Random, ethnic politics is really quite rational

As Obama makes his entry into Kenya, many will remember the advice by Johnnie Carson which drew much controversy some years ago: ‘choices have consequences’.

It was understood then that the choice referred to was the election of the president – a political choice. Johnnie Carson was then the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Political choices always have consequences. Politics may be a clean or dirty game, but the results are inescapable.

Obama’s advent to Kenya is certainly historic, and highly political. Many consider that his coming and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit generally herald a brighter future for Kenya. Hopefully the tourism sector will get some sort of relief.

Nairobi’s CBD has got some sort of facelift. Many of us had never seen such hurried repairs since the days of the 1998 and 2000 COMESA meetings in Nairobi.

Trees have grown overnight, beautiful landscapes have surfaced from the isles of long-forgotten Uhuru Highway, and grass has been planted faster than Simon Makonde’s life matured, as PLO wisely said during a TV interview.

Yes, we can… when we want. The pity is that we seldom want.

Most people tend to think that politics is a random game, that is irrational or purely emotional. Politics in Africa, many say, is just erratic and fickle, and the more studious will bet and swear in favour of the ‘tyranny of numbers’ theory.

Luckily, this is not a scientific conclusion, and there is a lot more to politics than ethnicity, random alliances or just demagogy. There is a way of measuring, and even predicting, the result of political decisions and this applies to any political system.

This week I met two outstanding Kenyans who have thought these matters deeply. One, Dr Joseph Keiyah, is a seasoned veteran in policymaking, economics and law and the other is a young graduate in love with Kenyan history, Sahil Shah.

Both of them keep fond memories of a great Kenyan political thinker, Prof Mwangi Kimenyi, who sadly passed away on June 6 this year, just two months after we had a short but exciting conversation in Washington.

The late Prof Mwangi Kimenyi, a son of the Kenyan soil, was a firm proponent of the use of economic analysis to explain political decisions. For instance, he used the economic concepts of efficiency and stability to demonstrate how ‘rational’ dictators are within their special circumstances and constraints, just as democratic leaders are.

The economic analysis of political actions, choices and decisions is of particular importance to the positive political theory, or the study of politics through an economic lens, or more specifically, of appropriating the microeconomic concept of rational choice to political analysis.

Numerous subsets of positive political theory (game theory, public choice theory, selectorate theory, etc.) acknowledge the rational nature of the individual in whatever position, whether in private or public service.

Such an individual is confronted by choices that have varying consequences and is required to adopt a rational choice, one that is sound in economics.

Now, it might sound inimical to the ‘public conscience’ to suggest that political actions are rational and based on factors such as stability and efficiency, and this is even worse if we consider the negative position that one of the foremost political actors – the Legislature – has so ruthlessly endeavoured to maintain.

The rationality could be justified on similar grounds to those that spark much public criticism. The Kenyan political arena has grown ever more volatile with each passing general election, and there is no longer, at least in theory, the assurance of a career in politics.

The elected representatives are no longer guaranteed continued rule over their particular regions of representation. Competition for the limited elected posts is very vigorous, and quite costly in some cases. The threat of being sent home by the electorate looms constantly.

In theory, such circumstances are not any different to those of a dictator who rises to power through a bloody revolution and rules in constant fear of a counter-revolution.

Both the Kenyan politician and the malevolent dictator tend to adopt similar strategies as Professor Kimenyi enumerates so indisputably, namely the employment of close associates within one’s coalition who may not have any qualification to hold posts in the public service.

The dictator who surrounds himself with cronies is basically trying to build multiple walls around a fortress so as to frustrate his attackers. While the invader is engrossed in bringing down the outside walls, the dictator tries to buy time to marshal forces to counter the attacks.

This is true of our politics, where any politician who feels threatened resorts to building walls around his fortress through rewards to cronies who have little or no experience, leading to even more inefficiencies in the system.

The often-unqualified cronies resort to pilfering public goods or in general, abusing their offices for private gain. This inefficient drama may not just be replicated 47 times, but also really devolved, considering the number of elected representatives in the National Assembly, the Senate, the County Assemblies and the County.

In this context, we may realise without surprise that the Kenyan democratic political structure is not yet really different from a dictatorial regime in terms of what regards efficient output. Politics really is not as random, fickle or ethnic as we thought.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. Lfranceschi@strathmore.edu, Twitter: @lgfranceschi