Kenya can borrow a leaf from the Georgian democratic model

Friday April 21 2017

Jubilee Party primaries

Kenyans vote at Wangige Primary School polling centre on April 21, 2017 during the Jubilee Party primaries. Good governance can only be acquired by voting in the right leaders. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I am writing this column from Tbilisi, Georgia, which is the only former Soviet Republic to have had regime change through the ballot in 2012.

But it hit the headlines in 2003, when it staged the peaceful Rose Revolution that brought down Eduard Shevardnadze, the last Foreign Affairs Minister of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) and the first president of independent Georgia.

The country has come a long way since it broke from the USSR.


Perhaps more than any other former Soviet colony, it has worked to erase the Soviet mindset, never mind the fact that the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was from Georgia.

Alone of the Soviet Republics, Georgia maintained their language, though Russian was taught in schools from the first year.

Today, English is compulsory from the first year and students get to choose to learn Russian from their seventh year in school.

I have a soft spot for people who have emerged from colonial rule, which explains my affection for Georgia and other former colonial states (like Ireland) asserting their independence.


For despite semantics, the USSR was a Russian colonial project, sold to the world as a union of republics.

Yes, some personalities from these states would ascend in the Soviet hierarchy — Stalin and Shevardnadze being classic — but power, decision-making and control was firmly Russia’s.

I shudder remembering the long arguments that many students in the 1970s and 1980s engaged in, debating East vs West.

Those from countries in the Western bloc, like Kenya, often praised the USSR as a model, regurgitating propaganda from the darn effective Soviet machinery.

And those living in the Eastern bloc sang the praises of the West with abandon.


Looking back, had someone explained that the USSR was basically a colonial project, I think the discussions would have been totally different.

Be that as it may, today’s Georgia should be a lesson for Kenya.

It has had independence for less than half of our 53 years, but it is far more developed, with about three times our per capita GDP.

Our population is about eight times more, which should be a driver for a stronger economy especially when Kenya is eight times larger.

And, it managed to turn a brutal and extortionist police force to one that is more accountable and transparent, complete with transparent glass police stations.

We cheer when we get one million tourists, but last year Georgia received six million tourists.

They maximise on their natural resources, marketing ski and summer resorts, as well as culture and history.

But they don’t have our stunning coastline from Lamu to Diani, nor the magnificent flora and fauna, that we struggle to hold onto because of the incredible greed of our leaders.

Their tourism, like in Thailand, is focused around small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), which spreads the benefits a lot better than our perverted “high-end” destination focus that only benefits the rich and multinationals.

SME’s also increase the number of indirect beneficiaries of tourism such as food kiosks, artisans and small tour operators.


Georgia is reaping the indirect benefits of democracy as it is seen as the most stable and friendly post-Soviet state with museums and tours set up highlighting their ancient and more recent histories.

Importantly, the 20th anniversary Conference of the Public Defender’s Office, or Ombudsman, was opened by the President, which would probably never happen with our Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, or Office of the Auditor General!

But amidst these stories of hope and success, Georgia’s next few years will be crucial.

The ruling party, Georgian Dreams, which ousted former Rose Revolution hero Mikheil Saakashvili in elections in 2012, just won a constitutional majority in parliamentary elections in 2016.


And now with the arrogance of this new power, some in authority are making noises that are worrying, including wanting to weaken the Ombudsman’s office, which has remained independent, effective and critical.

This should be a constant reminder that democratic values can be fragile and that the most important duty for everyone in a democracy is to always hold leaders accountable, even if we support and vote for them.

Anything else is a recipe for authoritarian rule and its consequent messes.