Kenya: Failures of Elite Transition


The events in Kenya after the much criticized and controversial elections of 27 December 2007 have exposed the planned failures of our nascent democracy and the ideological rot and inadequacy across the Kenyan body politic.  This has left many wondering what actually went wrong.  I posit that an ideologically bankrupt political process that revolves around access to power, its consolidation, and its use to accumulate wealth is a recipe for failure.  A bastard political economy founded on self preservation ushers in not only a ‘bandit’ economy but a flawed political process that on one hand is divorced from the aspirations of the citizenry (based on a ‘social contract’ typology) and on the other hand is appended to the global capital class, to serve it and act as a transmission line for resource extraction and capital flows best expounded by Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

With a relative calm and stability since independence and ground gained as the economic powerhouse on this eastern seaboard of Africa, Kenya’s unraveling has confounded many.  As a haven of peace in the midst of warring neighbors across all its borders, Kenya has attained and played a significant strategic role within the global political, financial, and economic architecture.   It is arguably the most dependable and consistent gateway to Anglo-American imperialist interests on these shores.

But in the aftermath of the December 2007 elections, it has shown that calm doesn’t necessarily mean peace.  An innate, now glaring conflict — suspicion, mistrust, competing, contested, and contentious interests especially on the question of access to resources and ability to secure livelihoods — threatens to tear the social fabric of the Kenyan nation apart.

Commentators and observers alike vary in their approaches to the analysis of the underlying issues and the emergent aftermath (albeit all too often based on their persuasions relative to the warring sides).  But across the board, all are united on the fact that this was not just a one-off affair and that its consequences — tangible in the numbers of deaths, rapes, internally displaced persons (IDPs), forced displacements and forced occupations, razed houses, collapsed businesses and infrastructure, as well as animosity, mutual suspicions, lawlessness, and the general rapture of the social fabric — will have a wide-ranging effect, with monumental influence on the character, pace, and nature of the emergent Kenyan body politic.

In this paper, with the hindsight of various discussions and comments on the Kenyan situation (notable among them took place at the Kenya Seminar, the Centre for Civil Society, UKZN, Durban, 22 January 2008; at the World Social Forum, Day of Action, Durban, 26 January 2008; through email communication with Lee Strauser for the Socialist Register; at the GENTA – Africa Trade and Finance Linkages Meeting, Johannesburg, 30 January 2008; and in the Jubilee USA Newsletter), I strive to answer the question: “The crisis in Kenya — the accident of a fraudulent elections outcome or a deep-seated structural problem of the country’s political economy and history?”

In this quest, I will focus on the class structure of the political economy in Kenya; the root of the conflict and its contemporary features; and lessons for African countries, particularly Zimbabwe and Swaziland which are to hold their elections this year and where the potential for similar conflicts is real.

‘Elite Transition’

“We are a nation of ten billionaires and twenty million beggars. . . .” — Statement attributed to J.M. Kariuki, a populist politician murdered in the 1970s . . . and whose murderers have never been arrested or brought to justice

“Do you know?  A one percent increase in Africa’s share of trade would deliver seven times more than Africa receives in Aid?  In 2005, the UK imported 20,700 tonnes of cut flowers from the North and Sub-Saharan Africa!  This had a declared value of around US$ 110 million.  Of these, the majority came fro Kenya (18,650 tonnes) with a value of 104 million!” — Msafiri, Kenya Airways In-flight Magazine, November-December 2007

The above quotations give a glimpse of the construct of the Kenyan political economy.  J.M. Kariuki, a vocal ‘populist’ voice for the poor, squatters, and the landless, was very wealthy in his own right.  But his outspokenness lifted the veil from the inherent politico-economic mindset of the ruling elite in post-independent Kenya.

The second quotation speaks for itself.  Forty five years after independence, the pride of our economy, carried through our aptly named airline “Pride of Africa,” is that we are a raw material-producing, export-oriented economy.  Our share of global wealth is on the basis of how best we feed the desires (romantic or otherwise) of our Western counterparts.  Any person with a slight idea on horticulture farming (our second most important exchange earner after tourism) will attest, it’s a sweatshop business littered with blood of the faceless poor, especially young women who never get to Valentine Day candlelight dinners!  But, again, we must not be left out on the globalization train.   These are the social costs of our march to economic development, we are told.

I argue that Kenya’s problems today are a result of the planned failures of the development paradigm of a well entrenched bureaucratic state.  A relic of colonialism, the dominant neo-colonial patrimonial state founded on patronage has only served to develop a perverse brand of a rabid ‘winner-takes-all’ brand of capitalism.  As the guiding ideology, this has undermined both nation formation and integration and only served to perpetuate the state as the site of competition for an anarchic ‘primitive’ mode of accumulation.  In the process, a distinct ‘elite,’ the elite who control both the instruments of the state and the economic machinery, have gelled to ensure the continuation of control and domination best manifested in the rise of an imperial presidency.  I posit that it’s the dysfunctional nature of this political and economic ‘elite’ in its blind pursuit to concentrate power among its members that has plunged Kenya in the current abyss.

In quest of an ‘Elite Transition,’ the political class has ignored the resistance of the people to domination, increasing inequality, poverty, and penury, unemployment, hopelessness, and despair.

Kenya’s crisis today lies in this historical malady and the perpetuation of the concentration of power around the presidency, an imperial presidency built on patronage and nepotism, under which access to power is the driving motif of any political persuasion and engagement.

Thus, the state is the site of accumulation of personal wealth, its protection, and an assurance of a free rein to multiply it.  This has been the perverse legacy of the Kenyatta, Moi, and Kibaki regimes.  Networks of patronage deepen, a powerful cabal of individuals runs the state for a strong, pervasive corruption network, whose interest is to use state coffers both to enrich itself and to perpetuate its hold on power by any means.

This has been coupled by the subcription to the dictates of the global political and economic architecture with the overall embracing of deregulatory neo-liberalism as the dominant economic model.

Democracy has functioned as a mere facade to facilitate access to power.  People’s development, as well as the idea of the state as the pivotal development agency allocating values and resources in society, takes a back seat.  As a result, the gulf between the rich and the poor continues to grow exponentially, with Kenya ranking both as one of the most unequal and corrupt nations in the world.

To hold the edifice together, the powerful and dominant class has deliberately used the identity of ethnicity to entrench a notion of collective responsibility.  Casting the dominant class’s gains in the context of tribes and representing any criticism of that class as an onslaught on the whole tribe(s) holding power at a particular moment. Kenyatta set the fertile ground for this, giving rise to the infamous ‘Kiambu/Kikuyu’ mafia that held sway in his government, while Moi and Kibaki have only managed to deepen this, albeit in different shades.

Hence, valid discussions of equality and equity, social development and societal wellbeing, are projected as primordial competition of one tribe trying to gain the upper hand over the others.  A misrepresentation that unfortunately international journalists, commentators, and observers of Africa seem to swallow hook, line, and sinker!

The 2007 election has to be seen in the backdrop of sustained pressure to correct these historical injustices.  Whereas the import of this is still debatable, I am of the opinion that the 2007 election afforded the opportunity when the Kenyan people were united in the conviction that they could correct these historical injustices through their democratic power — the ballot — as shown by the intensity of political campaigns, the large voter turnout, the patience exhibited at voting centers, the degree of youth participation, the massive increase in women’s participation, and the voting patterns themselves.

Notable commentators have argued, however, that certainly not all Kenyans were united in this quest — otherwise how would you explain a very large number of people (largely Kikuyu) who, even the rigging notwithstanding, still voted for Kibaki and his elite cronies?  In any event, Raila Odinga himself is hardly a progressive thinker; he is a populist and rank opportunist.

It is this contradiction that warrants a deeper look.  Does Kenya have a class formation in the classical sense: a (national) bourgeoisie; a middle class; a proletariat; and a lumpenproletariat?

My take would be that the cleavages are not in black and white, but in massive shades of grays.  What we have in Kenya is a national elite who controls the political and economic realms and sets the agenda.  It derives its sustenance on the ability to monopolize the state as the site of accumulation and to link up to international capital albeit as a mere appendage.  It’s the ‘shape-shifting’ nature of this ‘elite,’ from political office to economic mandarins through civil service bureaucracy and back, that shapes and sustains its existence.  Access to the state has been its supreme consideration in all instances.  Whether it’s a bourgeoisie remains debatable.

As for a middle class, functioning as a ‘class of ideas,’ I contend that what we have in Kenya is an aspiring intellectual elite, who, though lacking in the excesses of wealth, has at least enough from careers and other forms of employment, in service of the bureaucratic state.  Otherwise how else do you explain the big rush of professionals in civil service, civil society, or private sector for parliamentary office?  Certainly this is not founded on philanthropic altruistic notions of ‘service to mankind is service to God’ but the appeal of entry into the political/economic government machinery for more accumulation and wealth.  Exceptions exist but the rule remains.

Hence defense of Kibaki centered on an ethnic mantle doesn’t deter the overall conviction that one of the driving motifs of the past election was pursuit for change.  Raila Odinga may as well ride that wave through populism, but what curtails his ability to do so is his failure to internalize the message of citizenry and present himself as a viable alternative.  The ideological bankruptcy that I alluded to earlier informs this failure, though the power of the political process to smokescreen the dichotomy of anti-people and pro-people struggles and initiatives does not disfigure the fact that the persuasion of a whole lot of citizenry revolves around a challenge to the status quo.

It is in this political void that the ‘ethnicization’ of the political/economic process rears its ugly head.  The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ typology plays on ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ abstractions interpreted in the context of contending forces, preventing an explicit understanding of the political/economic dynamics at play.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, the adverse limitations of liberal democracy as a political process, especially when twinned with the debilitating effects of neo-liberalism and its attendant capital onslaught on all facets of life, are now clearly emerging into view.

Thus we see that the defining moment of the Kenya crisis is not just the flawed elections but the historical construct of the state.  Inbuilt are the changing roles of various ‘elites’ and how transition from one set of ‘elite’ to another at any time plays itself out.  None of the ‘elites’ fits into an identifiable class structural function due to their reliance on the sate as the main lever of their coming and going through necessary ethnic mobilization.

It’s worth noting that the elections themselves were not a revolutionary attempt at reconfiguring the Kenyan society — they were merely a formal democratic exercise whose outcome however manifested the deep divisions existing between the poor urban working class, the peasantry, and the lumpenproletariat.  It’s sad indeed that it’s these deprived classes which are attempting to eliminate one another rather than their common enemy, the rich propertied classes.  But again, this misidentification has to be blamed on the well entrenched and well propagated notion of ethnic collective responsibility, i.e., the overwhelming belief that one is in a sense connected to one’s ethnic lords by some affinity and hence it warrants their defense in the face of ascendancy of other ethnic groups.  Such has been the divide and rule script of colonial hangover.

A Look through History

When Kenya gained independence in 1963, the seeds whose fruits are plaguing the nation today were sowed.  Instead of embarking on an integrative reconstruction of society to build a shared identity, Kenya under Kenyatta took the path of ‘everyone for himself — only the strongest survive.’  This was a well choreographed strategy to cheat and disinherit those who had fought for independence, especially the Mau Mau, silencing the clarion call for Land and Freedom.  In their place, Kenyatta embraced former colonial home guards and their lackeys as the pillars of the independent nation.  And in a vintage Orwellian fashion, the British colonial administrative policy of ‘divide and rule’ for ‘some are more equal than others’ was re-entrenched and perfected after independence.

Such was the first betrayal.

Without embarking on a historical literature review, it is worth remembering that the initial contestation of the space of independence represented by the fallout between Kenyatta and Odinga, and best captured in the latter’s seminal work Not Yet Uhuru, attests to this.

Whereas Odinga and company stood for a more equal society with guaranteed access for all, Kenyatta and his cabal adopted a more individualistic stance.  Throw in the Cold War dynamics, and it was a pure conflict of what kind of a development model to adopt. Kenyatta stuck to the capitalist notion of ‘winner takes all’ while Odinga and his group of socialist orientation of equality and social welfare were ostracized.

Thus Kenya missed the opportunity that Nyerere took in Tanzania: to build a cohesive nation through the integration of society.

With the independence ‘high’ giving Kenyatta a blank check to maneuver, he set in motion the first most elaborate and deliberate pursuit to ‘ethnicize’ politics, having the all too often embraced perception of a ‘Kikuyu’ versus ‘Luo’ conflict set the stage.  More was to follow as ethnic identities and orientations helped to service this juggernaut.  Subsequent regimes have only served to entrench this.

Playing ethnicity as a political populist agenda reigned, but a more instrumental policy to underwrite this orientation is superbly presented in the “Sessional Paper No.10 on African Socialism and Its Implications and Principles on Economic Development.” Whereas this was celebrated as a great blueprint for a nation emerging from colonialism, it set the basis for the neo-colonial agenda.  With its broad adherence to the principles of capitalism and the emergent neo-liberal agenda, it served to divide the nation into compartments of “high potential and low potential areas.”  Thus, the focus of the government would be on the “high potential areas,” gains made this way supposedly trickling down to the “low potential areas.”  Thus the folly of trickle down economics was embraced as the development model, and hope was generated that, at the end of the day, all Kenyans would be lifted to new heights of development.  It’s worth noting that the high potential areas were mainly around the white highlands extending through central Kenya and the Rift Valley: the broader home of the Kikuyu and those who had been integrated earliest to the colonial capitalist economy.  A continuation of the ‘White Mischief’ in other ways!

The Failures of Elite Transition:
Lessons for Zimbabwe and Swaziland

Patrick Bond has written authoritatively on the elite deal making and pacting that wheels political processes with specific reference to South Africa.  But this can also be applied to the Kenyan situation and moreover can present classic lessons for other nascent democracies in Africa, especially Zimbabwe and Swaziland, on the pitfalls of electoral democracy.

The central theme is the state as the site of patronage and largesse.  Competing interests for access to the state are masked as pro-people challenges to the status quo in a quest to reassert people’s sovereignty and ability to secure their livelihoods.

With bankrupt ideological foundations, an ‘elite’ cabal controls power across the government, the civil service bureaucracy, the private sector, and the military.  It gels into an edifice that is purely anti-people, though on occasion it needs to mask its interests in the language of the people to facilitate the ‘elite pacting’ and transition for purposes of reinventing itself.  It never breaks from the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism and neo-colonial interests that continues to chain the people to servitude, poverty, and penury.  Otherwise how do you explain the emergence of the same faces on the power circuit every time?

The failures of this elite transition in the Kenyan case is a telling example that the progressive forces in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and the rest of Africa need to pay attention to closely, so that they can fashion comprehensive alternatives.

When all is said and done, this election was not between Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki.  It was a quest by the Kenyan people to correct past injustices and re-orient their development priorities.  With the sad outcome as it has turned out to be, in the end, the losers will be the Kenyan people.

As one American friend commented tongue in cheek, “How ironic?  In Kenya, people riot when the president steals an election.  In the US we sit and wait.” . . .  Perhaps.  Our stakes are higher, which requires that we illuminate our progressive prospects in a clear and decisive manner, devoid of the usual suspect appeal of ‘Talking Left and Walking Right.’

Kiama Kaara was formerly coordinator of the World Social Forum’s youth gathering in Nairobi in 2007 and is presently a researcher with the Kenyan Debt Relief Network.  He is a regular commentator on political affairs and is embarking upon post-graduate study at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society.

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