16.01.2017

Political education programs in Kenya: challenges and alternatives

Our guest contribution for the month with considerations on the context of political education in Kenya and the challenges to overcome

Photo: Titus Kaloki by FES/Titus Kaloki

“A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims... but accomplices,” said George Orwell. This is perhaps true of Kenya, if the leadership is anything to go by. But how can this change? I remain convinced that political education is the most effective approach. I have encountered a variety of challenges to the provision of political education, but I will seek here to outline some of those that have the greatest impact.

The political culture in Kenya is still based on a patriarchal system that thrives on ethnic identity politics. Each tribe has a kingpin, who is meant to secure economic and political power for the tribe. The tribal kingpin influences the tribe’s influential elders by commercial incentives, which are then trickled down to the community to whip up unquestioning support for the interests of the tribal kingpin. This has led to the commercialization of Kenyan politics, where issues are set aside during leadership vetting, and focus is on financial and ethnic influence. Despite any amount of education on how to make better political choices, the electorate have been unable to break free of this mindset and make political choices outside of this patriarchal and tribal system.

The education system in Kenya is based on the reiteration of memorized content as provided by the instructor. It does not provide the population with the essential ability to analyze and synthesize critical issues and policies. Democratic independence, in the Western sense, necessitates meaningful participation by the population in the running of public affairs at local, national and international levels. This is not possible without an educational framework that can produce critical thinkers instead of ‘sheep’ who follow instructions without question.

One hindrance to the political education and involvement of the public is the fact that many county governments have not yet passed relevant laws. The importance of passing county specific public participation laws is informed by the diversity of budget allocations, cultures, and population sizes. For example, some counties have as their citizens nomadic pastoralists who require special interventions to share their priorities for county annual budgets, since town hall meetings cannot work. This means any such participation is ad hoc. The national government did publish guidelines on public participation in governance in 2016, through the Ministry of Devolution, but this is yet to bear fruit in terms of influencing county-specific public participation laws.

Kenya has a culture of almost professional workshop goers, partly due to the many development partners who provide per diems or transport reimbursements to participants. The poverty among the target groups makes workshops and seminars an attractive income-generating activity. There is a contrast between the short-term income objectives of many of these participants, and the long-term development objectives of political education. It is difficult to tell if the workshops are providing the right motivation for participants to act on their deliberations and recommendations.

Regardless of how effective the current efforts on political education are, there is a need to complement them with alternatives. The county governments must engage closely in dialogue to educate and influence the legislators and the executive on formulating and enacting public participation laws. The focus on public participation interventions should include state actors. This also applies to the education arm of the government. Since Kenya is reviewing its education system, this presents an opportunity to engage and influence the Ministry of Education to come up with a curriculum that builds critical thinking and inculcates civic and political education in students.

To avoid the problematic incentives of paying workshop participants, other communication means such as social media, animations, film, music and theatre could be employed. This widens the target audience and engages especially the youth, who are the most apathetic to political education and reforms. These channels also provide better dialogue and feedback mechanisms than conventional media. Mainstream media and state actors have the opportunity to be involved to push the agenda for greater impact.

Unfortunately, changing the patriarchal and commercial nature of Kenyan politics might be beyond the current capacity of our political education interventions, so for now this also requires wider national and multi-sectoral dialogues spearheaded by political actors.

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Titus Kaloki is Programme Coordinator at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Kenya.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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