Sunday, December 21, 2008




In the rush to beat the Political Parties Act deadline, our parties lost an opportunity to renew themselves.

The acclamations witnessed as they elected their leaders were heavily borrowed from the grand old party, Kanu. The elections were too predictable and the faces holding the senior party posts too familiar.

Our political parties should take cue from the just concluded American elections that we all closely watched. We expected a surprise, a new unfamiliar youthful face, at the helm of our parties, which like US President-elect Barack Obama would galvanise the nation, cutting across age, race, tribe, ideology and stereotype.

Instead, the elections were bold attempts at creating positions to appease regions and ethnic groups. Maybe, the parties are admitting that regions and tribes cannot be wished away, and their power to influence the election outcomes can only be ignored by a political fool.

The new party line-ups are punctuated by the absence of youthful leaders; a perennial surprise because demographics indicate Kenya is a young nation. Our youth can be leaders without throwing stones. The rise of the Democratic Party in the US was driven by the youth. Without packaging the youthful Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party was in great danger of dying.

Without the youthful Obama, the Democratic Party was in danger of being locked out of the White House for 12 years. Yet to most of our parties, the youth are still future leaders, fit only for advertising billboards.

The senior party positions were taken over by MPs and mostly Cabinet ministers. One could loudly ask where such busy people get time for party affairs. In the US, for example, party leaders and politicians are different people. Few of us can name the officials of Republican or Democratic Party.

Members of the Cabinet anywhere in the world are the country’s board of directors; they need few distractions if they are to give the nation their best. Party matters are such distractions. The obsession with party leadership leaves no doubt that parties are tools for self-advancement, not national progress. It is no wonder their mortality rate is high.

For the Kenyan Cabinet, matters are complicated by the fact that they are also MPs. Did you note that Obama’s members of the Cabinet are not MPs or congressmen?

In the US, the President can appoint anyone to be a member of the Cabinet; he can tap the best brains without the requirement that one has to be an MP.

Obama was able to bring even a Nobel Prize winner to his Cabinet. The highest position our Nobel laureate rose to was an Assistant minister before losing her seat.

There is no reason why we cannot adopt the American approach as we rewrite our Constitution. Most importantly, this arrangement ensures total separation of powers between Parliament and the Executive. Doesn’t it appear odd that someone can be an MP and is also in the Cabinet taking orders from the President?

Where do we go from here?
The Political Parties Act was aimed at mainstreaming parties to reduce their mortality and by extension enhance democracy. But old habits die-hard; most parties seem to be involuntary disciples of Kanu.

The parties’ focus now will be 2012; the line-ups clearly have succession in mind. It is expected that with party structures in place, the owners will fill them up with content, policies and ideas that will make a difference to the ordinary mwananchi who may not care about parties. In other countries, parties are remembered for what they did for the country; they leave a legacy that future generations build on.

Finally, is there a possibility that between now and 2012 another party apart from ODM and PNU can do an Obama? Is there a possibility that another party will emerge and "pitia kati kati"? Can such a party ensure its leader is below 40?

The writer is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, School of Business: