NAIROBI — A Kenyan friend of mine who graduated from Harvard Business School recently told me that the United States is a good place to get an education, but “it is no longer a leading light.”
“We are looking elsewhere, not just the West,” she said. “Democracy? I don’t believe in it.”
She made the comment at a dinner party I attended in the garden of a gated neighborhood in Karen, a wealthy Nairobi suburb earlier this summer, as Kenyans were preparing to elect a new president. Nearly everyone in attendance was a Kenyan who had graduated from a top American school and gone on to an impressive career in finance, business consulting or government service. They were technocrats and intellectuals, preoccupied with how the continent’s cash-strapped governments can deliver better health care, education and jobs to about 1.4 billion people.
They aren’t looking to the United States for pointers. The American political model has not produced the results that Africans have been hoping for and now seems to be failing America itself, they told me. The people I met that night all spoke of American power in the past tense. (Most spoke to me candidly, with the understanding that I would not identify them by name, since the sentiments they expressed could cause a stir at their jobs.)
Their comments underscored the heavy geopolitical cost of American political dysfunction at a time when the Biden administration sees an epic competition between democracies and autocracies, especially with China. Globally, the perception of American decline is eroding confidence in democracy itself.
I was struck by how much had changed since the late 1990s, when I lived in Kenya, and even since my last visit six years ago. In the past, the Kenyans I met expressed admiration for the United States and gratitude for U.S. assistance in midwifing Kenya’s democracy. In 1992, Kenya held its first multiparty elections in over two decades, after Smith Hempstone, who was then the U.S. ambassador in Nairobi, threatened to cut off aid unless the opposition was allowed to participate. Many American foreign policy analysts at the time believed that, with the Cold War over, every nation would eventually embrace democracy.
Today, the United States has become more of a cautionary tale than an exemplar, with Donald Trump’s claims of a rigged election, the attack on the capitol on Jan. 6 and the near daily news reports about mass shootings. Meanwhile, China has become the biggest player when it comes to financing infrastructure in Africa. It’s also not unusual to hear African leaders and even a few Western scholars arguing that the Chinese system of meritocratic autocracy is a better route to middle income status for countries such as Kenya.
To be sure, Kenya’s thriving multiparty democracy has more in common with the American model than the Chinese one. The country will select a new president on Aug. 9, and the faces of candidates loom on billboards over the new elevated expressway, where drivers who can afford to pay a toll can zip across town, looking down at the traffic crawling below. In grand mansions and tin-roofed shacks, Kenyans swap theories about why the retiring president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is backing an opposition leader, Raila Odinga, over his own deputy, William Ruto. Two rival political dynasties — the Kenyattas and the Odingas — are burying the hatchet. Most of my Kenyan friends are feeling more optimistic about their next election than my American friends are.
And yet signs of disillusionment with the achievements of American-style democracy are everywhere.
“Initially, things were going on well,” my friend Joseph Mutua, who works at a hardware store, told me. But now, he said, “the leaders are just recycled.”
The sheer cost of running for office in Kenya fuels the perception that elections are a corruption machine. “The more they spend, the more that you know that there will be corruption” later so candidates can pay themselves back, Henry Nyutu, a real estate agent, told me.
The perception of rising corruption is a major reason that democracy has lost some of its luster, according to Afrobarometer, a nonprofit research network. The group interviewed 48,084 people in 34 African countries from 2019 to 2021 and found that many Africans are disillusioned with what democracy has produced, even as large majorities still support it over any other system. In a separate survey, the group found that the percentage of Kenyans who saw the United States as the best model for development declined from 49 percent to 42 percent between 2014-15 and 2019-21. That was still far higher than the 23 percent who preferred China as a model. But I sensed a shift.
Take the people I met at the garden party. For the most part, the leaders they looked up to the most were not paragons of Western-style democracy but rather leaders in the global south who have succeeded despite bucking Western criticism and advice.
Some pointed to the success of the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, who turned his genocide-stricken homeland into one of the most efficiently run countries in Africa. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who unveiled the biggest public health insurance program in the world, and Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, who transformed a tiny outpost into one the wealthiest and least corrupt countries in Asia, both inspired respect.
Sure, the dinner party guests admitted, Mr. Kagame has been accused of killing critics and silencing dissent, but he’d also overseen a dramatic rise in the life expectancy of his people, from 31 years in 1995 to 69 in 2018. Partisan political competition in a country where half the population had tried to kill the other half would be courting disaster — until or unless such divisions healed, one guest declared. Modi, despite being democratically elected, was viewed more skeptically, since weaponizing the Hindu majority against the Muslim minority risks tearing India apart.
Kenyans are acutely aware of how elections in a multiethnic society can lead to violence when politicians stoke ethnic grievances to win. In 2007 and 2008, more than 1,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced after the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was hastily sworn into office despite being credibly accused of vote rigging by Mr. Odinga.
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.”
Maybe now that Americans are struggling with some of the same challenges as Kenyans, we’ll approach them with more humility. We might think twice before we divide the world into a democratic “us” and an undemocratic “them.” And those of us who still believe in democracy — as I most certainly do — ought to realize that we’ll win more supporters by modeling competence than by issuing mandates.
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