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Kenya class ethnicity and the construction of a fragmented post colonial society

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Simon Kimani Ndungu[1]
20 June 2008

“A government that is isolated from the people, because government and wealth are in the hands of an elite that is taking power to itself, will plunge our country into pain and tragedy.” (Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru, 1967)

1. The beginnings of a tragedy

Written forty years to the day Kenya would be plunged into its worst post-colonial violence; the above words by Oginga Odinga seem prophetic indeed. By 1967, Kenya had been newly independent from decades of British colonial rule for a mere four years, the liberatory haze still permeated the young democracy and Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) government enjoyed widespread support among the poor.

Be that as it may, Kenya’s socio-political and economic trajectory soon after independence is hardly different from that taken by many other post-colonial countries in Africa. What is remarkable, however, is that for many years, the country has been projected as a haven of peace and economic strength in a region synonymous with political strife, poverty and economic stagnation. It is therefore important to understand correctly why the watershed December 27 2007 elections brought into the open what are now widely accepted as long-running but carefully restrained class and ethnic tensions.

2. Post independence: Class and ethnicity

The Kenyan struggle for liberation had been primarily a struggle for land, land from which the majority African population had been dispossessed by the colonial settler regime since the early 1900s. As in the case of Zimbabwe and South Africa, Kenya had a large, powerful and assertive white settler class that had been encouraged though free land and cheap credit to settle in the colony by the British government.

Most of the arable and fertile land in what are now the Central and Rift Valley provinces (the epicenters of the current conflict) was made freely available to white farmers. Consequently, the traditional inhabitants of these lands such as the Kikuyu, the Maasai and the Kalenjin found themselves dispossessed and confined to native reserves, from where successive colonial policies and laws on land and taxation compelled them to become sources of cheap labour for the burgeoning colonial agriculture economy. The most affected, and consequently the most aggrieved of all these groups were the Kikuyu who lived in the fertile lands immediately to the north and northwest of Nairobi in the Central Province.

In “Not Yet Uhuru”, Kenya’s first vice-president and Kenyatta’s deputy in KANU, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga remarks that one of the disturbing features of Kenyatta’s independence speech, was its inexplicable failure to make “mention of the people who had laid down their lives in the struggle, the fighters of the forests and the camps”. (p253) Whether deliberate or not, this ‘omission’ tellingly revealed the direction the post-colonial leadership would adopt soon after its ascendance into state power.

Two years after independence in 1965, it had become apparent that the KANU government’s land redistribution policy was not benefiting the majority poor who had lost so much under colonial rule. Many freedom fighters and their families remained landless, while the punitive compromise of ‘willing buyer willing seller’ agreed to with the British government ensured that only those with access to resources would afford to buy the white farms and estates.

Most of the big farms transferred after independence with the help of the Land Bank went, ironically, not to the peasants, but to white farmers who had conveniently adopted Kenyan citizenship and a new black elite that had began to crystallise around Kenyatta. New regulations passed in 1964 decreed that African workers who had been living on white farms for less than four years could be evicted as illegal squatters, an opportunity that was quickly seized by white farmers to evict thousands of families.

Inevitably, the new political elite gradually became an economic elite and used its access to state resources to acquire vast tracks of land and properties owned previously by white settlers. In 1965, the KANU government adopted a neo-liberal, macro-economic policy not different from South Africa’s 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy. Called “Sessional Paper No 10 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya”, the paper designed a post-colonial economic framework consisting of a private, a public and a cooperatives sector.

Over the years, Sessional Paper No 10 has been hailed in many quarters as a blue print for the rapid economic growth and political stability which Kenya enjoyed until the end of the 1970s. The reality however is far more disquieting and as a number of observers have commented, this paper also laid down the framework for the conflict that finally spilled into the open in late 2007. Leys (1975), sums the paper correctly when he says its historic function “had been to formulate a ‘developmental’ ideology adapted to ‘comprador’ interests”. (p.7)

Sessional Paper No 10 was drafted by an American consultant and its “broad adherence to the principles of capitalism and the emergent neo-liberal agenda”, as Kaara puts it, “served to divide the nation into compartments of ‘high potential and low potential areas’”. (p4) Kenyatta’s government prioritized the high potential areas for economic development given their assumed likelihood of good growth and employment creation, and largely abandoned the ‘low potential areas’. Infrastructure and industries were located in the high potential areas where also agricultural development (with its new core of emerging black farmers) received strong state support.

Low potential areas were zoned around the west of the country in Nyanza Province- with its majority Luo population- and in the North and Eastern parts of the country- with their mixed Nilotic and Cushitic groups such as the Turkana, Samburu and Somali. Ochieng (2007) cites a report published by Kenya’s Central Bureau of Statistics in November 2006 titled “Geographic dimensions of well-being of Kenya: who and where are the poor” which shows in stark terms that 43 years after independence, the “richest constituencies are in the central province, while the poorest ones are to be found in Nyanza province, which has poverty levels of 65 per cent”.

Acquisition of economic power by the new property owning class went hand in hand with the centralization of political power by the Kenyatta regime. Little change was done to the repressive and centralized system of government inherited almost intact from the colonial regime bar extending and strengthening it thereafter. The same arsenal of provincial commissioners, district commissioners, district officers, chiefs and headmen that had so well served the colonial administration was retained and became one of the most effective domains of dispensing political and economic patronage, as well as silencing dissent.

For militant black led trade unions, their emergence in the 1950s had been one of the most critical events in the struggle for liberation after the colonial government banned political parties. Young nationalists like Tom Mboya, J.D. Kali and Dennis Akumu cut their political teeth in the trade union movement and at the turn of independence, were some of the most active and experienced politicians in the country. But unions were easy game for infiltration and division by the colonial government, and the establishment of the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL)- with its affiliation to the CIA backed International Confederation of Free Trade Unions- in 1955 saw many of the radical union demands toned down to the quest for political freedom and economic reforms.

When the Central Organisation of Trade Unions was formed in 1965 from a merger of KFL and the recently established Kenya African Workers Congress, its leaders were soon won over into supporting the KANU government so that by the mid 1970s, the trade union movement was effectively moribund in Kenya.

Meanwhile, poverty and inequality had deepened, and the social exclusion of the majority of people had become an every day reality. The KANU government’s policy of “Africanisation” of the economy (the equivalent of Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa) had resulted in the growth of a small but powerful class of politically connected Africans, as well as a large civil service and an entrepreneurial class of smallholders and traders. On the main however, the structure of the colonial economy remained unchanged and on the sidelines, an informal economy thrived absorbing many of those who could not gain entry into the lucrative but highly competitive formal economy. An International Labour Organisation’s Mission on unemployment which visited Kenya in 1972 found the majority of the population “abjectly poor”. (Leys)

At the end of Kenyatta’s rule in 1978, the majority of Kenyan people remained where they had been prior to independence 15 years earlier; economically alienated, poor and bitter. Many people were landless while urbanization had led to the rapid migration of young people into the cities looking for employment. In the cities, these job seekers were confronted by the harsh realities of an economy that had hardly changed from its narrow base of manufacturing for a small white middle-class. Leys has commented that by the mid 1970s, what the mass of Kenyan people experienced was:

“A continuation of the structure of exploitation and domination established by colonial rule, which for the vast majority of the population meant a continuing prospect of hard, unproductive labour mainly for the benefit of others, accompanied by growing inequality, insecurity, social inferiority and the virtually complete absence of political rights” (p2)

It is this fragmented and repressed society that Moi inherited upon Kenyatta’s death in August 1978.

4. Moi and the new mandarins

Moi assumed the mantle of leadership with a promise that he would not change anything; that he would follow in Kenyatta’s Nyayo (footsteps). However, he was acutely aware that he was not in control of the state since political and economic power lay in the hands of the late Kenyatta’s loyalists. He thereby set to assert himself by eliminating the power of the Kikuyu civil and entrepreneurial class throw removals, demotions or transfers of senior Kikuyu civil servants from the public service, the unscheduled recall of commercial loans and denial of state tenders and trading licences.

A few years after his climb into power, Moi had transformed the civil service into an enclave of ethnic patronage with large numbers of his minority Kalenjin ethnic group occupying key government positions. Well connected individuals-both Kalenjin and non-Kalenjin- continued to acquire land, properties and business interests, while nepotism and corruption thrived. Often, unpopular leaders from non-Kikuyu ethnic groups who had been eclipsed by Kenyatta’s regime were brought into the fold and used by Moi to maintain his hegemony. Like Kenyatta, Moi surrounded himself with a coterie of Kalenjin political and economic power brokers named “the Kabarak (Moi’s home village) Mafia”.

Kenyatta’s regime had been characterized by “intolerance and ethnic chauvinism in political, cultural and intellectual life”, as Shihanya so rightly observes, but Moi’s regime became synonymous with political repression, corruption and economic ruin. The end of the cold war nonetheless changed Moi’s political fortunes. In place of the blind support that he had so generously received even as he tortured political detainees and murdered his opponents, his international friends now demanded democracy, human rights and political accountability. In place of the endless loans which his regime continued to get even as he ran the country to the ground, his western backers now demanded prudent economic management and fiscal austerity. In a word, Moi, like Mobutu of the then Zaire, had become yesterday’s man, and the clamour for political change in the early 1990s left him little choice but to accede to demands for multi-partyism.

Still, voter rigging, electoral violence, politically instigated ethnic clashes and a divided opposition ensured Moi’s victory in the 1992 and 1997 general elections. In 2002 the tide changed and political unity which had so far eluded Moi’s opponents in the 1992 and 1997 polls became a reality. It was in this election that Mwai Kibaki, a London School of Economics graduate, long time serving finance minister under Kenyatta and Moi, and Moi’s one time deputy, was elected the new president.

6. Conclusion: The politics of convenience

Since independence, class and ethnicity have intersected powerfully in Kenya leaving practically all ethnic groups convinced that control of political power at the presidential level means access to wealth and influence for the tribe. In Citizen and Subject, Mamdani presents a powerful analysis of the limits to democratization in post-colonial African society. After carefully assessing the failure by African governments to democratize civil society and detribalize rural power, Mamdani says in the African context, elections are not just about representation, they are also about class and ethnic interests. Electoral politics are:

“About more than just who represents citizens in civil society, because victors in that contest would also have a right to rule over subjects through Native Authorities, for the winner would appoint chiefs, the Native Authority, everywhere. More than the rule of law, the issue in a civil society-centered contest comes to be who will be master of all tribes.” (p.289)

The failure to ‘democratize and detribalize power’ by mainstream nationalists, as in the case of Kenya since independence, has resulted in politics being about which ethnic group is in control of the state and therefore national resources, and which one is not. Mamdani comments that a Kenyan political scientist once remarked to him as follows: “the ethnicity of the president is the surest clue to the ethnic tinge of the government of the day.” (ibid) It should not be surprising that the masses of poor people, long alienated from mainstream political, social and economic participation, and long educated by a political and economic elite that their alienation is primarily a function of their ethnicity, sees the capture of state power by one of their own, as the only guaranteed way of achieving liberation.

Kenyatta’s policy of elevating a small band of Kikuyu tribesmen and women into political and economic power tainted the entire Kikuyu ethnic group with the brush of nepotism, corruption and political and economic patronage. Moi’s rule was geared primarily at elevating a narrow group of Kalenjin tribesmen into positions of political and economic influence in order to cut down what he saw as Kikuyu domination. The rise of NARC in late 2002 had seemed to many like a revolutionary unity of class interests, but it was essentially an amalgamation of upper and middle class interests for the sole objective of removing Moi from power.

One should not be surprised therefore that as soon as this goal was achieved, Kibaki hurriedly took refuge in the arms of his close ethnic allies, while the tapestry of tribal praxis long-shaped by many years of implementation still characterize the state and society. The leadership of Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement may seem like a radical unity of disenchanted ethnic groups but is in point of fact, a mixture of many former Moi loyalists and known tribal warlords. Stripped of its pretense, it stands bare as a crude blend of political and economic power brokers who at one time or the other, served Kenyatta, Moi or Kibaki. The rural and urban poor have remained as they have been since independence; poor and economically alienated.

7. References

1. Ikiara, G et al (2001). Kenya: Formulation and implementation of strategic trade and industrial policies. Available at Accessed on 7 February 2008.
2. Kaara, K. (2008). The crisis in Kenya today: Accident of a fraudulent elections outcome or a deep-seated structural problem of the country’s political economy and history? Centre for Civil Society. Paper available at: Accessed on 8 February 2008.
3. Leys, L. (1975). Underdevelopment in Kenya. London: Heinemann
4. Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
5. Odinga, O. (1967). Net yet Uhuru. Nairobi: Heinemann.
6. Ochieng, Z. (2007, January 10, News from Africa). Poverty bites as Kenya turns 43. Available at: Accessed on 7 February 2008.
7. Shihanya, B. (2003, November 16). How to curtail a brain drain in Kenyan universities. Sunday Times. Available at Accessed on 8 February 2008.

[1] The writer is the head of NALEDI’s Labour Market Transformation Programme in Johannesburg.