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Does the structure of the Executive really matter?

Monday October 7 2019

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Next year, Kenya will celebrate ten years of the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

Even before any formal review of this foundational edict is made, political parties have embarked on amending it, although we all praised it as progressive.
The current argument is that the political structure isn’t right for a fledgling democracy.

Democracy (demos for "common people" and kratos, "strength" in Greek) was a creation of the Greek people.

Politicians as well as philosophers in Athens debated the development of this terminology for centuries. In 508-507 BC, the Athenians established the first democracy. Cleisthenes, an Athenian lawgiver, was credited with reforming the ancient Constitution of Athens.

By 411 BC, they were tired of their democratic system and replaced it with some form of oligarchy mostly consisting of wealthy Athenians.

Until the 19th century, the Athenian democracy faced internal conflicts, splits and coups that they ended reverting to the original democratic principles.

There isn’t an ideal structure of democracy as leaders will make us believe. While some are proposing a powerful prime ministerial post and a ceremonial presidency, others think the status quo has no problem. They both fall short in explaining the benefits in their preferred structure.

After all, we spent many years fighting the imperial presidency we discarded in 2010. We are forgetting too quickly before we entrench institutions that will protect those in power when they join the ranks of ordinary citizens.

A casual survey that I conducted shows that despite there being a public debate on constitutional amendment, many citizens have no clue about the intentions of Punguza Mizigo and Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

Like the Athenians, it is only the elite few (less than one percent) playing constitutional games.

As they say, the devil is always in the details. Politicians want a win-win situation where the winner and the loser will have a cake to eat after a grueling campaign.

The public, however, want responsive and transparent leadership that will deliver desired public services. These two dichotomous propositions must be reconciled.

If we truly cared about the common mwananchi, then we should be ashamed that Members of the county assemblies (part of the expansive governance) gobbled Sh8.6 billion in travel and sitting allowances last year when children are dying from collapsing classes. Yet the same amount could develop thousands of classrooms across the country.

It is imperative that we learn from the British and Americans who are currently faced with constitutional predicaments. In Britain, although the country has no written Constitution, they from time to time face issues that are considered constitutional but they often overcome such challenges through their own traditions, conventions and legislations without resulting to demanding a written Constitution.

POLITICAL QUAGMIRE

The passing of the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act that borrows its contents from the American system could be the Achilles heel for the British. The Act gives Members of Parliament (MPs) a fixed five-year term.

Previously, as Robert Tombs writes in a New York Times article, A Very British Constitutional Crisis: Could Brexit transform British politics forever? “a prime minister who lost control of the House of Commons could call a new general election, and so end the standoff.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson now finds himself a victim of the parliamentary changes that he cannot effectively execute policy with sort of a hung Parliament. He needs a general election to be effective in his policy execution.

His only option is mustering a two-thirds majority vote in parliament for a new election and Members of Parliament are against. Some of his own MPs have deserted him.

That effectively brings a crisis with a Prime Minister who can’t govern and MPs who don’t want an election. It remains to be seen as to how they resolve the political quagmire they are in at the moment.

The Americans on the other hand are grabbling on how to deal with an unconfined President. Clear as the US constitution is, the president seems to be unconstrained by the supreme law of the land in his pursuit for re-election.

After years of toying with impeachment threat, the democratic party-controlled congress feels they have reasonable cause to kick out their President. There is clarity with the US Constitution even as politicians seek to interpret it in ways that can favour their course.

In our case, where we have largely borrowed from the two systems, it could be even more confusing. The push for a parliamentary system with scattered clauses from a presidential system could put us in a more difficult situation than what the British are facing at the moment.

In a young democracy like ours, our focus should be how to deal with pressing issues like unemployment and poverty. Much of Asia’s Newly Industrialised Countries first focused on economic reforms before any political reforms.

LEADERSHIP STYLE

In my view, it is not the constant changes to our political structure that will bring stability in the country. Our problem emanates from our leadership style.

This is where leaders endear themselves to the tribe first then seek alliance with other tribes. As long as we continue with that kind of practice, the perception of exclusion will never cease. Partly the reason why the UK and the US are in trouble is because of the emerging nationalism that may tear apart the UK and possibly give rise to internal strife in the US.

True leadership will always emerge and disrupt status quo even when unexpected as it happened with President Obama.

As Nelson Mandela said, "A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don't have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed."

As we debate the impact of tribe in our leadership endeavour, let's always remember that the other side must be closer for us to emerge stronger as a nation.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. @bantigito