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Opinion | Kenya’s Elite Talk About American Power in the Past Tense

After that violence, surveys began to show anxiety about democracy, Murithi Mutiga, the Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, told me. “People prepared for elections like they are preparing for war,” he said, by stocking up on food and medicine. This year the atmosphere is far less tense, but low levels of voter registration among new voters suggest another challenge, he said: “disappointment at the choices people face.”

If the aim is a competent government that strikes a healthy balance between the masses and the elite, which has the ability to lift people out of abject poverty and correct itself when things get off track, the rewards of democracy don’t always seem worth the risks.

Kenyans I spoke to last month complained that Americans promote democracy selectively, when it serves their own interests, and that the concept is too narrowly defined. Indigenous models should have been considered self-government, too. Many African villages had been run by effective councils of elders before colonizers came. Now they’re stuck with rules that give an 18-year-old who has never raised a child or held down a job as much of a voice as a 65-year-old.

“The ideal of democracy is inspiring,” admitted James Mwangi, the executive director of Dalberg, an international consulting firm. “It created a space in which there was a flowering of thought, engagement and ideas. We are all products of that.”

But democracy required a shared public square, and that just doesn’t exist anymore, he argued. Parts of Africa with low levels of literacy and deep ethnic divisions have always struggled to take part in a single national political discourse. Social media has further fractured the conversation, creating spaces for sets of alternative facts for specific audiences, not just for Kenyans but Americans too.

“America is being reintroduced to what preliterate or highly ethnically divided societies that have tried to implement the American model have known all along,” he observed. “All politics are tribal and zero-sum. You have created tribes and the tribes aren’t talking to each other anymore.”

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