Kenya’s stalemate

A fundamental contest between two orders is taking place in Kenya. Will its progressives seize the moment to catalyze a vision for social, economic, and political change?

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash.

Kenya is at a political crossroads. The opposition has called for demonstrations across the country twice a week. They have accused President William Ruto of stealing last year’s election and of failing to control the surging cost of living. The violence accompanying the demonstrations is increasing. Senior government officials have made belligerent statements about the opposition’s demands. For their part, the opposition sounds equally resolute. Public uncertainty is deepening as the economic and social consequences of the resistance mount. Prospects for any kind of political settlement currently seem remote and it is not clear to Kenyans what success for the opposition looks like.

Kenya’s middle-class progressives—the numerically small but tenacious civil society sector in particular—seem dazed by the current state of affairs. The recent invasion of former president Uhuru Kenyatta’s family property by apparently organized intruders seems to have flipped the narrative. I would argue that the very idea of Kenya as we know it is being challenged. This leaves many of us bewildered. For now, Kenyans have taken to social media to articulate their angst and try to make sense of the current situation. Opining in this regard, Mutuma Mathiu, the former Nation Media Group’s editorial director wrote on Twitter recently that the invasion was “a key moment in Kenya’s political development. Something has changed, forever.”

The colonial project in countries like Kenya was no small thing: the sheer destruction it wrought on property and livelihoods; the killing and enslavement of entire populations; and the cultural and social re-engineering, which all served to distort social harmony in African societies. The establishment of a colonizing structure was the vehicle for the extension of British social structures in the colonies they conquered. The sociopolitical constructs that the British created in their empire were primarily reflections of their own traditional, individualistic, deeply unequal, and class-based society, which existed and continues to exist in the UK. Responding to what they didn’t know with what they understood, the architects of empire sought to recreate the rural arcadia of England where, since the 16th century, local government was controlled by an established, self-defined ruling class.

The autonomous communities the British systematically dismantled in Kenya were replaced by an approximation of English villages in the hands of the traditional lords—a gentry as it were—comprised of a white ruling class and its African collaborators and enablers. Out of this was born the infamous “indirect rule” system of government, with power devolved to an entire hierarchy of greater and lesser imitation “gentlemen.” This was both less expensive for the British and, as with the English system at home, it was run by complicit amateurs; meaning that there was no need to create a professional class of Kenyans who would wield and then seek to exercise political authority.

This arrangement reinvented the collaborating class of Africans whose loyalty was to the newly established colonial government. The mission schools and colonial civil service produced and consolidated the domination of colonial society by this class. This group of actors rose to political dominance in post-independent Kenya.

For the past 60 years, this elite network has remained well-resourced and integrated and as a result is both resilient and stable. This has contributed to the peace and stability Kenya has enjoyed. Even when this elite has had internal squabbles, which have regularly led to episodic violence in the country, they have been mediated through elite “handshakes”—essentially boardroom deals. Like the English aristocracy of old, unwritten rules of engagement govern their game of thrones.

The late, much-celebrated African economist, thinker, and analyst Professor Thandika Mkandawire once described the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) imposed on Africa in the 1980s as the Great African Depression. The implementation of SAPs ravaged African economies, distorted social arrangements, and restructured Africa’s public sphere in three fundamental ways.

First, the African Academy was impoverished as the continent’s universities were defunded and delegitimized as authoritative centers of knowledge production. Stripped of their epistemological raison d’être, a social and intellectual void was created that has been filled by, among others, a proliferating class of evangelical pastors across the continent. They increasingly occupy what once was the academy’s central place in defining the narrative vis-à-vis economic, political, and cultural matters. Second, the “structural adjustment” of Kenya’s economy led to the disappearance of the old certainties of social mobility. To make ends meet, Kenyans were forced en masse into the informal or jua kali sector. All of a sudden, the primary indicator of an individual’s success shifted from one’s skills, experience, and personal virtues to the patronage networks one was able to exploit. Third, the decoupling of politics from economics took power away from the politicians and into global and local financial institutions creating a new kind of politics dictated by the logic of the market. Unable to change society through popular struggle and negotiation, the arena of politics transformed itself into theater and spectacle, the most glaring indicator of this evolution in recent Kenyan politics being the Sonkonization of Kenya’s political culture—a reckless populism.

In this environment, a new moral political economy emerged whose ethos was undergirded simultaneously by hyper-individualism, a protestant ethic, and an evangelical socio-political religiosity. Here, hustling and deal-making is the name of the game, and corruption is only considered a vice if inclusivity in the redistribution of the goodies by whatever means fails to conform to the dictates of patronage.

The actors within this fledgling moral political economy engage in activities of the intermediary type, scheming and hustling, and are firmly entrenched in the role of kazi ya mkono (messenger labor) for the more powerful actors in the post-colonial order. Over time, and combined with demographics, reforms in Kenya’s governance infrastructure, the readily available global credit from China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Western monies that became available in the low-interest environment following the financial crisis in the West in 2008, the new moral political economy expanded by creating an aspirational consumerist class in Kenya’s urban areas—a prosperity-gospel-church-going, land-buying, highly articulate, and well-educated class.

The culmination of its success was presumably its political contestation against the old order in the August 2022 elections. This established order ended with the ascendancy of William Ruto and his hustler comrades to the presidency. We are therefore encouraged to observe that the current political stalemate between the opposition and the government might not be the usual Kenyan intra-elite dispute, but a more fundamental contest between two orders. The first is an order that over the life of the postcolonial state has entrenched itself and feels entitled to the spoils of the state. The second is a new order that feels that the old guard has had its time and should make way.

History is replete with instances of clashes over power. The Glorious Revolution that took place in England from 1688 to 1689 changed how England was governed, giving parliament more power over the monarchy and planting the seeds for the beginning of modern political democracy. In many ways, the moment we are living in has stark similarities with that revolution.

My angst at this stalemate, however, is that Kenya’s progressives seem to lack the intellectual and spiritual clarity to catalyze a progressive vision that inspires popular energy in order to restore the social, economic, and political balance of power in society, especially for the marginalized, the alienated, and the dispossessed. Will history absolve them?

Further Reading

Homeless in the city

The periodic evictions of poor families in Nairobi follows in a long tradition in Kenya, dating to colonialism, to keep the city as a space for the elite.