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Why do citizens habitually reject their leaders?





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The High Court recently rejected a petition by eight people who sought the suspension of Kenya’s governance system by elected politicians for two decades.

They advocated novel political management by a council of what they termed “responsible Kenyans”. The court dismissed the case, citing lack of material evidence.

However, the litigation poignantly demonstrates two things: first, that there is a section of Kenyans who have lost faith in their political class, and second that Kenyan courts are open-minded enough to entertain causes that would elsewhere be considered unpopular.

Globally, citizens today exhibit low trust in their leaders. In Why We Get the Wrong Politicians (2018), Isabel Hardman explores the question of why voters, particularly in the United Kingdom, end up with parliamentarians who very soon after an election disappoint them.

She shares the widely held perception that the Westminster parliamentarians are viewed by the citizenry “as an insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored … (The politicians) are out of touch with the rest of the world, and their lack of understanding of the people they purport to represent leads them to make serious mistakes on a regular basis.”

The world over, peoples’ representatives have to confront one serious dilemma. Electors believe politicians should solve all their problems.


However, the sponsoring political party and its leaders have their ideological and partisan interests to promote.

The representatives want to please both the citizen and the party but realise it is the latter that has the nomination trump card.

Added to this rock-and-hard place quandary, the structure of legislative institutions does not lend itself to expeditious and comprehensive resolution of the peoples’ basic problems.

History, procedure, formality and vested interests, among other things, seem to eclipse citizens’ substantive representation.

Since independence, the Kenyan elected politician has suffered greatly at the hands of the voter. Here are some examples.

In the 1969 General Election, out of a Parliament of 158 members, 77 incumbents, or 49 per cent, lost their seats. In 1974, 88 out of 158 MPs, or 56 per cent, were defeated.

In 2002, 67 incumbents, or 32 per cent, lost out of a House of 210. In 2007, from an initial Parliament of 208, 119 MPs, or 57 per cent, did not return (one was among the 20 ministers who lost the MP position).

In 2017, 179 out of 290 members of the National Assembly, or 62 per cent, failed to recapture their positions, with only 10 out of the 47 women representatives being re-elected.

Some 25 governors, or 53 per cent, lost. From 1,450 members of county assemblies, 1,074 – or a whooping 74 per cent – were retired by the voter.

Between 1963 and 1997, electoral defeat was largely orchestrated by the ruling party, Kanu. The party could nullify the verdict of the electorate and engineer the political demise of a popular candidate. Loyalty to the president was a major booster to a candidate’s electoral success.

From the citizens’ perspective, elected leaders in Kenya have been red-carded for various reasons. These include: misuse of Constituency Development Fund (CDF), or later National Government-CDF and other public funds, selfishness through hiking their own emoluments, inability to solve citizens’ economic problems, especially unemployment among the youth, corruption, poor performance, dishonourable behaviour, endemic absenteeism from their constituencies, loss of prestige of the sponsoring political party, belonging to a political party not recognised as the regional party/coalition, a leader’s inability to bond with his/her people.


A new global trend is emerging in which citizens are wooed by political unknowns from outside the traditional or conventional political class.

Steve Richards, in his book The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost its Way (2018), documents this reality.

Disillusioned citizens, especially in Europe, are turning to populists adept at messianic politics. Due to this phenomenon, established politicians lose to neophytes.

Hence the current world political scene begs the question: what is power and what should it be used for? Can power be deployed for the benefit of the broader society?

Andy Crouch, in Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (2013), argues power is a gift from God. He boldly states: “Power is for flourishing. When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they are meant to be. And flourishing is the test of power.”

In his analysis, “playing God” is the act of using power to humanise all, to co-create with them a better home, community, society, natural environment and the world.

When exploited to harm people, the requisite power holders are acting as small destructive gods.

In Ronald A. Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), the author argues that between the people and their leaders, and even among the people themselves, there exists conflict in terms of their values, beliefs or behaviour.

Such latent dissension will affect how citizens perceive their elected leaders and others in terms of discharge of mandates.

According to Heifetz, leaders together with the citizenry must continuously engage in adaptive work to help resolve or ameliorate the above conflicts.

Therefore, the leaders and their communities have a duty to work harmoniously together.

Ultimately, the political leader who successfully recruits his or her constituency into problem-solving is likely to find favour and longevity with the electors.

Simply put, one of Heifetz’s central theses is that peoples’ representatives must govern with their people.

Hardman puts it differently by asking the question: “How do people end up …(getting) … involved in politics?” In other words, how can leaders mobilise their electors to ensure they do not leave politics to politicians?

The politician who consistently involves his or her constituents in socio-economic development work within a participatory framework is likely to have a long shelf life.

We are living in the decade of the co-creator or value-adding political leader or for that matter any other leader.

Prof Kibwana is governor of Makueni County.

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