On Kenya’s elections, it’s best to keep our eyes on the prize

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Nov 1, 2017

A couple months after Kenya’s Supreme Court decided to annul the result of the August 8th Presidential election due to voting irregularities, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has now been re-elected for a second term.Even though the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, didn’t take part in Kenya’s most recent election re-do, there is still no doubt that the Supreme Court’s decision to redo the election was a win for democracy in Kenya, and more broadly in Africa.

Many Kenyans rejoiced at the decision, as they should have, but elections are only one component of a nation’s democracy and its path to prosperity. Kenyans must must keep their eye on the prize in order to build on Chief Justice Maraga’s decision. In this case, the prize is the development of a thriving Kenyan economy that creates opportunity for all Kenyans. Anything short of this may leave Kenya worse off than it was. Consider the events in Nigeria.

After Goodluck Jonathan won the Nigerian presidential election in 2011, the country was hopeful. President Jonathan was born into a poor family and had risen to the Presidency from nothing. But not long after his election, Goodluck Jonathan was referred to as Badluck. His tenure in office was fraught with corruption allegations and little to no economic development. To that end, the Economist published a piece titled, Bad luck for Nigeria. Nigerians went to the ballot box and, in the first time in the nation’s history, voted out the incumbent President. Nigeria made history, much like Kenya just did. The first peaceful transfer of power. Nigerians all over the world rejoiced.

Millions expected the new president, Muhammadu Buhari, to begin the transformation that Nigeria so desperately needed. If Goodluck could not bring good luck, then perhaps Buhari could, many thought. But the good luck many hoped and rejoiced in anticipation for did not materialize. The Nigerian economy shrank in 2016, the first time in 25 years. The value of Nigeria’s currency, the Naira, plummeted. The price of food skyrocketed as Buhari’s regime was seen as mismanaging the economy. And to further complicate matters, until August 19th, Nigerians had not seen their president in more than three months. Apparently, he was away on medical leave in London. The economy has performed so poorly for Nigerians that many have wished for Goodluck Jonathan’s return. Goodluck brought bad luck, and Buhari doesn’t seem to be doing much better.

This issue however, of citizens achieving a great democratic victory, rejoicing in exuberance, and then being disappointed by coming events, is not limited to Africa or Africans. The same thing happened in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

In 2010, when the Arab Spring began, many experts and pundits thought the widespread protests in the Middle East would lead to a revolution that would fundamentally change the political, economic, and power dynamics in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, and then spread onto other countries in the Middle East. Unfortunately that did not happen. Today, Egypt is ruled by a former general in the Egyptian army; Libya has been in chaos since the uprising; 83% of Tunisians believe their country is going in the wrong direction; and Yemen is in conflict, with 70% of the population in need of some form of aid. Why didn’t the Arab Spring bring the kind of revolution many experts predicted?

Simply put, it is because the fundamental dynamics between the government, regardless of who is in power, and the citizenry did not change. Governments in poor countries are heavily under-resourced, and will only respond to the needs of the people when the citizenry demands it. But how can people advocate for their needs when they’re struggling to make ends meet? Unless the citizenry obtains the wealth and resources to advocate on their behalf, the government will not deliver the kind of change that is needed.

Africa and the Middle East are not unique in this matter. The same thing happened in Europe, the United States, and virtually every country that was once poor. Stanford Professor Lawrence Friedman notes in his book, A History of American Law, that in 1840, when average Americans were very poor, the government wasn’t responsive to their concerns. By 1890, however, incomes had more than doubled, and as a result the government began to listen.

More broadly, on the relationship between representative democracies and incomes, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria writes in his book, The Future of Freedom, that, “In a democratic country that has a per capita income of under $1,500 (in today’s dollars), the regime on average had a life expectancy of just eight years. With between $1,500 and $3,000, it survived on average for about eighteen years. Above $6,000 it became highly resilient. The chance that a democratic regime would die in a country with an income above $6,000 was 1 in 500. Once rich, democracies become immortal.”

Essentially, what matters most for most citizens in any country, and especially in Africa, are well-paying jobs. However, the government, no matter how hard it tries, is not designed to create jobs. That’s the responsibility of companies and the innovations they develop. While governments create the environments that companies must work within, there is little evidence to suggest that drastic change happens under democracies, especially poor-country democracies. Democracies, by design, limit drastic change—regardless of whether those changes are good or bad.

So for Kenya, keep your eye on the prize. Don’t wait for the government to create the thriving economy Kenyans so desperately need. Instead, follow the example of other countries who have pulled themselves out of poverty by innovating. Work to develop market-creating innovations that can create well-paying jobs for Kenyans while providing affordable solutions to the people. And in no time, the veracity of your elections will no longer be in question.

Efosa Ojomo is a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Efosa’s work focuses on using disruptive innovation theory to fundamentally change the discourse in the global development community, thus enabling nations to engender their own path to long-term growth and prosperity.