Saturday, February 23, 2013

Corruption and Colonialism in Kenya

On 4 March, Kenyans will hold their second major election (and the first general election) since the violence-marred re-election of Mwai Kibaki as President in 2007.  The first election took the form of a referendum on a new constitution, which was passed by a large margin in August of 2010.  Aimed at devolving power, settling the land question, and curtailing corruption, among other things, the constitution was said to herald the dawn of a Second Republic. 

Kenyans rally for a new constitution in Uhuru Park during August of 2010
For many Kenyans, 2012 will be a test of whether the country can live up to the promise of that constitution at a time when a major presidential candidate is wanted by the International Criminal Court, when his key challenger should probably share that dubious distinction, and when graft remains a central problem for the state and society.  In terms of personnel, the new republic looks a lot like the old one.  One presidential candidate is Uhuru Kenyatta.  He is the son of the country’s first president and dictator, Jomo Kenyatta, who established the office of the president and its inhabitants above the law.  The other is Raila Odinga, son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Jomo Kenyatta’s political rival during his increasingly dictatorial rule. 

It is Uhuru Kenyatta who is charged with committing crimes against humanity by inciting ethnic violence in Kenya’s last general election.  He supported Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu politician, against Raila Odinga, a Luo leader.  Many believe that the election was rigged in favour of Kibaki, and incensed Odinga supporters set upon Kikuyu living in the Rift Valley, setting off waves of retaliation in which all national leaders played a sorry part.  Most Kenyans believe that in the interests of securing a power-sharing agreement to halt the violence, Kibaki and Odinga were exempted from the ICC investigations that followed, but Kenyatta, one of Kibaki’s political attack-dogs, was not so lucky.
Political discourse is strikingly different to that in the United States, where people associate themselves based on ideology.  Most Kenyans still vote along ethnic or tribal lines, and the biggest issues during elections tend to be things like “capacity building”, “good governance”, “services delivery”, and “ending corruption”—buzzwords which capture everything and mean nothing.  [Above, Prime Minister Raila Odinga addresses a crowd at a rally.]

For Americans, corruption and tribalism are probably the two things most associated with Kenya, and while it is nothing new for the U.S., as the global superpower, to feature in a Kenyan election, it was somewhat novel last year for Kenya to feature in a U.S. election. 

Republican Party politicians took to invoking Kenya’s history to attack President Obama, whose father was Kenyan.  “Birthers”, a group of people who have a decidedly rocky relationship with reality, worked themselves up into a righteous ire, convinced that Obama was actually born in Kenya.  Political leaders cynically exploited this paranoia on the part of the electorate, none more skilfully than Newt Gingrich, who accused Obama of harbouring a Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset.  He and Mike Huckabee invoked the Mau Mau war, the anti-colonial rising against the British in 1950s Kenya which imperial propagandists re-wrote as “one of the diseases of Africa”, refusing to acknowledge its economic and social roots in the colour bar, economic inequalities, and squatter class created by colonialism.*

By invoking Mau Mau nearly sixty years on, Republicans were hoping to tap into a latent racism which associates the supposedly irrational violence of the Mau Mau rising with the corruption of modern Kenya and pin these things on the President.  In so doing, they replicated the historical falsifications committed by the neocons’ official historian Niall Ferguson, who in his writing on the British Empire explains that the rule of law and good governance were two of the many gifts bequeathed to colonised people by the British.  As the British debated how to deal with the anti-colonial movement in Kenya, one parliamentarian explained that “the first objective must be to restore the rule of law, one of the greatest gifts we ever brought to the African continent”.**

But if the attempt to smear Obama with the “anti-colonial” label in a country which gained its independence in a violent anti-colonial war of its own doesn’t make sense, it is also disturbing that Republican propagandists and imperial apologists have managed to so distort the relationship between colonialism and the ills of modern African societies.  It has become typical in right-wing circles, academic and popular, to pooh-pooh the significance of colonial rule for explaining things like corruption and violence in contemporary Africa.  Too much time has passed, they say, and liberals are just blinded by their anti-colonial biases, and seek to blame everything on colonialism.  [Above, pomp and circumstance as President Mwai Kibaki arrives at a political rally.]

It is certainly true that events since the 1950s and ‘60s have introduced other variables into African political contexts, and that these contexts differ drastically from one country to the next, but I have few doubts that in Kenya at least, the character of colonial rule has direct bearing on corruption in Kenya today.  Take the governments created on African reserves in Kenya by the British.  As in most colonial contexts, the British found people on the ground who were willing to cooperate with their rule in exchange for empowerment in local politics in society.  These were the people, writes UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton, “whom the British first appointed as chiefs”.  He goes on:

“In traditional Kikuyu culture there was no position of authority like that of a ‘chief’ ... Nevertheless, many among the British newcomers assumed that every African society must have chiefs, more or less as European societies did.  A few realized that even if the Kikuyu did not recognise chiefs, they nevertheless could not be ruled effectively without the help of men who had the authority to speak for and control them.  And so ‘chiefs’ were appointed and charged with the responsibility of maintaining order, collecting taxes, recruiting labour, and dealing with minor offenses. 
“As we have seen these chiefs were not men of prestige or standing in Kikuyu society, nor were they elders—most were simply opportunists who were eager and able to enforce British rule ... The chiefs’ power derived from the armed might of the British, who authorized them to govern by force if need be.  Their wealth came from their ruthlessness.  Accompanied by an armed entourage of ‘tribal police’ these early British-appointed chiefs extorted money from virtually everyone in their district, appropriating livestock, demanding plots of land, and ordering attractive women to sleep with them ...
“In time, the flagrant use of force was replaced by more subtle, but no less enriching forms of abuse, such as taking bribes for actions involving court cases, land disputes, forced labour or taxation”.***

The British system of indirect rule basically institutionalised an authoritarian and highly personalised style of rule based on corruption and extortion.  Lest defenders of European colonialism be tempted to believe that chiefs were somehow unrepresentative of British rule, it should be pointed out that they were not the only source of corruption in colonial administrations.  In my own research I frequently run across examples of European officials who illegally hoarded  and sold ivory, abused their positions to accumulate wealth in animal products, hunted illegally, served as go-between for large-scale poaching rings, and routinely abused their power vis-à-vis their “charges”, by physically violent and economically extortive means.  I have no reason to believe that wildlife departments were somehow exceptional.

Thus, for over six decades corruption wasn’t just something that happened on the sly.  It was the order of the day.  It was law.  It was a method—indeed, the method—of rule and governance.  Independence did not those who most actively resisted and critiqued colonial rule incorporated into government.  Many of the personnel and many of the methods of rule remained in place.  The old practises persisted because they continued to enrich people, because they were useful to politicians who appealed to tribally-based electorates, and because the years of dictatorship resembled those of colonial rule.

Raila Odinga (who contested the presidency in 2007 and is doing so again this year) addresses the 'yes' rally before the 2010 constitution was passed.  To his left, seated and wearing a blue tie, is President Mwai Kibaki, who is termed-out this year.

The British bequeathed quotidian corruption to Kenyans, and deeply-rooted and institutionalised abuses take time to root out, particularly when they remain profitable for those in power, many of whom grew up in the British system.  Younger Kenyans are more outspoken than their elders in condemning corruption, and although its everyday practise has abated some since the years of dictatorship, which ended only in 2002, it will undoubtedly take one or more generational shifts to extirpate more completely from the body politic.  I have friends who have left government and private sector posts rather than participate in officially-sanctioned graft, but it is telling that they do not yet feel safe speaking out. 

In one sense, it will make very little difference who wins Kenya’s presidential election in less than two weeks’ time.  Many Kenyans believe that in this case reading the process rather than the results as such will be most telling when it comes to evaluating how far the country has come since the end of British rule in 1963.


* See, for example, Tabitha Kanogo, Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1905-1963.  Athens: Ohio University Press, 1987.

** House of Lords Debate, 29 October 1952, vol. 178, cc 1091-1142, Lord Tweedsmuir.

*** Robert B Edgerton, Mau Mau: An African Crucible.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1989, 40-41.  For more on the Mau Mau war and Kenya since independence, see the following: Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Daniel Branch, Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonisation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2005); E s Atieno Odhiambo and John Lonsdale, Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration (Oxford: James Currey, 2003); Greet Kershaw, Mau Mau from Below (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997); Daniel Branch, Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).  Good journalistic and fictional accounts of the period from the ‘50s to the present include: Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi; Ngugi wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat; Ngugi’s memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War and In the House of the Interpreter, and his magnificent Wizard of the Crow; Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat.

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