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Growing Democracy: Kenyans Look to NCSL for Guidance

By Kelley Griffin  |  January 18, 2022

A group of Kenyan legislative leaders has turned to NCSL and American state lawmakers for insights on how the country can grow into its relatively new constitution. 

The group, representing the Center for Parliamentary Studies and Training and some members of the Kenyan Parliament, said the U.S. has a 400-year head start on Kenya’s new constitution, established 10 years ago by popular vote. Kenya gained its independence from Britain in 1963, but the country was embroiled in violence and government corruption for decades. When the constitution was passed in 2010, it set the stage for a system similar to American democracy.

But voting it in and making it work are two different things. 

You cannot have a democracy if women are not at the table. —Naomi Namsi Shaban, Kenya National Assembly member

“As we go along, we just want to appreciate that America, being a very old democracy, has done those functions for a long time,” said Naomi Namsi Shaban, a member of the Kenya National Assembly and board chair for the center.

The center was established to serve as a resource for members of Parliament and their staffs and has expanded to serve the county assemblies, which are roughly the equivalent of U.S. state legislatures. The center’s leaders say that NCSL, as a nonpartisan resource for lawmakers, is a valuable role model for them. 

The center’s executive director, Nyokabi Kamau, says that while the organization offers trainings on how to be an effective lawmaker, she also wants it to emulate NCSL and become a “go-to in Kenya about what law is passing where ... NCSL has so much data for the states.” 

During a recent four-day visit to NCSL, the delegation discussed state budgeting processes, citizen engagement, new-lawmaker orientation and how NCSL is structured to serve legislators and their staffs. The delegation also visited with lawmakers in Wyoming and Colorado. 

Women in Office 

While there are many aspects of state governments and NCSL’s work that the group plans to apply back home, the Kenyan constitution has some unique differences. Notably, it requires that women hold at least one-third of the seats at the national level in the Senate and the Assembly. 

Shaban said the requirement was added to the constitution “because we were not being elected. The women demanded it, and the men agreed. You cannot have a democracy if women are not at the table.”

That has proven to be difficult to achieve: One report said that women seeking office have faced physical assaults and sexual harassment in person and online and have lacked access to mandated funding for their election bids. 

When the Kenyan delegation visited legislators in the Wyoming Capitol and told them of this requirement, Wyoming Rep. Jared Olsen (R) let the group know that his state was the first to grant women the right to vote and to run for elective office. What’s more, they were gathered in the room where it happened: the recently restored Historic Supreme Court Room.

Public Engagement

While state legislatures, the U.S. Congress and federal agencies take public input very seriously, Kenya wrote it into the constitution. Michael Rotich Sialai, clerk of the National Assembly, said the country is still trying to figure out exactly what it takes to meet that requirement. 

“Public participation is a big issue in our country, both at the county and the national level,” Sialai said. “Quite a few laws passed have been annulled by the court for lack of public participation.”

Because of that, members of the delegation wanted to learn how state legislators engage with their constituents. 

Legislators described how those constituent interactions can happen at the grocery store or the soccer field, or on their cellphones with calls at all hours. 

Kansas Sen. Elaine Bowers (R) explained that it requires a lot of time and travel to hold town hall meetings with constituents in her 11,000-square-mile district. It’s sparsely populated, too; the largest town has 5,500 people. 

“Most times, we don’t need a law to fix someone’s problem,” Bowers said.

“It’s not necessarily what I know but who I know to solve these problems and ask the right questions to the right people,” she added. “I call it my ‘magic list of fix-it people.’”

Members of the delegation were surprised to learn how much time legislators spend on the work when they aren’t technically on the job.

“On this issue of compensation, they’re doing official work for a political institution (and) doing it almost on a charity basis,” said Maria Nzomo, a professor at University of Nairobi who is also on the board of the Center for Policy Studies and Training.

On the other hand, members of the delegation could relate to what drives lawmakers to go above and beyond. 

“It’s always a privilege to serve in a public office,” Michael Sialai said, “whether a Kenyan or an American.” 

Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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