being accused of declaring the president already dead. 

On the political front, the government is pursuing tactics that have served it well over the past 14 years, aimed at polarizing the electorate by attacking the opposition (even physically) while accusing the MUD of plotting coups and assassinations as part of an alleged plan by Washington to oust the revolutionary regime. Calls for dialogue have been rejected, opposition politicians are being threatened with arrest, and the media intimidated. Demands for information on the president's true state of health are dismissed as "morbid" and "disrespectful" towards Chávez and his family. Under these circumstances, holding together a coalition committed to electoral politics is an arduous task. 

Most political commentators predict a Maduro victory in any election held in the next few months. The wild card is the economy, which is showing signs of severe strain thanks to the distortions produced by price and exchange controls, a hostile business environment, poor planning, and profligate spending in pursuit of Chavez's re-election last year. Full-scale adjustments, which ought to have come once the election season was out of the way, have been postponed, no doubt to avoid derailing Maduro's prospective candidacy. 

January brought the highest level of scarcity in basic foodstuffs since 2007-8. Many consumers were unable to find sugar, cooking oil, chicken, and other price-controlled goods, including pre-cooked corn-flour, a staple product used to make some of Venezuela's most typical foods. Some seasonal factors were partly to blame, but the crisis (which may yet worsen) is a warning to the government and the public that all is not well with the economy. 

As Venezuelans headed off for carnival weekend, Finance and Planning Minister Jorge Giordani and Central Bank President Nelson Merentes announced a 32 percent devaluation of the bolívar. They also abolished a second-tier exchange rate, at which about a fifth of the private sector's demand for hard currency had been supplied. The net effect was to increase worries about the shortage of dollars -- and send the black market rate even higher -- without fully resolving the government's need to balance the fiscal books. 

Although oil is still selling for around $100 a barrel, and seems likely to remain high, the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolívars to the U.S. dollar is less than 30 percent what the greenback is worth on the black market. Experts say a further devaluation is almost inevitable before too long, in order to increase government revenue in bolívar terms. According to leading economist Asdrúbal Oliveros, the recent adjustment will only cover about a third of this year's fiscal deficit. 

A rise in the price of subsidized gasoline is also long overdue. At the official exchange rate, it costs around a dollar to fill the tank of an average Venezuelan's car. The cost to the exchequer is of the order of 4.4 percent of GDP. But the government seems terrified of provoking the kind of backlash seen in 1989, when a sudden, sharp rise in gas prices helped provoke violent riots and looting that left hundreds dead. The current plan seems to be to adopt stopgap measures until the problem of the presidential succession is out of the way. 

These short-term problems, however, are the tip of the iceberg. Unlike most of its neighbors in Latin America, Venezuela is much more heavily dependent on a single export product -- oil and its derivatives -- than it was in 1998, before Chávez came to power. According to official figures, around 96 percent of foreign earnings came from this source in the first half of 2012. That is due mainly to a sharp rise in oil prices, but also partly because of a collapse in non-oil exports in recent years. 

Oil revenues help maintain a grossly overvalued currency, which has made it much more profitable to import than to produce locally, especially if you can obtain dollars at the official rate, and virtually impossible to compete in the export market. Productivity has slumped, thanks partly to labor laws that prevent employers firing workers even for chronic absenteeism. Expropriations, often without compensation, have discouraged productive investment and created a bloated state sector which is absurdly inefficient. 

Dismantling price and exchange controls would be difficult even for a government committed to a market economy. But the problem is compounded by the huge vested interests they have spawned. One senior private sector figure, for instance, estimates that over $20 billion a year is being corruptly siphoned off by well-connected crooks who have access to cheap hard currency and pad their import bills. Indeed, the penetration of the Venezuelan state, including the military, by organized crime will pose a major challenge to future governments. 

Anxiety over the country's future is not confined to Venezuela. Throughout the region and among the country's main trading partners elsewhere in the world, such as China and Russia, there is concern that this bizarre, slow-motion change of government may have a destabilizing impact. Countries that have benefited from Chavez's politically-inspired largesse (notably Cuba) and those with major business interests (like the Chinese and the Brazilians) fret that the baton may not pass smoothly from the ailing Chávez to his anointed successor. 

Despite calls by Washington and Brasilia for elections to be held swiftly in the event that Chávez is unable to resume the presidency, Venezuelan democracy is low on the list of priorities. The revolution has dedicated much time and money to fostering clientelistic relations with its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors. When the ambassador of Panama sought to put the regime's unconstitutional behavior on the agenda of the Organization of American States, he received virtually no support and was sacked by his own government for his pains. 

Assuming the regime can manage the inevitable transition to a post-Chávez era, economic realities may force the adoption of a more pragmatic set of policies, including a rapprochement with the private sector, once the pugnacity of the campaign period can be left behind. However, ideology -- and the need to be seen to be loyal to the Chávez legacy -- may prevail. In either case, a likely economic "hard landing" would sharpen social conflict, whereupon a leadership bereft of his special rapport with the masses may drift inexorably towards the outright repression of dissent that Chávez himself was mostly able to avoid. 

Such a crisis would strengthen the hand of those who hold the guns. As so often in Venezuela's history, the military may be the final arbiter.

Photo by JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images