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Consensus democracy can cure Kenya’s politics of Covid-19 crisis





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Across the world, bipartisan politics is becoming the new normal in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

After March 13, when the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Kenya, the country has a rendezvous with consensus politics.

The need for continuity in the country’s political leadership to see out the battle against the pandemic is popularising consensus politics over partisanship and zero-sum models.

But consensus democracy is becoming the new wedge, opening up and amplifying old sharply ideological cleavages and partisan politics that divided rival factions in the ruling Jubilee coalition long before the virus struck.

The Covid-19 crisis is profoundly transforming Kenya’s political landscape, creating a new politics never envisaged before.

Before its outbreak, President Uhuru Kenyatta was engrossed in creating a legacy woven around the four pillars of health, manufacturing, food and housing, as he prepared to exit in 2022.


Now, he faces the daunting task of halting the spread of the virus to overwhelm the health system while limiting the pandemic’s economic impact on a vulnerable population, the vast majority eking a hand-to-mouth in informal sector.

Rival political formations are optimistic, working on the assumption that Covid-19 is a passing cloud.

But should the health risks related to the pandemic persist, rendering impossible the organising for the 2022 elections, Kenyatta will have a tall order building national consensus around an interim governing arrangement along the lines of the 2008-2013 grand coalition government involving all interests.

For now, the impact of Covid-19 on politics is vivid. The arrival of the novel coronavirus halted the political brinkmanship that dominated the rallies on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), expected to pave the way for a referendum ahead of the 2022 General Elections.

Measures to contain the virus, including suspending public gatherings, religious services and other social activities due to the public health risk, have effectively demobilised politics, denying rival political formations, interests and presidential front-runners in the 2022 election campaign platforms.

Despite this, for decades, Kenya’s political class has been playing a game of hide-and-seek with consensus democracy.

Kenya’s problems started with the fragmentation of the nationalist coalition that won Kenya’s independence and the collapse of broad elite consensus in the 1960s.

The collapse of the idea of mass movement politics that underpins consensus democracy led to a strident rise in ethnic politics in the body politic.

The March 9, 2018 Handshake, which followed the country’s most protracted and tumultuous double elections in August 8 and October 26, 2017, has been a bold experiment in consensus democracy.

This is a system of decision-making in a democracy that takes into account a broad range of opinions as possible.

It is opposed to systems based on winner-takes-all power games, where minority opinions are often ignored by vote-winning majorities, preferring systems based on inclusivity of citizens of all shades.

In a sense, this system underpinned the 2008-2013 coalition that saw Kenya undertake far-reaching constitutional, political and socio-economic reforms, enchanted as “Kenya’s quiet revolution”.

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 health crisis, Kenya exemplifies the worldwide quest for bipartisan politics to manage the long-term impact of the pandemic.


Generally, there is a broad elite consensus on measures the government has put in place to stem the spread of the virus.

But just like the Handshake, the move towards bipartisan politics is splitting the ruling Jubilee Party right through the middle.

Jubilee has entered its thick winter of dissent. The party’s dissenters are digging in against the Handshake and consensus politics, which they accuse of jeopardising Ruto’s chances to succeed Kenyatta.

Based on the bitter lessons from the costly and fractious 2017 elections, the Jubilee wing aligned to President Uhuru Kenyatta is seeking to exit zero-sum solutions to politics.

The building bridges initiative is embraced as a pathway to a new inclusive social contract.

This trend has thrown up political science’s most unusual ‘opposition’ around the second-in-command in a ruling party!

Jubilee’s dissenters want to control the process of crafting a coalition arrangement that might emerge to govern the country as the Covid-19 crisis spreads and becomes a protracted emergency.

But the Jubilee leadership seems to be bracing for an inescapable night of the long knives.

Behind Covid-19’s iron curtain, they are preparing for a titanic duel as a prelude to building consensus democracy to consummate the March 2018 Raila-Uhuru peace deal.

After Covid-19 struck, political pundits in the wing aligned to Kenyatta have embarked on strengthening and transforming Jubilee from its narrow Kikuyu-Kalenjin diarchy into a mass party with a multi-ethnic outlook.

They have moved to tighten their hold on the party to shape consensus democracy, inexorably leading to either the capitulation or exit of the Ruto camp.

First, recent changes in the ruling party’s National Management Committee on April 6 come as a warning shot.

Second, with the return of the no-holds-barred Jubilee vice-chairman David Murathe to the helm of the party this month, the battle lines are clearly marked.

Beyond the manoeuvrings in Jubilee politics, the Covid-19 crisis is silently, and blissfully, producing a new crop of leadership both in the Mt Kenya region and nationally.

While some are emerging as strong unifying leaders in response to the pandemic, others are floundering and burning their bridges.

But as Covid-19 spreads, and social-distancing measures continue, Kenya should prepare for predatory politics.

Without social safety nets, measures to contain the coronavirus that directly affect incomes and livelihoods can be a time bomb. Dissenters are waiting in the wings for the right moment to strike.

Beyond power politics, consensus democracy is the best guarantee to contain the coronavirus pandemic and manage the country’s democratic transition.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is former government adviser and chief executive at the Africa Policy Institute.

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