Sub-Saharan Africa politics: Democracy in Kenya

Content Type
Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
No abstract is available.
Politics, News Analysis
Political Geography
Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index for 2016 classifies Kenya as a "hybrid regime", ranking 92nd globally (out of 167 countries) and 14th in Sub-Saharan Africa (out of 44 countries), with an absolute score of 5.33 (out of 10). Kenyan democracy is therefore relatively shallow, although the country's 2016 score and ranking marks an all-time high, signalling Kenya's possible graduation into the "flawed democracy" category in the medium term. However, Kenyan democracy is also tainted by long-standing ethnic-based divisions, high levels of corruption, and institutional weaknesses. The next election in August 2017 will test whether Kenya's democratic improvement can be sustained.

Key improvements in Kenya since the first edition of the Democracy Index in 2006 include the adoption of a new constitution in 2010-which enhanced the separation of powers, strengthened the judiciary and devolved authority to newly created counties-and the holding of relatively free and fair elections in 2013, in contrast to widespread violence at the previous contest in December 2007.

Kenya's democratic standing (and its trajectory over time) is very similar to two fellow members of the East African Community (EAC)-Uganda and Tanzania-which are also hybrid regimes with an improving trend. Tanzania ranks the highest of the three countries (83rd in 2016 with a score of 5.76) and has shown the biggest improvement in its absolute score since 2006, while Uganda ranks the lowest (94th in 2016 with a score of 5.26) and has shown the least improvement. Despite some differences, the three countries exhibit a range of similarities, politically, socially and economically, and all appear to be embracing deeper democracy, despite periodic setbacks. The other two members of the EAC-Rwanda and Burundi-as well as Ethiopia, have shown the opposite trend, however. All three are authoritarian regimes that have become less democratic since 2006, as shown by their declining scores and rankings. Between 2006 and 2016, Ethiopia's ranking fell from 106th to 125th, Rwanda's from 118th to 138th, and Burundi's from 107th to 150th. Notably, Burundi suffered a larger decline in its absolute score than any other Sub-Saharan African country during the period, because of Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to cling onto power in violation of the constitution.

Democracy Index
(score out of 10)
  2006 2008 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Tanzania 5.2 5.3 5.6 5.6 5.9 5.8 5.8 5.6 5.8
Uganda 5.1 5.0 5.1 5.1 5.2 5.2 5.2 5.2 5.3
Kenya 5.1 4.8 4.7 4.7 4.7 5.1 5.1 5.3 5.3
Ethiopia 4.7 4.5 3.7 3.8 3.7 3.8 3.7 3.8 3.6
Rwanda 3.8 3.7 3.3 3.3 3.4 3.4 3.3 3.1 3.1
Burundi 4.5 4.5 4.0 4.0 3.6 3.4 3.3 2.5 2.4
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Different strengths and weaknesses

While the democratic credentials of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are similar, they exhibit different strengths and weaknesses. Kenya rates best for political participation (6.67 in 2016)-above the threshold for a "flawed democracy" (6.0)-helped by good election turnouts, numerous competing parties, widespread political debate and a vibrant media. This is significantly higher than for Tanzania (5.56) and Uganda (4.44), where political discourse and party operations face more restrictions. Tanzania ranks best for electoral process and pluralism (with a healthy score of 7.0), followed by Uganda (5.25) and Kenya (4.33), which is the country's lowest score among the five categories that comprise the Democracy Index. This partly reflects long-running disputes about the veracity of vote counting and transmission procedures, and campaign financing, although Kenya, as in most other categories, is showing an improving trend. Uganda leads on political culture (6.88), ahead of Tanzania (6.25) and Kenya (5.63)-and similarly tops the list for civil liberties (6.18), outpacing Kenya (5.0) and Tanzania (5.0). However, Uganda falls down on functioning of government (3.57), its weakest category, while Kenya and Tanzania both score 5.0. On average, for the three countries, political culture is the strongest category (6.3) while functioning of government is the weakest (4.5), for a variety of reasons, including weak institutions and corruption.

Kenya's trend of improvement

Apart from the new constitution and the more peaceful 2013 election (especially compared to 2007), Kenya's other democratic strengths are a non-politicised military, a vibrant independent media, strong civil society organisations (including religious groups), and the willingness of political parties to form coalitions and alliances. The 2002 and 2013 elections both saw a transfer of power between parties without significant unrest, although the mass violence in 2007 and early 2008, when the opposition felt unfairly deprived of victory, signalled democratic fragility. The new constitution helped address some of the failings, especially by establishing a Supreme Court, which played a key role in settling disputes after the 2013 election, when the opposition again believed the results were manipulated.

Conflict leads to secrecy

Despite the broad trend of improvement, Kenya democracy also faces several threats, some linked to Kenya's ongoing military involvement in Somalia (dating from 2011) to combat al-Shabab extremists-which has been accompanied by a decline in civil liberties and media freedom, and a rise in secrecy. While some limitation on freedom is perhaps justified in view of the terrorist threat posed by al-Shabab, the government has become overly sensitive and attempts to stifle debate, including by putting pressure on media owners, which has negative implications for democratic deepening.

Ethnicity and corruption pose challenges

Another flaw in Kenya's democracy is the primacy of ethnicity, which means that most major parties draw their support from specific ethnic groups, and that alliances between them are mainly driven by the need to secure widespread ethnic support. This framework means that party membership, and voting patterns, are driven mainly by ethnicity rather than by policy. Nonetheless, almost all parties favour a democratic, open market system, while the importance of ethnicity will decline over time, spurred in particular by urbanisation. The other main fundamental challenge to Kenya's democratic deepening is the persistence of widespread corruption, especially in the public sector (but also in the private sector), which stokes popular discontent and impedes economic development (and thus job opportunities and household income). Despite numerous crackdowns and judicial reforms, the battle against corruption is making little headway. Moreover, despite the theoretical benefits of devolution, the process is being accompanied by increased corruption at the county level.

The August 2017 election-when the ruling Jubilee Party, led by the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, will attempt to defeat a new and broader opposition alliance-will provide the next main test of Kenyan democracy. Some signals are unfavourable, such as protracted disputes about electoral laws and processes (which led to unrest in mid-2016), and delays in election preparations, although other signs are more positive, such as the appointment of a new Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IEBC), following an all-party agreement, which was finally installed in January. Tensions will inevitably rise in the run-up to the polls, and some intermittent violence is probable, especially in the event of a close contest, although the 2013 outcome offers hope that the 2017 election will be similarly free of widespread unrest.

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