It has been an interesting few weeks in Kenya; the recent weekly anti-government protests were getting more and more belligerent, and those in government increasingly perturbed by the goings-on. Most of all, the apparent confusion, tension, and disquiet exposed Kenya’s vulnerable underbelly: a society guided by a middle class that is aggressively ignorant yet aspiring to “success” defined by subservience to our lieges and to the Western gaze rather than initiative, creativity or industry.
I have previously written about “anxiety in the slave quarters” and being “lost in the darkness” in reference to Kenya’s current situation, both of which were linked by the common theme of ignorance, the most ominous threat to Kenyan society today, and the underlying driver of the unrest recently witnessed in the country. As a testament to this, many Kenyans across the political and social spectra have been advocating the need for “dialogue” or appealing to H.E. President William Ruto and Hon. Raila Odinga to “sit down and talk”. None of these vacuous pleas include even the smallest suggestion of what the two principals should talk about.
All conflicts—from private domestic feuds to international military conflagrations—occur around clear “bones of contention”, be they centred on issues or resources. These fundamentals necessarily form the basis of any dialogue or “treaties” that would lead to a cessation of hostilities. Therefore, by remaining vague about these “bones of contention”, what Kenyans are yearning for is for our “liege lords” to find some kind of solution to a problem that we have failed to articulate. This, in turn, will absolve us of responsibility for ourselves, our thought processes, and our behaviour.
Yet our behaviour remains wanting. For instance, we are less—if at all we are—concerned about the actual material losses incurred by common Kenyans during the recent disturbances; instead, we seem more interested in the “uncivilized” images exposed to the Western “white” gaze. There were paroxysms of veritable grief about images of pedigree Dorper sheep being stolen from the Kenyatta family farm and stones being thrown at the East Africa Spectre company because it would “scare away [foreign] investors” but none about the looting and destruction of Jamia Supermarket and other “black” local investors’ property in Kisumu and elsewhere.
Instead, the excitement over the visit of US senator Chris Coons shows just how desperate we are to burnish our image for the “white gaze”. The “peace” we seek (even as we ignorantly fan the flames of senseless chaos) has never included justice. The middle class just seek status for our respective lieges, so that we can each find an external reference point by which we can define our social status and hide our individual hollowness. We are loath to look at ourselves in the mirror and make decisions about what we support and why, what is good for us, our children, or our country.
History is replete with stories of populations subjected to all sorts of oppression by absolutist leaders, but rarely do we come across honest accounts of the “luxurious” (for lack of a better term) intellectual indolence of being a subject. Freedom and self-determination are highly-valued circumstances over which many wars have been fought and lives lost throughout recorded history, but they come with heavy intellectual work and decisions, from which those in servitude are completely excluded. Vassals, whether by choice or compulsion, do not bear the burden of making decisions, creating strategies, or being responsible for the same. For 60 or so years, Kenya has been a feudal society masquerading as a republic. We suddenly encountered a moment of reckoning last year when the general election results fractured the feudal order which had been creaking under the weight of its own decadence. One would wonder why the tribulations of nobles should agitate the commoners, but this is a factor of the social stratification in Kenya where the middle class largely defines their socio-political status relative to the fortunes of their respective political lieges.
For 60 or so years, Kenya has been a feudal society masquerading as a republic.
Consequently, when the Kenya Kwanza coalition led by Dr William Ruto won the general election, the Kenyan middle class were left confused. The majority of them were political vassals of lieges who coalesced into an unwieldy coalition whose focus was outweighed by entitlement. The middle-class demographic, which is notorious for voter apathy, suddenly found its voice in the protests against the results. Following the election petition hearings and the subsequent confirmation of the results, the protests immediately began, aimed at (valid) governance issues that had existed under the previous administration but hadn’t elicited that sort of response. Suddenly, we had people raucously expressing concern over the ethnicisation of government appointments, government expenditure, the veracity (or lack thereof) of government officials’ statements, foreign debt, economic performance, etc. All these issues are valid concerns, no doubt. However, even though the new administration’s performance has remained broadly below par, the administration has not been in office long enough to make its (positive or negative) mark.
So then, what is happening in Kenya? Is it simply the “noise” of a myopic society that failed to anticipate the outcome of events that took place in broad daylight? Foreign observers are also confounded by the current events because they have been consistently fooled by our “stage make-up”. Driven by our highly developed (Western-targeted) tourism industry and wary of the “white gaze”, our façade of functionality rarely cracks or fades. Even now that we have a “ceasefire” of sorts, it wasn’t as a result of any détente, because the protests themselves were not driven by any coherent negotiable targets. The ceasefire merely aims to satisfy the “white gaze”, especially in the person of US senator Chris Coons, who flew into the country on 29 March 2023 to instruct the feuding parties to stop. Sadly, neither side in this dispute really has any interest in addressing the substantive issues affecting common Kenyans.
Even the term “bipartisan engagement” that is now widely deployed by the ignorant middle class is borrowed from the US political lexicon, where it is used in reference to discussions in a system of two political parties with opposing views on an issue. In Kenya, this term is hardly applicable because we have two chimeras discussing the personal differences of their leaders because neither group has any distinct policies or ideologies against which differences can be drawn. We also shouldn’t overestimate our importance as a country because the US isn’t concerned about the petty parochial issues between Kenyan politicians. They are more concerned with the growing influence of China in Africa, especially the fact that their East African “bulwark” has at least a modicum of stability to show the Eastern world.
Sadly, neither side in this dispute really has any interest in addressing the substantive issues affecting common Kenyans.
Most remarkably, the “feudal contract” has been broken. Whether this has happened by commission, omission or accident is immaterial, but the thing we need to be worried about is how our leaders on both sides are employing the proletariat as a tool for the actualisation of their dreams. These politicians know that a young, hungry, and frustrated proletariat can be controlled and directed indefinitely through political rhetoric. The elite “bull buffaloes” are exposing each other’s vulnerabilities through relentless fights thinking that the masses watching them are doing so for entertainment, rather than waiting to dislodge them from their privileged economic and political thrones which they have enjoyed for decades.
In this process, the majority of Kenya’s middle class will soon find themselves politically adrift (if they aren’t already) due to their shallowness. In this instance, this is painfully apparent through their sudden raucous concern about the public “disorder” occasioned by the mass action against the systemic disorder in national governance and leadership which has existed since 2018 and to which they have been resolutely oblivious. They have internalized and mainstreamed the belief that their lieges are “sacred” and should be untouched by any of the challenges that bedevil our society because we are somehow “indebted” to them. For example, a senior newspaper editor, Mr Mutuma Mathiu, wrote a fawning op-ed article in the Sunday Nation of 2 April 2023, describing the late Jomo Kenyatta as “our north star during a time of great suffering”. He further compared Jomo to George Washington and the invasion of his family’s property to the desecration of a temple, firmly underscoring the depth of our intellectual malaise and deep-rooted spirit of worshipful subservience. The day after the Rubicon was crossed and properties belonging to lieges targeted, there was so much angst that the politician Mr Odinga visited the site of sheep theft with aides in tow in a strident display of outrage. However, none of the opposition brigades saw it fit to visit Kibra, a poorer part of town where a church and a mosque were attacked during the riots, resulting in the deaths of two people.
We’re a society that has historically thrived on hiding our true identity behind shop-worn masks and mantras like “hakuna matata”. This article was inspired by the question those interested in Kenya are asking: “What’s happening in Kenya?” The short and simple answer is “Nothing at all”. Our masks just slipped off, and the world has now seen our faces.
This article was first published by The Pan African Review.