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In Kenya, the Roots of the Anti-Public Interest Culture Run Deep

5 min read.

Poor governance path dependence and a foundational culture of incoherence in government policy dooms Kenya to an endless conveyor belt of disappointing presidents and greedy power elites.



In Kenya the Roots of the Anti-Public Interest Culture Run Deep

It is “Maandamano Monday” and the smell of teargas and tension lingers in Dandora, a slum settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi. As policemen pre-emptively “contain” protesting residents on the day of planned anti-government protests, there is a general feeling of helpless frustration. Here in Dandora and perhaps in several similar settlements in Kenya targeted by the Kenya police, the simmering disillusionment of the working poor—who are often singled out for state violence—with the government is boiling over into sustained civil unrest. Reeling from the effects of a global pandemic, a sluggish global economy, and the high cost of living, the mwananchi is rebelling against negligent governance and anti-public interest policies in an economic downturn.

The hopeful fever during the 2022 general election of having a “hustler”—a government outsider, a hardworking Kenyan from a humble background, and a champion of the people—take up the presidential mantle has been drenched in the ice-cold reality of a public debt projected to gobble up more than half of all future state revenue, the lived experience of corruption, unemployment, an out-of-control dollar and the increasingly tax-predatory patterns of behaviour exhibited by President William Ruto’s government that mirror those of the previous administration.

The outcomes of the hustler government are very different from the great expectations the working class had of Ruto; those who bought into the hustler narrative are carrying around their palpable discontent in the same empty purses depleted by the cost-of-living crisis. Specifically, the 2022 campaign period was inundated with the “hustler” vs “dynasties” narrative that painted Ruto as the valiant underdog and champion of the public interest fighting the “system/deep-state/power-elite” represented by Raila Odinga and his bloated benefactor, former president Uhuru Kenyatta; the narrative of David against the Goliath that is the machinery of the state was embedded in Kenya’s collective psyche. It is this very narrative that is now working against Ruto—another unmasked Goliath. The 2022 elections revealed that the social contract between an elected government and its electorate is changing in Kenya. Rather than blindly following tribal or kinship ties, the people, vested with democratic power, are increasingly interested and responsive to the services on offer by the body politic. In addition, political competence is fast becoming inextricable from the ability to understand, craft, and implement beneficial economic policies that visibly serve the public interest. A task it seems the Ruto administration is not up for.

A quick post-election survey of the policies, directives, and appointments that have characterized Ruto’s presidency makes evident that it is business as usual for the Government of Kenya (GOK). Business as usual (BAU) is characterized by political but unnecessary appointments that further add to the bloated wage bill, policies that are anti-public interest and pro-special interests, and government human resource policies that award unreasonable and immoral perks and concessions to those in the highest echelons of power at the expense of a progressively insolvent taxpayer. BAU is a pattern of behaviour that must be considered in context, to better understand why Ruto’s administration will suffer from the same poor governance path dependence.

History and incentive design 

The coercive intent of the British colonial administration in Kenya and beyond framed executive will as “the law”. This was to ensure that those who were in power (the colonialist and later their collaborators) could employ “legal means” to maintain power and control for a profitable status quo. Despite the devolution of power through the constitution promulgated in 2010, the original incentive design of the Kenyan government remains pervasive.

In the Western adaptation of democracy, policies, regulations, and processes are often subject to commonly held constitutional or precedent public interest criteria. This public interest criteria are universally understood and come with a host of checks and balances to review and evaluate policies, directives, and regulations against said criteria. By contrast, here in Kenya, and through no happenstance, the public interest is whatever the incumbent government wants it to be. Masked under feel-good word salads that often include “development”, “growth”, and “vision”, the ephemeral nature of what is the public interest in this country means that every political outfit has its own version of it. To illustrate this loose interpretation of the public interest, the Ruto administration has appointed 50 Chief Administration Secretaries—CASs with no constitutional basis and no parliamentary oversight—for the public interest.

The ephemeral nature of what is the public interest in this country means that every political outfit has its own version of it.

In intent and effect, the colonial administration was designed not to benefit the people of Kenya but to serve foreign interests, rewarding the chosen few collaborators with wealth and condemning the rest of the population to whatever those in power decreed necessary for the the maintenance of a profitable status quo. The prevailing special interests against the public interest (politicians, big business, foreign interests) is the foundational design element of the post-colonial government in Kenya. To understand why Ruto’s administration (like most of the governments before it) manifests the same outcomes as its colonial forefather, we must understand that it is a function of intentional design. Clearly, the reality of Ruto’s administration and most others that preceded it is that, as a decision-making entity, the Government of Kenya has been pursuing special interests for such a long time that it is unwilling or unable to deliver the public interest.  

The GOK organizational model

Fully aware that the enduring design purpose of the Kenyan government is to serve special interests, it is not difficult to imagine the skills and characteristics that are required to distinguish yourself and rise through the Kenyan political ranks or the civil service.

Those civil servants who knowingly or unknowingly serve the foundational intent of the first colonial government are incentivized and rewarded by a self-correcting system and organizational culture (pro-active corruption, apathy, and a relentless pursuit of special interests) whose noxious effects conspire to ensure that a critical majority of politicians and civil servants who reach the decision-making ranks of government are morally ambiguous, passive to the public interest, and motivated by the pursuit of personal gain. The countable notable champions of the public interest may be blips in the otherwise calcified system.

These personal characteristics and organizational culture, I argue, transcend political parties and formations. The abrupt and conspicuous cessation of anti-government protests following a “handshake” for dialogue is indicative that even the leaders who are orchestrating civil unrest are not front and centre trying to resolve the cost-of-living crisis and the rising inflation (public interest). They are in pursuit of their own interest; seeking a share in the spoils of the current government and pursuing electoral reforms that safeguard future electoral attempts. Even those champions of the people across the political aisle are holding the incumbent government hostage with the threat of disruptive violence for their own interests (moral ambiguity r the loss of life and property during demonstrations thrown in for free). It is a viscerally clear indication that every veteran politician, civil servant, or political faction has been born, bred, and is well matured in the toxic culture of poor governance, and will, given a chance, manifest the same poor governance outcomes.

They are in pursuit of their own interest; seeking a share in the spoils of the current government and pursuing electoral reforms that safeguard future electoral attempts.

A decidedly anti-public interest culture of governance that took root decades before independence is still dictating governance outcomes in this country. Characterized by prevailing special interests, no significant checks and balances over executive discretion, and a political class and civil service with the Pavlovian conditioning to pursue personal gain, there is nothing in my view, short of a miracle that will spontaneously change this path-dependency. The intentional status quo we find ourselves in must be dislodged by an equally intentional re-design of the intent and systems of governance in this county. In a kind of sad irony, however, the Kenyan electorate keeps hoping to elect a candidate who can change the status quo but instead, is faced with a choice between the exemplary products of a toxic political culture, expecting them to dismantle the very systems they have excelled in.

To manifest the public interest and to curb the prevalence of special interest in government policy, process, and practices, requires a self-awareness and political will to change that seems to be beyond the imagination of this current crop of politicians. Until the intent, practice, and enforcement of government policy align with the public interest, we can expect more of the same garbage can politicians, policies, and outcomes.

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Maryanne Nduati is a policy analyst and the creator of the Coherence CheckTM Framework. With over 10 years’ experience in policy analysis, her main aim is to make the meaning and effect of legal instruments clear for civic education and organized action.


What is Happening in Kenya?

The results of the 2022 general election fractured the feudal order; the feudal pact has been broken, leaving the middle class adrift.



What is Happening in Kenya?

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.

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Maandamano: Popular Discontent and the Politics of Protest

Kenya’s cost of living demonstrations have as much to do with popular discontent as they do with the opposition capitalizing on frustrations.



Maandamano: Popular Discontent and the Politics of Protest

Kenya’s President William Ruto, in a speech on Sunday, April 2, extended an olive branch to the opposition and urged them to hold off the following day’s “mother of all demonstrations” in Nairobi. Immediately, opposition leader Raila Odinga communicated in a speech that they would not hold demonstrations and heeded the government’s call for negotiations and talks within a constitutional framework.

For the previous three weeks, large demonstrations, sporadic protests, chaos, mayhem, lootings, police tear gas, and water cannons were familiar sights for the denizens of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city and East Africa’s economic hub. This comes after Odinga, a former prime minister, and Kenya’s perennial opposition leader called for demonstrations on the rising cost of living, electoral malpractices during last year’s poll, and against the “illegitimate” and dysfunctional government of President Willian Ruto.

As a nation with a history of bloody post-election violence, Kenya risks descending into unprecedented political turmoil as the opposition remains steadfast in holding twice-weekly demonstrations. Already the violent counter-demonstrations and events, such as the burning of a mosque and a church in Kibera, the looting and vandalism of property belonging to former president Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga, and police violence against journalists—all fanned by an atmosphere imbued with dangerous rhetoric and chest-thumping political discourses—raise serious concerns for the country.

Why is Kenya facing a political crisis again, seven months after a highly contested election process? Understanding the demonstrations requires a grasp of the political discourse of the election campaigns of August 2022. When then-president Uhuru Kenyatta politically side-lined his deputy William Ruto, endorsing and campaigning instead for the opposition candidate Odinga, a seismic shift occurred in the Kenyan political landscape. How could a president support the opposition candidate against his own party candidate? It was a first in Kenya.

However, this played into Ruto’s hands. As the elections approached, the economy hit rock bottom, inflation skyrocketed, and Kenya witnessed its highest rate of youth unemployment. I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Nairobi as a Ph.D. student at the time, and the frustration with the Kenyatta government was palpable. When Kenyatta left office he was so unpopular that his own political constituency voted en masse for Ruto.

More significantly, the elections of 2022 will be remembered for their “dynasties” and “hustlers” narratives. The then embattled Ruto successfully framed the elections as a contest of the haves and the have-nots—a class war between the poor masses and the detached super-rich. Ruto embellished himself as the candidate of the poor, a man who walked to school barefoot as a child and sold chicken on the roadside. His life story resonated with the majority of Kenyans. He claimed to be a simple hustler who was being sabotaged by the political dynasties of Kenyatta and Odinga—two scions of Kenya’s founding fathers.

In the end, Ruto won the elections by a slim margin; he had beaten the odds. The elections of 2022 were a “rebellion” of the poor against Kenya’s entrenched political dynasties and the culture of political bequeathing rampant amongst the elites. Moreover, the election results were contested in the Supreme Court which later upheld Ruto’s victory.

President Ruto came to power with the economy in tatters. In the run-up to the elections, he promised to reduce the cost of living immediately after taking power. Ironically, the government cut vital subsidies on fuel and other basic commodities worsening the country’s inflation. Fuel, which powers Kenya’s vibrant service industry and the private sector, increased exponentially. Today, the majority of Kenyans face increasing prices of fuel and electricity, and other basic commodities, such as maize flour, milk, water, and vegetables.

The current demonstrations are centered around this spiraling cost of living in Kenya. Moreover, droughts have wreaked havoc in the northern parts of the country where millions face starvation. More critically, the government is also facing unraveling security issues in the Northern Rift Valley region where bandits are terrorizing pastoralists with impunity.

President Ruto over-communicated and over-promised change and an abrupt economic transformation to the electorate. Seven months into his government the people have grown impatient and the opposition is capitalizing on this.

More importantly, since coming to power, the ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDA) has been on course to establish absolute hegemony in the political arena. To the chagrin of the opposition, many of its members have defected to the ruling party, which effectively makes parliament an organ of the executive. Moreover, the government has begun restructuring the independent election commission, despite the opposition shunning the process as one-sided.

Kenya’s opposition is politically cornered and battered. Gasping for political oxygen it has no option but to call for mass demonstrations. Odinga, the man Kenyans call Baba, is a veteran orchestrator of mass actions in Kenyan politics. Despite being in the opposition, when he speaks the political ground shakes. After five decades in opposition politics and losing five presidential elections, Odinga knows when the ground is fertile for mass action. Nevertheless, the recent rapprochement between the government and the opposition has eased anxieties in the country.

Kenya evaded the “mother of all demonstrations,” but only by a whisker.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Addressing the Information Disorder: Sustaining Collaboration

Multistakeholder collectives face challenges in sustaining collaboration beyond the initial issues that first united them.



Addressing the Information Disorder: Building Collaboration

In an ongoing series of articles, I have discussed the place of multistakeholder collaboration in addressing the information disorder. Specifically, its importance and how to bring collectives together. A natural follow on to these discussions is how such collaborations can be sustainable and move past the initial issues which united the collectives in question. In this final article, I explore some of the key considerations multistakeholder collectives ought to have in mind, such as purpose, defined roles, and perhaps most importantly, dynamism.

Crisis of purpose

A common thread running through the collectives discussed in my previous article, such as Verificado and Comprova, is that purpose was a key factor that drove collaboration. Without exception, each multistakeholder collective united around an event or substantial issue and logically so. These included, for example, elections or the pandemic. This initial purpose often serves as a good spark to ignite collaboration and have organizations make compromises and leverage synergies. However, it is sometimes insufficient to sustain long-term collaboration. This challenge becomes more acute beyond the lifecycle of the unifying event or issue—a point at which collectives may face a crisis of purpose.

At the same time, a loosely defined purpose that may survive a change in circumstances is hardly an incentive for meaningful collaboration and neither is it likely to lend itself to social impact. Collectives therefore must tread a tightrope of piggybacking on decidedly important social issues without pegging so much of their identity on those issues as to lose relevance as soon as the issues subside. Striking a balance is further complicated by how peer-to-peer networks have changed media consumption and driven up fluidity in the issues to which society attaches importance.

Existing beyond the collective

Closely linked to these collectives’ purpose is the role the wider collective plays as against the roles of each member organization. Existing examples of such collectives suggest that these collaborations serve to amplify the work of each individual organization to reach broader audiences. Illustratively, this was Fumbua’s primary role. However, in the course of collaboration, the collective may take a life of its own and engage in activities aimed at fulfilling its purpose either on its own or in partnership with some member organizations. Where this happens, the collective may inadvertently or deliberately begin to shape the programmatic work done by its member organizations. To the extent that this happens, member organizations then have to consider the alignment of their own agenda with that of the collective, and the place of its work beyond the collective’s initiatives. This is an important consideration for member organizations because they run the risk of their identity being subsumed in that of the collective. While seemingly a selfish consideration, it is valid because the collaboration is voluntary, and the value extracted by member organizations—other than the contribution to a social cause—is amplification of their work to new audiences. And this value may be lost where these audiences end up conflating the member organization’s work with that of the collective.

The collective may inadvertently or deliberately begin to shape the programmatic work done by its member organizations.

For collectives to overcome this challenge, it is important for member organizations to be deliberate about collaboration and role allocation from the onset. The very purpose of these collaborative efforts is to leverage on synergies and comparative advantages to achieve broader, holistic impact. This can be done where each member organization is fully aware of its exact contribution to the purpose of the collective.


Envisioning sustainable collaboration is undoubtedly easier than implementing it. Numerous factors come into play that make it hard to plan for drastic changes in socio-political circumstances or shifting priorities among collective members. An element of dynamism is therefore indispensable to sustainable collaboration. The collectives, and their members, ought to be able to respond to evolving circumstances in a manner that aligns with their core purpose. At face value, too much dynamism may seem diametrically opposed to defining a clear purpose that would incentivize collaboration. However, dynamism is exactly what such collaborations require to avoid the crisis of purpose earlier mentioned. If collaboration is organized around a sufficiently broad purpose (such as positively impacting media consumption), with specific short-term objectives (such as focusing on election misinformation), collectives may be able to retrofit their operations to respond to evolving challenges while maintaining relevance.

At face value, too much dynamism may seem diametrically opposed to defining a clear purpose that would incentivize collaboration.

One of the reasons for building multistakeholder collaboration is to consolidate the gains made over time, and iterate the structures necessary for broad, inclusive and sustainable collaboration. This can only be done when collectives begin with the long-term in mind and design their purposes and assign roles accordingly. In all, these collectives should not be fixed in a particular approach, more so in the face of evolving circumstances.

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