The inescapable challenge of Kenya’s political system

Not long ago I discussed in Katiba Corner the values and framework of democracy. The values include national unity, rule of law, human rights (including social justice), inclusiveness, protection of the marginalised people and communities, participation of people in the decisions of state institutions, good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability. The diversity of Kenyan communities, especially in respect of culture and religion, is acknowledged and must be respected, but should not intrude upon the political unity of Kenyans. The Constitution assures people’s engagement in public affairs at all times. State institutions are constantly reminded of their obligations to fulfil these values in the discharge of their functions. Thus parliament has to promote the democratic governance of the Republic. The president has constantly to “respect, uphold and safeguard this Constitution”, including, as expressly stated, enhancing the unity of the nation.

I also noted the critical role assigned to political parties, dominating the electoral process: bringing together people with common objectives and policies; formatting national and regional policies; vehicles for entry into the legislature and the capture of the executive.

It is clear that none of these objectives has materialised, other than capture of the legislature and the executive, in which of course politicians have a vested interest—and are the base from which national values are being undermined.


Asked recently to explain the Kenya political system to a distinguished minister from another country, I realised that I had to start with the colonial system, for so much of our present predicament has its roots in colonialism. To begin with, there was no Kenya before the British created it– by bringing within common boundaries people of great diversity. This suited the British for it opened opportunities of divide and rule—the forerunner of the current obsession of politics with ethnicity. The principal objective of the colonisers was to exploit the people and their resources for the profit of the British and its settlers—that is translated today into exploitation by the political class of national resources, like the British giving high priority to land grabbing, in various modes (just look at the land holdings of the Kenyatta, Moi, and Kibaki families). The British did not have to capture the Kenyan state: they created it and from the very beginning had a monopoly of its resources and apparatus. The state completely dominated society—its control may have loosened a bit now but it still dominates society.

The real agenda of the negotiations over the independence constitution in 1963 was the capture of the new state and its resources. Jomo Kenyatta lost out, at least partially—but as soon as the British were out of the way, he effectively abolished that constitution and acquired massive powers over the state. Among Kenyatta’s tactics was the elevation of select members of his community to high state offices, with instructions (almost) to enrich themselves through the state. His other achievement was to take over the control of the military and the police—which his son has continued despite constitutional prohibitions, conceiving of these forces as protectors of the people, not their oppressors. Thus were renewed the seeds of ethnicity and monopoly of power with which came corruption.

The 2010 Constitution tried to reverse the monopoly over state power in ways which are familiar to readers of Katiba Corner and indeed to most Kenyans. Uhuru Kenyatta has ensured that the Constitution is no bar to what he wants to do. In several articles in the Star I have discussed his violations of the Constitution. Most of his cabinet secretaries and the police also think that there are no constitutional restrictions on what they can do.

Class and dynastic politics

In their obsession with ethnic politics, Kenyans have often overlooked two other aspects of politics, a study of which helps to place ethnicity into proper context—one fact is that except for elections, Kenyans are not very ethnic, as that term is generally understood, despite desperate attempts by “elders” to lobby for a status they seldom had through history.

And we have tended to overlook dynastic politics (though of course they draw their sustenance from ethnicity). Sons of ethnic leaders now have an expectation of succeeding their fathers. In a curious way, the endless shifts in “allegiance” to parties creates a certain camaraderie between the leading politicians, as they hug and then fight each other. Their children go to same private, expensive schools, and in due course to the same night clubs—like good buddies, which they are (the recent endorsement by Gideon Moi of the integrity of his friend Uhuru was touching example of what I mean). So class and dynastic politics blend nicely, whatever their public show.

Where do we go from here

Often deciding on a good way forward is helped by looking at the past. One worry is whether Uhuru would follow his father in the nullification of the 2010 Constitution as his father with the 1963 independence constitution. That was, obviously, very different from the colonial state and system, but it was also the most democratic of all the independence constitutions in Africa. It was in essence a settlement among tribes. Jomo Kenyatta was astute enough to realise that it would fundamentally change the nature of the state: a fundamental shift from the colonial state, which ironically, he preferred to a democratic state. He fully saw the potential of the colonial type for his benefit and that of his family and community. In that respect he outwitted or, more accurately, misled his admirer and colleague, Oginga Odinga, who had assisted him to demolish not only majimbo but effectively democracy—only to be eased out of the government. Disillusioned by Kenyatta’s politics—and greed, Odinga wrote in his book Not Yet Uhuru, “What form will the struggle in Kenya take? We are struggling to prevent Africans in black skins with vested interests from ruling as successors to the administrators of colonial day…What form will the struggle in Kenya take? Is our country to see government and high office riddled with corruption and men in power using force and manoeuvre to block the expression of popular will? …Kenya’s problems in the age of uhuru are formidable . We have to deal with landlessness, combat unemployment, give the children more schools and the people more hospitals, push up living standards of the poor in a world where the gap between the rich countries and the poor is daily growing wider…Every year that passes swells the throng of those who will not put up with the policies of our government as they are now operated. School leavers become the unemployed and the unemployment become the bitter men of the streets. ” On the question whether Kenya would succeed in this struggle, he had difficulty making up his mind. Optimistically he added, “But in the long run, the wishes of the people must prevail… The jobless, the frustrated, the peasants starving on the land will endure much hardship, but for how much more and for how long?”

In the long run, he said, the wishes of the people must prevail. But he also cautioned himself that the struggle would not be easy and “that we will face great difficulties”. He wrote this in 1967, half a century ago —since then the situation of the poor and the exploited has become worse, and there seems little prospects of change. Like Oginga, the CKRC had great faith in the resolve of the people to safeguard democracy and to fight for justice—and vested them with many means for this purpose. The condition of the poor is even worse than under Jomo but their tools to fight back are stronger. There is, however, little sign that they will use sensibly their ultimate power as voters—such is the nature of our politics. Here then is a challenge to civil society and other groups who believe in democracy and social justice to get off their seats on the show of politics and mobilise the people.

The author is a director of Katiba Institute


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