What Kenyans think of their new institutions

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In his biweekly column for the Daily Nation, our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman explores the results of his latest poll, conducted with Ipsos Synovate. This survey canvassed Kenyans to see how they felt about the institutions that are meant to serve them. The results make for interesting reading, and show that citizens are still not entirely convinced about the raft of reforms that have restructured the institutional landscape over the last seven years…

Between 2007 and 2014 the Kenyan political system has undergone a radical transformation: a new electoral commission, new counties, a new Supreme Court, and the reintroduction of a second chamber of parliament.

Naturally, it is taking some of these new bodies time to find their feet. But which of them is performing the best in the eyes of ordinary Kenyans, and how does this vary across the country? How does this compare to the trust that Kenyans have in other institutions and people? And which institutions are most in need of reform?

A survey conducted just over a month ago provides some interesting answers to these questions. Working with Ipsos Synovate, we asked a nationally representative sample of 2,000 Kenyans which institutions they trusted the most. Interestingly, given the recent tension between President Uhuru Kenyatta and the media, the two most trusted people or institutions were the ‘president’ and ‘the media’. But our survey suggests that Uhuru should be careful when taking on the press, because they are more trusted by ordinary Kenyans than he is (43 per cent had ‘a lot of confidence’ in the media compared to 41 per cent in the president).

There is an important lesson here for Raila Odinga and the ODM: the opposition will have the support of Kenyans if it fights to defend the media. In total, an impressive 85 per cent of Kenyans report ‘some confidence’ in the press, making it by far the most trusted institution in the country.

NGOs more popular

The same can be said for civil society. Despite the attempts of figures associated with the Jubilee alliance to demonise foreign funded NGOs, international institutions and donors as ‘evil society’, they actually remain more popular among Kenyans than many domestic institutions.

Most notably, a majority of Kenyans (54 per cent) think that foreign NGOs help Kenya ‘somewhat’ or ‘a lot’. The figures are also fairly high for the IMF (35 per cent), the European Union (29 per cent), and the ICC (24 per cent).

Even the UK (33 per cent) and USA (43 per cent), who have received considerable public criticism from the government in recent times, enjoy more favourable ratings than important Kenyan institutions such as the police and even the new county governments.

The results for the security services are also fascinating. Kenyans appear to distinguish the military, the intelligence forces and the police. While the military retain a good amount of public confidence (30 per cent), no doubt partly because of ongoing operations in Somalia, the intelligence services (10 per cent), and the police (11 per cent) appear to have borne the brunt of public dissatisfaction with the Westgate debacle – even though some reports have suggested that the police had the situation under control before the Kenya Defence Forces arrived on the scene.

Worryingly, many of these figures drop even further in the parts of the country where security is the biggest issue. Just six per cent of people living at the Coast report a lot of confidence in the police, while the corresponding figure for the intelligence services is just four per cent.

Yet to be convinced

What of Kenya’s new institutions? The story so far suggests that although Kenyans may remain very optimistic about what the new Constitution can offer, they are very realistic about the situation on the ground.

Only 13 per cent of Kenyans have ‘a lot of confidence’ in the county governments (it is worth noting that 43 per cent of Kenyans reported ‘some confidence’). This might seem shockingly low, but it is actually in line with a number of other new bodies. Just nine per cent of Kenyans have ‘a lot of confidence’ in their senators, 11 per cent in the President’s cabinet secretaries, 16 per cent in the Chief Justice, 16 per cent in the Supreme Court and 21 per cent in the IEBC. Somewhat unsurprisingly given these results, a majority of Kenyans believe that further change is necessary. A majority of respondents (56 per cent) agreed that the electoral commission should be reformed before the next election.

It was always likely that the new Constitution would take some time to improve the political system, but these figures suggest that Kenyans are yet to be convinced by what they have seen. At the county level, public knowledge of the main players is high, but more needs to be done to communicate the role of the counties and the identities and county leaders. Somewhat surprisingly, 15 per cent of Kenyans did not know the name of their governor, 24 per cent could not name their senator, and – less surprisingly – a third of respondents did not know who their women’s representative or county assembly representative was. But there are clearly other problems as well. A majority of Kenyans (54 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I am disappointed in the way that my county government is being run’.

By contrast, a minority of Kenyans (41 per cent) felt that the provision of healthcare had improved, compared to 32 per cent who disagreed with this statement. Respondents living in North Eastern and Nyanza were the most concerned with the performance of their county governments, with only a handful of people reporting that healthcare had improved ‘a lot’ (four per cent in North Eastern and three per cent in Nyanza).

What does this all mean for Kenya’s new Constitution? How concerned should we be? It is clearly too early to be defeatist. It takes decades to embed political centralisation and to make it work effectively. The situation with healthcare is deeply worrying and requires urgent attention, but despair and panic are not helpful responses.

Rather, careful thought needs to be given to some of the main findings revealed by surveys like this and what can be done about them. Given the excitement that many Kenyans expressed towards the idea of devolution, why are the county governments not more trusted? Why do county governments seem to be working better in some areas than they are in others? How can information about counties best be communicated to voters? And what can be done to improve performance in key areas such as healthcare?

I will try and answer some of these questions in my next column in two weeks time.

This blog was first published in the Daily Nation on 12 April 2014.

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