A flawed creed that a new constitutional order always leads to more democracy is now spawning movements to change Africa’s new constitutions.
Certainly, constitution-making is as old as human civilisations. But in the modern age, the American Constitution has become the emblem of a political order based on the assumed moral supremacy of liberalism – a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law.
But change-the-constitution movements reflect the intense and bitter elite struggles for power to shape and control new political orders.
Far from deepening democracy, politics of constitutional reforms in Africa are pushing the fragile continent into a dark night of the long knives.
This happens as liberalism that underpins their constitutions is retreating, throwing democracy into its worst crisis ever.
The vexed and polarising debates on changing Kenya’s new liberal constitution dramatise the deepening crisis of liberalism on the African soil. But it is business as usual for Africa’s new constitution reformers.
At the heart of the deepening crisis of our liberal order is the false faith that capitalism, free markets and democracy that underpin Africa’s new constitutions go hand in hand.
For over two centuries, this secular trinity of capitalism, free markets and democracy has had as firm a grip on our thinking of humanity and society as the Holy Trinity in the world of faith.
Even as optimists remind us that democracy has proven remarkably resilient over time, and is likely to regain its supremacy, amidst deepening poverty, inequality, unemployment and hopelessness especially among the youth, naysayers are fretting the death of democracy.
Yet, proponents of constitutional reforms seem not to critically re-examine the philosophical tenets underpinning their visions of power and the future political order within the wider canvas of the retreat of liberalism globally.
Constitution-making in the era of liberalism has followed what scholars have theorised as “waves of democracy” in the surge and reversals of liberal democracy in world history.
Samuel P. Huntington famously identified three waves of democracy, which have witnessed the proliferation of liberal constitutions.
The first wave is traced to the American and French revolutions, which led to the emergence of 29 liberal democracies. But less than 10 per cent of humanity enjoyed suffrage.
In the United States, the Jacksonian democracy locked out women and scions of African slaves from the right to vote.
In Africa, democracy’s first wave overlapped with the brutality and genocides that characterised European conquest and imposition of colonial empires.
Moreover, new Communism, Fascism and totalitarian movements, coupled with upsurge of nationalism, isolationism and protectionism, challenged liberalism, whittling down the number of liberal constitutional democracies to 12 by 1942, and pushing the world to two catastrophic world wars!
In the wake of the victory of the Allies in World War II, the second wave of democracy after 1945 raised the number of liberal democracies to 36. The United Nations was born, so were new independent nations in Africa.
Like the American and French revolutionaries in the 19th century, Africa’s founding fathers fought for liberty, equality and fraternity; the pillars of the constitutions that underpinned their nations.
Africa’s new constitutions also reflected two forces: the compromises with former colonial powers and elite struggles for power.
Soon, the majoritarian logic of liberal democracy that inspired these constitutions led to chronic instability and war in Africa’s ethnically divided societies, complicating the task of transforming the inherited new states based on the diversity of ethnic nations into cohesive nation-states, the proverbial beautiful coats of many colours.
As changes to the independent constitution in countries like Kenya showed, colonialism’s most enduring legacy was authoritarianism, not democracy. They produced a stiflingly tyrannical order.
The historic change-the-constitution movement in the early 1970s was a mere jostling for power in the Jomo Kenyatta succession that Daniel arap Moi and his erstwhile allies won.
It was not about fundamentally shifting the order of things to roll back tyranny and entrench democracy.
As the third wave of democracy unfolded from the early 1970s, the number of “electoral democracies” shot from 76 to 119 countries.
Africa has the lion’s share of more than 60 countries that underwent some form of democratic transition after 1989.
After 2010, the Arab Spring in the Middle-East and North Africa after 2010 inspired the idea of “a fourth wave of democracy”.
But surge of violence and terrorism resulted in failed democratic revolutions in countries like Libya. Sudan’s recent unravelling, with its failed democracy revolution after the fall of Omar Bashir, reflects a long-delayed democratisation.
In an ironic twist, the new push for the reform of Africa’s new constitutions is a populist response to the collapsed welfare services and rights in the age of globalisation.
In Kenya, three movements are seeking to change the 2010 constitution and shape the future of power ahead of the 2022 elections.
One is the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a top-down initiative created after the March 2018 peace deal between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Ideologically hoisted on a refurbished Westminster parliamentary system with a President and Prime Minister sharing power, BBI ostensibly seeks to ensure inclusivity and stability in a political order with two centres of power.
The other is the Tangatanga, defending the pure presidential system under the 2010 Constitution, but allowing for minor tweaking of the law without upsetting the status quo.
The third, ‘Punguza Mizigo’ (literally, reduce the burdens), an eclectic blend of the conservative idea of a ‘small-size” government and the liberal aspiration of a constitutional obligation to provide welfare rights.
It is the closest Africa comes to the upsurge of populist movements in Europe and America that swept Donald Trump to power. The big question remains: Who will hold power by 2023?
Professor Peter Kagwanja is Former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy institute (Kenya).