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The 1st of June 2024 marked 61 years since the day Kenya attained internal self-governance. This day in 1963 can be understood as officially marking only the beginning of the British exit from Kenya. In May 1963, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party won the pre-independence election and subsequently formed a provisional government, while the colonial British regime negotiated an independence settlement with the state’s top leadership. It would not be until 12 December 1963 – following the final Lancaster House Conference – that the governance of Kenya would officially fully fall to KANU. The Independence Constitution installed Jomo Kenyatta as Prime Minister and head of government. Queen Elizabeth II would remain head of state until a year later, when Kenya finally became an independent republic with Kenyatta as President – the head of state, and head of government. With Kenya turning a year older, a cursory look back at developments in its political landscape is in order. This charitable glance recognises that the political landscape in which we find ourselves exists in the context of all in which we live, and all that came before us. In broad strokes, this discussion tries to paint a picture of the development of political contestation for the control of the instruments of public power in the state, against the backdrop of a few ideals of democracy. 

Independence and despotism

The gradual Africanisation of Kenya’s governance towards the end of the colonial administration meant that at independence, the newly birthed Kenyan state would continue to settle into the material programme of government passed down from the imperial British regime. Consequently, the ethno-regional conception of political participation, which was central to the colonial government’s divide and conquer strategy of political domination, became more deeply entrenched into the Kenyan political order. 

The Independence Constitution provided for a bicameral parliament for Kenya’s quasi-federal system of government, albeit with ethnically defined administrative regions. After KANU attained control of the instruments of governance following the exit of British personnel, it wasted no time in centralising and consolidating political power. Through a legally tenuous amendment in 1964, the KANU administration combined the membership of the Senate and the House of Representatives to form a unicameral parliament. Subsequent government policies and actions further centralised political power, gradually consolidating an imperial presidency. The presidency’s imperial power would be demonstrated in the decades that followed.

Kenyatta’s KANU administration quickly earned a reputation for far-reaching constriction of the political space. When the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) party emerged in 1966 following differences between President Kenyatta and then Vice President Oginga Odinga, it triggered an amendment spearheaded by KANU. The new law required elected members who switched parties to seek re-election. These would be the last multiparty elections until 1992; Jomo Kenyatta banned KPU right before the election of 1969.  

The year 1969 also marked an instance of the impunity of the imperial presidency; an instance of political exclusion through the law, and eventually, through violence. In what has been understood as a move to exclude Tom Mboya – a brilliant 38-year-old politician and strategist – from the ballot in 1969, the minimum age to vie for the presidency was raised from 35 to 40. Mboya was then assassinated in July 1969. Kenyatta would not face opposition in an electoral contest for the rest of his administration. This aggressive constriction of the political space stands as the most damaging dimension of the Jomo Kenyatta years, perhaps second only to the KANU regime’s discriminatory land resettlement scheme.

The Kenyatta regime was criticised for biased (to put it mildly) allocation of resources – from government development funds, to the resettlement of the land vacated at independence. Critics recognised biases in favour of Kenyans sharing his Kikuyu ethnicity, a bias also reflected in appointments to public office. Tensions over such disparities, and the regime’s accompanying actions to perpetuate marginalisation, festered over the decades since independence. The issue of land, particularly, remained salient in the budding republic. It was a key debate during the push for a new constitution over the decades that Kenya suffered despotic leaders. I come back to this later.

Indeed, Daniel Arap Moi picked up right where Kenyatta left off following his death in 1978, consolidating power and perpetuating impunity. In addition to detention and torture of dissidents, Moi sought to constrict the political space further by officially enshrining the one-party state in the law in June 1982. The subsequent criticism and resistance culminated in an attempted coup later in August 1982. As no surprise, Moi consequently tightened his grip on the instruments of government, notably by filling public posts with his loyalists, mainly his co-ethnic Kalenjin community members. To see how this factors into the evolution of Kenya’s arena of political competition, it is important to understand the circumstances of Moi’s rise to power.  

Moi’s ascension to the vice-presidency was tenuous, for two primary reasons. First is what David Ndii, a Kenyan public intellectual, says became apparent in the later electoral contests of 1992, 1997, and 2007. “Moi’s elevation to vice-president under Jomo belied a Faustian bargain with the Kalenjin elite – land for power.” Ndii asserts that it may not have been clear at the time, but in ceding what was understood as Kalenjin land for Jomo’s Kikuyu settlement, Moi’s Kalenjin elite ushered would-be political hostages into the Rift Valley. Second, Moi’s vice-presidency meant that upon Kenyatta’s death, he would ascend to the presidency. The reality of patrimonial politics implied the threat of exclusion of beneficiaries of economic and political advantages cultivated during Kenyatta’s administration. Thus, to consolidate his political power, Moi carried out a delicate balance of populist appeals to the masses through reassurances of land redistribution, while co-opting the Kenyatta era legacy interests through assurances of continuity. The ethno-regional disparities resulting from the colonial British administration, and the despotic Kenyatta and Moi eras, would over time foster regional tensions as Kenyans pushed for political broadening and inclusion. 

Upon the 1991 reinstitution of multiparty politics, a proliferation of new political parties resulted in unprecedented political fragmentation. Political parties were primarily instrumental vehicles geared towards gaining control of government and subsequently advancing patrimonial political ambitions. Without a uniting ethos – a broad congruence on an overarching sense of the greater good – these parties were unable to consolidate a coherent opposition strong enough to unseat Moi. He thus retained the presidency in both the 1992 and 1997 elections. Of note, these contests were tempered with reports of electoral irregularities and ethnic violence – particularly targeted at Kikuyu “political hostages” in the Rift Valley diaspora. In 2002, following what is widely termed as Kenya’s first truly democratic election – and respecting newly instituted presidential term limits – Moi finally vacated the presidency for Mwai Kibaki.

Before further discussing this transition and subsequent pivotal developments, it is important to develop a baseline understanding of a few ideals capturing the essence of a democratic republic. This will help put in perspective how Kenya awkwardly struggles to reconcile its political history and realities with the aspiration of democratic governance.

The democratic republic and its public

In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu captures the essence of a democratic republic as the universal political equality of all members of the republic, centred upon constitutionally established citizenship rights. This implies that ideally, all citizens can participate in their governance, sharing equally in responsibility to, and in benefit from, the state. In a despotic state, in contrast, the ruler is the law; the public lacks input in their own governance. Montesquieu further postulates that the driving principle of a democratic republic is a love of virtue – a willingness to put the public good ahead of private interests. With respect to this taxonomy, Kenya’s political landscape stands as a Frankenstein that defies categorisation. Ostensibly democratic contests across Kenya’s history have occasioned protests over the credibility of elections; this has robbed Kenyan administrations of legitimacy among the state’s electorate. With regard to Montesquieu’s notion of “a love of virtue”, Kenya finds itself in a political context unique to many post-colonial African states. In their exploration of the beliefs that motivate popular engagement with the government in such states, Cheeseman et al. define this context from the perspective of two kinds of beliefs.

One is civic belief, which emphasises meritocracy and adherence to the rules of the democratic game. The other, patrimonial belief, emphasises the distinctive bond between an individual and their own – usually ethnic – community. Notions of civic virtue assert the importance of a national community shaped by a uniting national ethos of a greater good. The patrimonial register, in contrast, stresses the importance of reciprocal patron-client dynamics between holders of public office and their supporters. Rooted in identity – in Kenya’s case, ethnicity and kinship – patrimonial relationships result in hierarchies and inequities in governance. Among the citizenry, this belief formation system engenders different, even rival, visions of what it means to do the right thing in public office. This civic/patrimonial dichotomy parallels another view of popular interaction with the democratic republic, with respect to morality. In his article Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A theoretical statement, Peter Ekeh distinguishes a public and private realm.

Regarding morality, the private realm is differentially associated with the public realm; a public realm which Ekeh further splits into a dichotomy. He defines two public realms in post-colonial Africa. First is the primordial public realm, in which groupings, sentiments, and activities tied to ethnicity determine an individual’s political engagement. The primordial public is associated with the private realm in that the same generalised moral imperatives operate in both realms upon political actors. This central characteristic distinguishes the primordial public from the second kind of public realm – the civic public. Unlike the primordial public, the civic public realm lacks ties to the moral imperatives operative in the private and primordial realms. In this sense, it is essentially amoral – it has no moral value of its own, positive nor negative. It is the government machinery consisting of civil structures like the cabinet, electoral processes, security apparatus, etc. In most African states, the civic public is a post-colonial democratising outfit into which such states contort themselves to fit. Let me explain, using Kenya’s example.

At independence, Kenya’s constitutive charter took after the mould of constitutions from older republics whose histories and socio-cultural contexts were vastly different. That notwithstanding, the alien governance frameworks were foisted upon the budding nation in an endeavour that diluted traditional centres of legitimacy within ethnic nations. In a convenient assessment, the colonial regime observed ethnic diversity and propensity for violent contestation in the republic. This was the perfect pretext for asserting control over the electoral process in March 1957, during the first ever elections in which Africans could vie to represent “African constituencies”. This dynamic evolved to become the ideology of order. The ideology’s rationale licensed the regime to prioritise consolidation of democratic institutions/processes below “maintaining peace and order” in the state. Suspending disbelief, this ideology of order almost has a semblance of virtue; a semblance that has been leveraged by the political classes that followed the British regime, to attain or negotiate for public power. This brings me back to the distinction of the civic and primordial public realms. 

Towards independence, the essential moral difference between the civic and primordial realms could not have been starker. In seeking to replace British personnel in control of the civic public, Kenya’s budding political class adapted to a negotiated independence settlement; explicitly or implicitly, these leaders accepted the governance principles of the alien civic public. Consequently, after independence, the source of the legitimacy of the rule of a newly minted bourgeoisie was alien. Ekeh observes a dialectical contortion that public officers have since undergone to arrive at what he calls “the African bourgeoise ideologies of legitimation” – the interest-begotten narratives that political aspirants use to justify their rule. Among them is the convenient ideology of order, which has been applied throughout Kenya’s history just as it was in the very first elections of 1957. Such ideologies enable political candidates to create narratives that earn them support to attain and maintain control of the civic public. In this political environment, the moral role of the primordial public also evolves.

While the primordial public remains the reservoir of generalised moral obligations, said moral obligations are transformed. It becomes palatable for political agents to plunder the civic public in order to benefit the primordial public. Here lies the crux of the primordial/patrimonial patron-client reciprocity: political agents of the civic public trade material benefits from the civic public with their primordial ties, in exchange for the intangible, yet indispensable, identity and psychological security of the voters’ support. Getting wealthy this way – or any which way – is hardly perceived as bad. The mortal sin in Kenyan politics is to be inaccessible or unresponsive to ordinary Kenyans. Even the allegation of “mheshimiwa hayuko kwa ground” (the leader is not [financially] accessible at the grassroots) can be damning, and detrimental to ambitions of public office. With this patron-client dynamic, a leader is understood to have influence and support at the most granular level – the individual beneficiary of the spoils of the civic public. On a bigger scale, the most influential leaders are understood to represent “bloc votes”. Thus was born the “Big Man” rule observed in Kenyan politics.      

In what has been labelled the “tyranny of numbers”, elections are won through the mobilisation of these “bloc votes” supplied by ethno-regional gatekeepers – recently (and frankly, even more distastefully) referred to as “kingpins”. Elections are thus won through dealmaking over public office appointments, business opportunities, and other benefits from the civic public. This is also consistent with the Weberian notion in his book Politics as a Vocation that a politician’s supporters, having spent their influence and “war chests” towards his victory, are entitled to shares in the “spoils of war”. This brings my discussion back to a historic instance that rather comprehensively captures the preceding aspects of Kenya’s political landscape – the 2007 election.

Leviathan, or democratic consolidation?

During the 2002 election, Kibaki ran on a platform of economic transformation and radical constitutional reform to promote regional equality, and deepen democracy. Following his victory, however, he reneged on these key promises. In addition, he went back on a memorandum of understanding declaring that if he won, he would establish the office of the Prime Minister for Raila Odinga, then a key ally. It is understood that legacy political and economic interests from the previous regimes sought to perpetuate the status quo through Kibaki’s presidency; this likely informed his choice regarding Odinga’s premiership. These continuity interests went as far as hijacking the drafting of a new constitution in 2005, which unsurprisingly resulted in the rejection of the subsequent Wako draft at the referendum. The Wako draft offered watered-down provisions for devolution/majimbo, which had become a key constitutional debate seeking to address historical grievances of regional inequality and centralisation of political power. 

This 2005 constitutional moment led to the delineation of two rival political movements, each framed around competing visions of what it meant to do the right thing. Each of their visions of the greater good was rooted in some combination of civic and patrimonial beliefs. While Kibaki supporters – largely members of the Mt Kenya communities – opposed devolution on the grounds that it would further ethnically divide the country, Odinga supporters welcomed its promise of remedying ethno-regional inequalities in participation in the state. More localised narratives – particularly in Odinga’s strongholds – implicitly (sometimes explicitly) understood the push for majimbo as licence to evict “outsiders” from their lands. This would make for a heated general election in 2007. The violence that followed the disputed election resulted in negotiations, and a resolution captured in the National Accord. Included in the resolution was the institution of a coalition government with Mwai Kibaki as President and Raila Odinga as Prime Minister; an expanded cabinet shared between the parties, etc. This aftermath speaks to a few realities. 

First is the continued potency of ethnic violence and the attendant rhetoric as viable tools in Kenyan political contestation strategies. The Kenyan political imagination is now furnished with images of what could happen if elections were disputed; this reality props up the ideology of order, which can be exploited to nefarious ends. Second, the coalition government demonstrated that if sovereign moments are arrived at – through dodgy elections or even violence – contestants of public office can negotiate for power-sharing arrangements. Finally, it reinforced patrimonial and primordial belief systems, as the violence took ethnic patterns. 

Connected to this, the aftermath of the 2007 contest birthed what this discussion sees as an instantiation of the Hobbesian Leviathan – the UhuRuto alliance between Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. This political juggernaut – largely a consequence of the involvement of the International Criminal Court in the 2007 aftermath – would dominate the 2013 and 2017 elections, although their latter victory would be nullified. The bigger point here is that the 2007 election directly led to the momentous comprehension of reciprocity between two former political rivals and their respective communities, through an agreement to share the control of the instruments of public power over at least two decades.

Of note, the events of 2007–2008 also significantly incentivised the adoption of a new constitutive charter in 2010. The Constitution of Kenya 2010 (CoK 2010) was tailored towards addressing the underlying systemic issues that led to the 2007–2008 carnage. This is consistent with the view that regards democratic constitutions as “ceasefire documents”. CoK 2010 was born out of an untenable social contract that brought the young republic to the brink of civil war – it is fortunate the armed forces did not get involved. Kenya’s adoption of the devolved system of government offered much promise for the decentralisation of power – a welcome and well-informed aspiration that would, among other things, lower the winner-takes-all stakes of Kenyan general elections. Achieving this through the institution of a sub-national level of government seemed straightforward enough; what wasn’t as readily apparent was a phenomenon of devolved governance that I believe won William Ruto the presidency in 2022. I see this phenomenon as one of the most significant moments in Kenya’s ambition to decentralise political power. 

The 2022 elections would be the first in which two-term governors would relinquish their offices in accordance with constitutional term limits. Each of these governors would be expected to offer “a support base, a patronage network, and a war chest from their time in office”. Ruto’s groundwork towards his 2022 victory evidently started in 2017, as he sought to ensure the victory of his allies in that year’s election. The stream of former governors – most of whom saw no way to go but up – eyed public offices at the national level. This would occasion significant political fragmentation, which would be clearer in hindsight. While Odinga surrounded himself with several traditional regional gatekeepers, Ruto sought the support of seemingly lower-ranking leaders seeking to build influence of their own. Ruto’s win demonstrates a diffusion of political influence from its traditional bearers, to a generation of leaders eager to amass and spend political capital of their own for a seat at the highest table of the civic public. 

Of course, President Ruto’s victory was a function of many more variables than this generational shift. To tie together this note’s brief history, this discussion highlights one more of these variables as it pertains to its portrait of Kenya’s political landscape.

2022 and the nation’s future

In addition to consolidating a coalition of lower-ranking regional leaders, President Ruto drew on the inegalitarian history of Kenyan politics to remarkably cast himself as an outsider of Kenya’s dynastic politics. Against the backdrop of public discontent at the combination of a harsh economy and government ineffectiveness, this cast him as a strong opponent to the son of Kenya’s first vice-president. Odinga, historically associated with the politics of change, may have made a mistake aligning himself with the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta – the son of the nation’s founding father. This cast Odinga as the continuity candidate at a time when the Kenyan electorate desired change. Ruto’s campaign took advantage of this, defining a new collective, the Hustler Nation, a collective of hard workers who had borne the brunt of Kenya’s historical inequality. Through this feat of brilliant campaigning, Ruto was able to portray himself, an insider and beneficiary of the status quo, as an outsider – as part of the Hustler Nation. This calls for the consideration of this powerful word describing Ruto’s collective – a “nation”.

In their discussion of the polls of 2022, Kanyinga et al. demonstrate the significance of the word “nation” in Kenyan politics. Other than most recently conjuring a Hustler Nation in the Kenyan imagination, the word has historically been used to proliferate other “nations”: the Mulembe Nation, the Kalenjin Nation, the Mijikenda nation, the Kikuyu Nation, etc. Reference to these nations doesn’t seem to go away; the 2022 election marked references to ethnic “kingpins”, signalling primordial sensibilities that have historically been instrumentalised to volatile ends during political contests. Ideally, these “nations” should have lost relevance in political competition when Kenya became a democratic republic. But the context we find ourselves in is less than ideal. 

Montesquieu’s paradigm of universal equality in democratic participation is a desirable aspiration. However, it is important to remain awake to the continued salience of narratives of inequality tied to the conception of such “nations”. Understandably, a wealth of research on the nation’s history has cultivated the view that democratic norms will only follow the eradication of primordialism and its associated (supposedly irrational) practices. Thus, views that advocate for anything less than the elimination of primordial/tribal patterns in democratic participation are frowned upon. There are reasons for this. 

This view assumes the ideal democratic electorate “voting to maximise the greater good”, usually, the delivery of public services. It also belies the assumption that the state/civic public is benevolent/benign, geared to maximise provision of the public good. This discussion, in contrast, sees the state as an amoral establishment, and any moral value it may appear to have, as imbued upon it by the holders of public office. More importantly, it recognises the complex interaction of patrimonial and civic sensibilities binding voters to the democratic system; here are two examples. 

First, it is in the patrimonial register that popular engagement with formal political processes occurs, as political actors make claims on one another. It is here that civic duty is cultivated as candidates and voters alike make commitments to each other, against which their performance can be evaluated in future elections. Second is a phenomenon close to the direct reciprocity in the spirit of mheshimiwa ako kwa ground (the leader is [financially] present at the grassroots) discussed earlier. As noted, the morality of the private and primordial realms in Kenyan politics condones plunder of the civic public. While advocacy against tribal voting assumes the ideal voter – a rational, informed voter who votes on principles and policies – the average Kenyan voter’s calculus might be closer to what Ndii captures as “zimwi likujualo halikuli likakwisha” (the ogre that knows you does not finish you). It is the rationale that if you won’t directly materially benefit from your candidate’s victory in some shape or form, then better the devil you know. Thus, “primordial” need not imply “irrational”. Following from this, if the aspiration is to embed the essence of democracy – public participation – in Kenyan politics, seeking to eliminate patrimonial engagement altogether could be self-defeating to a degree. Optimistically, this note sees immense promise in institutional solutions that recognise this nuance in the Kenyan body politic. 

I highlighted the realisation of a primary ambition of devolution evidenced in the 2022 election – the fragmentation of political power from its historical loci. A strong case can be made that this fragmentation enabled William Ruto to successfully consolidate a support base. It is also of note that Ruto contested as essentially the de facto leader of the opposition at the time of the election. By cooperating with seemingly lower-ranking power-brokers, Ruto defied the historical odds of beating the continuity candidate. This paints an optimistic picture for the evolution of political contestation in Kenya, at least in how the nation continues to settle into its still relatively new dispensation. But whether the picture is fully optimistic remains to be seen. There are reasons for apprehension, to do with the Leviathan we find ourselves under – our nation’s original sin.

Various analyses have credited Ruto’s 2022 success to the reciprocity implied in the UhuRuto pact of 2013. A reciprocity accompanied by a fear of the consequences of a Ruto loss among aforementioned Kikuyu hostages in the Rift Valley diaspora. This cannot be asserted or denied with certainty. It remains to be seen whether this amorphous “marriage of convenience”, this UhuRuto Leviathan, still casts its shadow upon Kenya’s political landscape. 

While patrimonial politics continues to shadow the rhetoric and practice of Kenyan politics, optimism shines through from evidence of social and even legal sanctions over the use of divisive ethnic rhetoric. And despite pending legislation, and headwinds coming from vestiges of the old centralised dispensation, devolution continues to take root, in its material programme, and its spirit. The democratic dream is very much alive.