The Kenya Forum | A promise is a promise is a promise? - The Kenya Forum

October 28, 2022


Fiction film can be used, in this writer’s mind, to draw parallels with the “pledges” politicians make when electioneering

More by Waweru Njoroge

A promise is a promise is a promise?

A promise is a promise is a promise?

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Sybok: “I couldn’t help but notice your pain”
God: “My pain?”
Sybok: “It runs deep, share it with me!”
(Star Trek V: The Final Frontier)

This is not a movie review! The exchange between the anti-hero, Sybok, and antagonist, “God”, in this science fiction film can be used, in this writer’s mind, to draw parallels with the “pledges” politicians make when electioneering. Proclamations and promises to alleviate their voters’ pain. Typically, these promises range from employment opportunities and corruption free systems to improved infrastructure, health services and education.

Some promises, however, do actually dwell in the realm of science fiction. While contesting the US presidential polls in 2012, US House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich made a campaign promise in which he stated, “By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American”. To infinity and beyond!

Politicians the same all over…

In any election campaign, there are two certainties: 1) the candidates will make grand promises; some that they can never keep and 2) they will pander to their audience at every opportunity.

Former Russian Soviet-era president Nikita Khrushchev once quipped, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers”.

Kenyan politicians are no exception. Every candidate that vies for a political position in “this, our land and nation”, invariably over-promises and disappointingly underdelivers. It would be unfair, however, to paint them all with a broad brush. Different (brush) strokes, after all, for different folks.

It can be postulated there are certainly those that are cut from a different cloth. Sadly, they are few and far between and can probably be counted on two hands. Let’s consider the number of elected positions in The Government of Kenya: 349 Members of the National Assembly, 47 Senators, 47 Governors and 1,450 Members of County Assembly. Mathematically generalizing, using all of my 10 fingers, this translates to approximately 0.5% of elected politicians who buck the trend of promise-breaking

So? Do we then label the remaining 99.5% of them, “as useless as ejection seats on a helicopter”?

Money talks… bullsh*t ‘talks’ too…

Let’s just hold the phone for a moment. To start with, one must applaud and or at least recognize their ambition. Putting aside whatever trappings of perceived power they are aspiring to gain; nobody would vote for them, as a candidate, based purely on their good looks and magnetic personality. Running for political office takes a heavy emotional and financial toll and, when campaigning, not only does money talk, it would appear that bullsh*t ‘talks’ too. They simply must bring something to the table.

We hold our politicians to higher standards of promise-keeping, but isn’t it possible that a broken promise is in line with expectations, and as such merits no remonstration or feelings of being slighted? Isn’t it also possible that voters discount these claims based on a politician’s ex ante prospects of electoral success?

Pragmatism holds that promises should be broken if the outcome of keeping them would, on balance, be worse. Keep in mind that politics is fundamentally just a pragmatic undertaking in which results take precedence above sincerity of purpose or consistency. As voters we tend to forget that.

If someone were to make a generalized statement, saying, “All politicians lie!”, I would be inclined to retort, tongue in cheek, “No, just the ones that keep their jobs”. Do our politicians justifiably out and out lie to us? The answer to that question is subjective.

But what about the promises we make to our children?

Allow me to digress with some food for thought.
Many of the promises we make to our children seem quite unimportant in the grand scheme of things. A hasty assurance that we’ll stop for pizza after school on Friday. A deal that if he is “number one” in his class, you’ll buy him a game console. A promise that tomorrow we’ll watch two movies instead of one because I’m too exhausted to watch anything tonight.

Inevitably, life happens. Things crop up. You actually meant it when you said it, but now following through seems extremely inconvenient if not impossible. That would be one thing if the only drawback from our unfulfilled promises was our children’s brief disappointment. But because words have power, it’s a significant concern when we use them improperly.

Consider what happens when you break promises to our kids: We teach them not to trust us. We disappoint them. We make them feel unimportant. We make them lose respect for us and, using the age-old parenting adage, monkey-see-monkey do, we create promise breakers in our children. It’s not all doom and gloom though. The silver lining is that we get the opportunity to explain and we can ask for forgiveness.

Why promises are broken…

What’s the point? Some political pledges are not kept because of impediments that are out of the politician’s control, such as stalemates or opposition from interest groups. Some are deliberately broken because of a change in circumstances; the money runs out or a catastrophe strikes. Of course, some promises are broken because they are simply outlandish, irresponsible, overly optimistic or unachievable. Remember, “Corruption will cease to be a way of life in Kenya”? What about, “Ensure every citizen is connected to reliable and affordable electricity (on or off-grid) by 2020”?

It stands to a degree of reason then, that politicians shouldn’t make such impossible promises. A corollary, though, is that voters shouldn’t expect more from politicians than they are capable of giving. Nobody is making any guarantees that the voter will soon have reduced expectations.

“Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something” – Franklin D. Roosevelt .

“Fulfilled”, “fulfilled in part”, “unfulfilled”. Can we use these categories to determine and or evaluate the level to which politicians try (make an effort), to keep campaign pledges as put forward by the theory of promissory representation which holds that, political parties make promises to voters during election campaigns and generally keep those promises after elections if they have the opportunity to do so? Also, are all promises equal or do we snowclone the 7th commandment from George Orwell’s Animal Farm? – “All promises are equal but some promises are more equal than others”. To assume the former, would be folly; building five state-of-the-art stadiums is harder to deliver than ensuring women represent 30% of all appointees to public bodies and parastatals. The latter does have numerous variable factors to consider:

• Social background characteristics: The weighting of a voter’s evaluation of political promises is, more often than not, influenced by their gender, race or ethnicity, social class, religion, education and family situation.

• Level of political information: Kenyan voters are educated but lack civic education. How does one evaluate a political promise if one doesn’t understand the rigamaroles of the constitution, the democratic and electoral processes, and the Government? More so, the majority of voters are not in the know on the qualities of who to elect as a leader in the six electable positions of President, Governor, MP, Senator, MCA and Woman Rep.

• Media exposure: Unbiased evaluation of political promises is difficult against the backdrop of sensationalist headline’s and stories that bemoan failed promises; they have a tendency of reinforcing voter’s dissatisfaction with politicians’ performance in office.

• Personal experience of issues: When a promise directly affects a voter’s welfare and income, the determination of the level of fulfillment or lack thereof, is likely to be pinned on the accessibility and responsiveness of the elected leaders when voters need them most.

• Issue importance in the eyes of voters: A promise to reduce the price of unga would be of more relevance to “Wanjiku” and her 5 children living in Kibera than the housewife who lives in the ‘leafy suburbs’ with 5 cars in the garage.

So? ‘Utado’? If a politician breaks a promise, what remedies does a voter have? Should politicians be “legally accountable” for their election promises?

There are usually ways to sue someone when they fail to meet a commitment. For example, if a debtor does not pay what is due, or someone makes a false claim or assertion about you, then you can take the matter to court.

In the world of politics, politicians are elected to address the key issues affecting the quality of life for you and the people you care about: matters such as war or health care funding, or economic development and law and order. A broken promise is usually considered unpropitious, except in dire circumstances, especially during an election period. But errant politicians seem to be exempt from the rule of law.

Despondent voters, however, cannot rely on the law. As an example, you cannot sue a politician for breach of contract, at least not in the jurisdiction of Kenya. Promises made by politicians do not become legally binding agreements by your acceptance of them when you vote. Because of the format and procedures of our governmental and legal systems, implementing the legal enforceability of election promises would be impossible.

The main issue is that the question, by declaring “legally accountable”, implies that election pledges should be enforced in court. If that were the case, judges would oversee the operations of both Parliament and the Government. The rule of Law in Kenya requires laws to be made by Parliament and interpreted by the courts; therefore, keeping the legislative, executive and judicial powers separate. In order for the courts to enforce election pledges, they would have to have the authority to compel Parliament to legislate in specific ways, or to examine legislation to verify that it is consistent with prior promises.

The question remains; ‘Utado’? At the end of the day, when all is said and done (and asked), it appears, the most effective way to deal with politicians who break promises is to vote them out of office or mount a campaign against them. Ideally, democracy is all about letting people choose who they wish to represent them and giving them the opportunity to do so. We hold the power in the choice of our leaders.

The more things change…

In 1849, French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose “- the more things change, the more they stay the same. Over the election campaign years, and in between, Kenyans have been assaulted with a barrage promises from a multitude of politicians. The tendency to hope for a better future through politics and politicians is nothing new. Promises of change abound, yet, in honoring the majority of said promises, little seems to actually change.


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