Elite Disorganization

Greetings, friends:

This week, I’ve been thinking about the Court of Appeal’s ruling against the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) in Kenya last week, and yes – I know numerous think pieces have been written and panels convened already about the BBI. But I would like to argue for a broader reading of the whole saga, and especially to recognise that the court ruling was by no means a foregone conclusion. 

Despite the discouragement of voters and elites’ capture of the system in Kenya, subjecting a proposed political project to a judicial process for which those in power cannot predict the outcome, is quite rare in Africa.

Take for example, third-term presidential bids in Africa as a genre of executive overreach (like the BBI) that is mostly done through some kind of formal, legal or constitutional process – although the outcome generally favours the incumbent.

Few presidents are like Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki who completely ignore the constitution and stay in power regardless. Most follow a procedure, whether pushing through a parliamentary bill, a court decision, or a referendum, riddled as these may be with co-optation, vote-buying, or irregularities. Over the past three decades, incumbent African presidents have challenged term limits 50% of the time they reach them, once they do, they have a 75% chance of success.

But the conditions in which such initiatives succeed or fail depend not just on matters of law and procedure but on the messy realities of how power has been settled among the political elite, whether in a stable or disorganised and unpredictable way.

Most African countries with a strong authoritarian bent wouldn’t bother to subject a politically-driven project to the uncertainty of a court case. Many other countries have too many institutions with their own deep authority for the elite to attempt such a brazen and unconstitutional process as has been attempted with the BBI. But in Kenya, the political consensus is genuinely unstable.

The effect of this elite disorganisation and instability has in the past produced both political violence in Kenya and vital opportunities for democratic reform and consolidation. Either way, the battles will be hard fought.

I extend these arguments more in this piece in The Africa Report (paywalled, but this newsletter is a way for you to read a summary of the article – don’t tell them); shout out to Charles Onyango-Obbo and Ngala Chome for helping me think through this.

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re Reading: Repetitive Stress on Longreads, by Devin Kelly, on injury, compensation and living with pain. At first glance this seems to be an article on running, but it’s about the many, many ways we compensate for all the other pain and stress we carry, and learn to live with. “Which inner muscle of your heart is working too hard to compensate for the other muscles of your heart? … How much mileage lives in your fumes? Can you make it? Do you want to ask for help? Do you know how?”
  • What We’re Watching: Tremé, drama television series set in post-Katrina New Orleans, that you can watch on Showmax. It’s an old-ish series (it aired in 2010-2013), but I’m deeply drawn to the melancholy of the show, and how the show explores that melancholy as a kind of resistance, no matter what kind of dire situation the characters are in.
  • What We’re Listening To: #360Mentor by Robert Kabushenga, former CEO of The New Vision newspaper in Uganda who’s been doing an amazing series of conversations on Twitter Spaces recently. Most recently, the highly anticipated sit-down with Daniel Kalinaki (a very serious journalist and managing editor for Africa at Nation Media Group) that you can catch on YouTube.

As always,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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