Democracy needs effective checks and balances

Maina Kiai by Maina Kiai
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The recent surge of corruption and looting scandals should erase any doubts that there are possible national benefits in autocratic regimes.

The scandals illustrate what a lack of transparency, accountability and adequate checks can do to an economy and a society. For make no mistake, the looting we are now discovering is all about impunity, a sense of entitlement and lack of transparency and accountability, which are the hallmarks of autocracy.

To be clear, the fact that we have regular elections—even if they would be fair and credible, which they have not been since 2002—does not make us a democracy.

A democracy is defined by values, such as transparency, equality before the law, appointments based on merit (not revolving door of geriatrics), and by the ability of citizens to hold the regime accountable between elections, without fear of police brutality and killings when they protest.

It is marked by the rule of law that does not favour some over others and by a concern for the majority poor over “hospitality and travels” by State House.

Democracy needs effective checks and balances. These are harnessed by formal institutions such as the legislature but only if it has integrity and less concern for its own perks and sycophancy, which ours does not; the Judiciary which is respected and celebrated when it rules for the law and especially against the executive rather than be berated and insulted; and by independent constitutional institutions facilitated and staffed with credible independent people rather than by political hacks whose major qualifications are party or personal loyalties as we see with recent appointees.

Checks and balances are buttressed by a civil society sector that should be independent and clear that its objectives are democracy and human rights, even if that means being called oppositional.

For on matters of repression, freedom and rights, there should be no neutrality, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us.

This also needs a vibrant independent media, such as that depicted in the recent movie “The Post” which should be required viewing in all media houses and media training schools.

Of course there are some who think autocracies are beneficial, as exemplified by China, Singapore and Malaysia, and perhaps Rwanda. Indeed, Malaysia’s new (and former) Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed is on record stating that foreign investors prefer authoritarian regime because they are predictable.

He is wrong, for autocracies are neither predictable nor stable as his own protégé Najib Razak so graphically proved in Malaysia, eventually forcing the 92-year-old Mahathir out of retirement!   

The plurality of evidence is clear: The Singapore’s of this world are a minority and prove the exception to the rule that people do better when there is freedom, transparency, accountability and respect for the rule of law and human rights.

For every Singapore there is a Togo, DRC and Burundi where instability is normalised. For every Rwanda, there is a Kenya, Cambodia, and Honduras where looting is common place. And for every China there is a Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Pakistan where public property is treated as personal.

Autocracies breed fear, instability, nervousness and favouritism, which nurture corruption and decline. Worse if they do not provide some space for “venting” then dissent goes underground which can result in more instability or violence.

This is exactly what Ethiopia faced recently forcing the ruling party to make some moves to placate the dissenters and also open up.

The jury is still out whether the changes announced and envisaged will be enough but what is clear is that despite massive western and Chinese support for an autocratic Ethiopia, what resulted were massive debts, anger and frustration.

In fact, it is not accidental that some of the biggest buyers of homes and investments in the US, Switzerland and Canada are Chinese, Arab and Russian businessmen who are eager to take their money out to safer havens.

So much so that some of the cities invaded by “foreign investors”, such as Vancouver, are making rules to limit the escalating costs of homes.

For the last five years, the Jubilee regime has gone on an unchecked and opaque borrowing spree aiming to give us shiny toys to mask us to the thieving apparently in its DNA.

And it has done this while attacking the press—much of which has succumbed--abusing the Judiciary, illegally confronting critical NGOs, and neutering independent accountability bodies. This is what dictatorships do, and the consequences are the looting we are seeing.

I thought the response of Uhuru Kenyatta on allegations of sugar importation by his brother Muhoho was excellent.

Perhaps if he had responded similarly when the first NYS looting spree was uncovered with respect to Anne Waiguru, this second looting spree would not have occurred!

If he would now publicly encourage Auditor General Edward Ouko to get to the bottom of the Eurobond and SGR scandals—together with allowing an independent inquiry into the August 2017 polls, we may start taking him more seriously on anti-graft.

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