In his farewell address in 2017, US President Barack Obama said that the most important office in a democracy is the citizen.
‘‘It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when you own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime,’’ he argued.
President Obama’s farewell speech was an important reflection on the growth of democracy, based on his eight year stint in the Oval Office.
He emphasized that democratic maturity is not a single event but a series of events and actors. It is a work in progress. The interest he called on citizens to develop in the political affairs of their country were never meant to be a one time, kneejerk reaction, but a perpetual endeavour by those who deliberately and actively seek to effect change in their societies.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has also on several occasions reminded citizens on their important role in the country’s prosperity, particularly in safeguarding the country’s sovereignty by being eternally vigilant.
“Our communities and, indeed, every citizen must also play their part. Therefore, I call upon the local communities and leadership to collaborate with security agencies to achieve the success we desire,” the President. He spoke in September 2021 as he presented Presidential and Regimental Colours to the Kenya Navy, Manda Bay Base.
And here in Kenya, we are gearing up for another election moment. By all means, the 2022 election is promising to be a watershed moment in the history of the country. The stakes are so high, and so are the expectations and the country’s continued quest as a maturing democracy.
In understanding the place of the citizen in Kenya’s democracy, it is important to point out that the Constitution vests all sovereign power on the people of Kenya. This power can be exercised directly by themselves or indirectly, through their democratically elected representatives.
This is a very important foundation for the office of the citizen. In fact, the Constitution has given the citizen the launching pad to play their role in influencing the affairs of the state.
Additionally, the word democracy itself draws its origin from two key Greek words, demos meaning people and kratos meaning power, making democracy the power of the people. But how powerful is the citizen in the Kenyan democracy? Does the citizen often have the wherewithal to influence the course of Kenya’s future?. These are fundamental questions that deserve answers and what needs to be done to strengthen this important institution of the ‘‘office of the citizen.’’
In the Greek city-state of Athens, where the seeds of democracy were sowed, nurtured and matured, citizenship was greatly respected. So much so that even those who laboured in shaping the future of their city-state, felt a sense of loyalty, with value and trust placed on the common citizen.
That’s how Athens gave the world its greatest gift of democracy. In fact, the Athenian democracy was premised on the foundation that the people themselves exercised their sovereignty directly and not through other people.
In the modern world though, including Kenya, given the complexities of the issues that humanity faces, representative democracy has taken root. So unlike Athens where citizens (male citizens to be precise) showed up at the Ecclesia (the public assembly of citizens) every time to discuss issues affecting them, now they are allowed to elect people to represent their interests every five years (in the case of Kenya).
Whether those people so elected represent the interests of the citizens effectively, is a question of open debate.
As Kenyan citizens participate in the election process every five years, the greatest question of our time has always been, what is the place of the citizen in an election? Does their vote count?? How do we make this important office in a democracy have meaning?
Those questions, and the perceptions that the vote doesn’t count, are responsible for shifting trends in voter registration and participation in elections.
Every year, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) expresses challenges in meeting its voter listing targets. People simply don’t show up. Not because they are not aware of the process or the requirements, but because they have resigned to fate that nothing matters any more.
The trend has been the same in elections. According to data to the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), which tracks elections in the region, the highest voter turnout in Kenyan elections in recent times was the 2013 elections during which about 86 per cent of registered voters cast their ballot. The 2017 elections saw another high of 80 per cent, with the repeat elections witnessing a paltry 34 per cent turn out. The 2007 elections on the other hand saw about 70 per cent turn out while the historic 2002 elections, just 57 per cent, that is slightly over a half of the registered voters showed up.
Voter apathy is now a common phenomenon, particularly in by-elections. There is a sense of helplessness in the office of the citizen. Why is this so?
Why should the citizen get interested in politics?The answer is simple.Politics itself is all about the sum total of the decisions made on how resources are allocated.
In fact, in the study of politics, some of the most practical definitions fronted by scholars include politics being, ”the authoritative allocation of resources and conflict resolution (with resources being scarce, there are bound to be conflicts which must be resolved),” while others have simply summed it up as ”who gets what, when and how.”
In short, politics dominates every facet of our lives. It is therefore ironical how this important matter should be strange to our interests as citizens. It is even stranger than fiction, where you hear politicians bandy around statements such as, ”this is not the time for politics, it is the time for development.” The ‘development’ they refer to is a political issue itself!
This is the fact any citizen should aware of and how this knowledge brings everything else into perspective.
Empowering the Citizen to Make Right Political Choices
Political enlightenment is a key tenet for any thriving democracy. Within the context of democracy, is not only important for the citizen to be aware of the parties and their leaders and the manifestos, but also far more important for the citizen to understand their role in the wider political context.
Bu political alienation has been a major hindrance to the realization of this fundamental fact. This is happening in the sense that the voter doesn’t have the sufficient understanding of how their fate is intricately intertwined with the political choices that they make. The awareness of the citizens that their problems are directly proportional to the electoral choices they make and the kind of leaders they elect.
With Kenya is making significant strides in its democratization journey, the coming of devolution in 2013 widened that sphere and the theatre of politics shifted from the national stage to the local stage. All politics became ‘local.’
To use the football analogy, in this context, the citizen is playing a match on a home ground, and which, as you know, comes with many benefits, all summed up in one word ‘‘home advantage.’’ This is a contest that the citizen shouldn’t lose at all costs and all odds are aligned in their way.
But how can the citizen translate this power and exercise it with confidence? The first thing is to have the knowledge that they have the power in the first place. Armed with that knowledge, they then need to mobilize critical masses that can help effect that power. Once they mobilize, they have a bargaining advantage to put leaders to task.
If you have a candidate for Member of County Assembly for instance, it is very easy to begin proper engagements with them, testing their ability to understand the issues that affect his Ward and whether they have any concrete plans to address them. Any candidate who demonstrates that awareness of the issues and has practical solutions for them, they automatically become front runners in the race.
But remember, a full electoral cycle is five years, so the citizens you have another chance to evaluate the extent that their choice addressed the issues they promised they would once elected.
This is the power the citizen has. Of hiring and firing. Of setting their priority areas that they need addressed by any candidate vying for power. The work of the candidate(s) is to demonstrate their suitability for the task ahead.
And by the way, so that we don’t lose the bigger picture, there is no harm in changing leaders every five years if they don’t seem to work in sync with the wishes of the citizens. Even though some may argue this is a highly uncertain arrangement to have in terms of consistency in executing development projects, it is a reasonable start so that leaders plan within the five years they have been given and demonstrate that they deserve another time by delivering on the promises.
With this, a candidate’s track record will be the determining factor on whether they get re-elected or not. The work of the citizen in the political process thus becomes critical.
Holding Leaders to Account
If you stay in an area for instance, where water is a big challenge, it would be ideal for each citizen to be part and parcel in identifying the water issue as a key matter to be addressed by various candidates. If you are elected an MCA in such an area and after five years you haven’t attempted to even sink one borehole or better still mobilized resources to create watering points in your area, then you have no purpose being entrusted with a leadership position.
This same yardstick would then to be replicated to a Member of Parliament (National Assembly and Senate), a Women Representative, a Governor and even a President. With devolution bringing resources to the lowest level in the society, the MCA and the Governor are the people we see every day and know their homes. Nothing really bars us from even walking there and seeking answers to the pressing issues of our time.
That’s how the mind-set will change and leaders will have the responsibility to account for what they do and the resources entrusted to them.
In the absence of this understanding, the office of the citizen will perpetually lurk in the shadows of political alienation, in the sense that they will never know how their challenges are directly proportional to the leaders they have elected. As a consequence, the citizen will never have the knowledge and ability to hold their leaders to account.
According the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US based think tank, having democratic institutions alone is not enough, there must be opportunities for citizens to lead healthy and productive lives.
To ensure that a government works for its citizens, the citizens themselves must be well informed, organized, active and peaceful and participating in the political affairs of their country.
Citizen participation requires that they have awareness on such ideas as citizenship, politics and government. But they also need knowledge necessary for them to make informed decisions on policy choices and the proper use of authority.
Most importantly, the NDI emphasizes that citizens must have the skills to voice their concerns, act collectively and hold public officials (elected representatives, civil servants, and appointed leaders) accountable.
Do-ocracy: Citizens and Government Working Together
In other countries across the world, the concept of democracy is shifting to accommodate other emerging realities within the contemporary world.
In Netherlands for instance, the Government is encouraging a collaborative approach, where the Government and citizens interact on a broad range of issues in the society.
By empowering the citizens in this way, they are able to address challenges in their immediate environment without necessarily waiting for the Government to step in. For instance, with responsibility, citizens feel they have an obligation to keep their neighbourhood clean, engaging in voluntary initiatives to champion a particular cause, including participating in decision making platforms like having a say in the local government budgets.
As citizens participate actively in improving their livelihoods, the Government is equally having a reciprocal obligation of ensuring it takes a keen interest in the issues affecting the citizens and doing what it can to make the citizens feel comfortable.
It is this new way of doing things between the people and the Government that has birthed a new form of political engagement, now known as do-ocracy or simply put, citizen-government collaboration.
I finish this article by encouraging every Kenyan citizen to gain interest in politics, precisely because it matters profoundly to every aspect of our life. Political decisions influence the kind of life you will live, whether you will have a job, get education, have a road done in your area or otherwise.
And because the arguments on the political front can never be unanimous, if you are fed up with your leader, mobilize other citizens and create the desired change, or better still, run for office yourself as President Obama advised us. If we continue lamenting about the quality of our political discourses, the integrity of our leaders, and do nothing about it, our democracy will not grow.
It must be nurtured by increased interest in political affairs, shaping discussions on matters of public interest, holding leaders to account and shaping the development priorities within our immediate political space (in your village, in your ward, in your constituency, in your County and in the state).
That begins by being aware of the importance of the office you hold in a democracy. And doing something about it. If you never imagined how powerful the citizen is, this is the moment to do so.
This is the time to begin mobilizing your friends to take action, to register as voters and to actually vote for you or to a better leader. This is the power each of us have regardless of our stations in life. The Constitution guarantees each citizen this right.
If you don’t cast your ballot, you demean the high premium placed on the office of the citizen in a democracy. By avoiding to vote, you lose your right to make a difference. You indirectly influence the election of leaders you don’t deserve. Your singular vote plus another, can create the big difference.
As a citizen you have the power to negotiate with anyone running for political office, and enter into a mutual agreement on the key priority areas and to hold them to account.
And we must believe that we can create the change we desire in our society. As President Obama exhorted the Americans one last time, ‘‘I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.’’
The Kenyan citizen too needs to have this sort of confidence. That we too can create meaningful change if re-calibrate our mind set and understand the high office that we hold in our democracy.
There is no better time to register as a voter. This is the time.
The office of the citizen is an important cog in our democracy!
N/B: The writer studies Master of Arts in International Relations at the University of Nairobi.
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