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What to Read on Kenyan Politics

Kenya is the anchor of eastern Africa and the region’s geopolitical and economic hub; conditions there determine the region’s stability, security, and prosperity. Its history can be divided into three eras: the late colonial period and the transition to independence in 1963; the post-independent period from 1963 to 1990; and the country’s two-decade-plus struggle since to become a modern democratic state. Several excellent monographs and edited collections have been published to cover the first two. Regrettably -- and somewhat surprisingly -- no concise overviews of contemporary Kenyan politics have been published in recent years. Numerous articles and essays, however, address the three topics that have dominated the country’s politics: the legacies of the colonial period, most notably the politics of land confiscation and reacquisition after independence and regional and class-based inequalities; the management of ethnic conflict, especially between Kenya’s rich and poor tribes; and Kenya’s transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. The selections that follow begin with an overview of Kenya’s history since independence, followed by entries for each of the three main periods.

Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963–2011. By Daniel Branch. Yale University Press, 2011.
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Kenya: A History Since Independence. By Charles Hornsby. I. B. Tauris, 2012.
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True to its title, Branch’s book presents a good overview of Kenya’s history, from independence in 1963 to the present. Branch discusses all major personalities and issues, particularly the plight of the landless poor and the deep divide between Kenya’s haves and have-nots. Readers with stamina might look to Hornsby’s book, which, at 960 pages, covers the same period in exhausting detail; its bibliography alone is worth the price. An affordable paperback edition became available in April 2013.

Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya & Africa: Book One, State & Class and Book Two, Violence & Ethnicity. By Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale. James Currey, 1992.
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Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. By David Anderson. W. W. Norton and Company, 2005.
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Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. By Caroline Elkins. Henry Holt and Company, 2005.
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The Black Man’s Land (a trilogy video series) including White Man’s Country, Mau Mau, and Kenyatta). Written and directed by Anthony Howarth and David R. Koff. Anthony David Productions, 1973.
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Like most African countries, Kenya is a multiethnic society created by European colonialism. Unlike most former colonies, though, its territory was extensively settled by Europeans. That process resulted in a system of racial domination similar to those that emerged in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Moreover, the confiscation of African lands by the European settlers turned land into a focal point of politics in the run-up to independence to the present day.

Berman and Lonsdale’s volumes are arguably the best material available on colonial Kenya and the rise of the African nationalist movement in the 1940s and 1950s. The British colonial government labeled the movement Mau Mau and sent in 15,000 troops to quash what they regarded as a terrorist movement. Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning put British brutality against the Mau Mau and ordinary Kenyans into sharp relief. For those looking to understand the viewpoints of former colonial officials, early African political leaders, and Mau Mau fighters, The Black Man’s Land is a must-see. Set against the beautiful Kenyan countryside, the interviews contained in this trilogy video stand the test of time and are excellent for classroom use.

African Successes: Four Public Managers of Kenyan Rural Development. By David K. Leonard. University of California Press, 1991.
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Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism 1964–1971. By Colin Leys. University of California Press, 1975.
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Petals of Blood. By Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Penguin Classics, 1977.
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Devil on the Cross. By Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Heinemann, 1987.
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When Kenya finally gained independence in 1963, its leaders faced challenges common to other postcolonial countries as well as challenges particular to a post-settler society. Besides taking over the reins of government, Kenya’s leaders, beginning with Jomo Kenyatta, had to struggle to maintain a measure of national unity among the country’s 43 ethnic groups, expand the economy, and provide the social welfare services demanded by the population, especially education. The Kenyatta government (1963–1978) and that of his successor, Daniel arap Moi (1978–2002), were also faced with transforming an economy structured to serve the interests of the settler minority into one that would provide a measure of prosperity for all.

Focusing on the lives and careers of four distinguished civil servants, Leonard explains why, despite authoritarianism and rising corruption, Kenya’s civil service was nevertheless one of the best in Africa up to the 1980s. Leys, meanwhile, argues that the post-independence economy largely continued as before, with the result that it provided prosperity only for the few. On an even sourer note, in Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross, Kenya’s most celebrated author forcefully captures his country’s decline as the era of the Kenyatta presidency came to a close in 1978 and that of the second president, Daniel arap Moi, began. The country’s nadir -- as its corruption and authoritarianism evolved from the benign to the brutal -- is described in all its ugly detail.

“Kenya: Third Time Lucky?” By Stephen N. Ndegwa. Journal of Democracy 14, no. 3 (2003): pp. 145–58.
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“The Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in Kenya, December, 2007.” By Clark C. Gibson and James D. Long. Electoral Studies 28, no. 3 (2009): pp. 492–517.
Read
The Waki Report: Report of the Report of the Findings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence in Kenya, 2007.
Read
“Kenya’s 2013 Elections: Choosing Peace Over Democracy.” By James D. Long, Karuti Kanyinga, Karen E. Ferree, and Clark C. Gibson. Journal of Democracy, 24, no. 3 (2013): pp. 156-65.
Read
“Kenya After the Elections.” By the International Crisis Group, Africa Briefing No. 94, Brussels, May 15, 2013.
Read

A combination of civil discontent and pressure from the international donor community forced Daniel arap Moi to acquiesce to the resumption of multiparty politics in 1991. Since then, Kenya has been on a tortuous path to become a modern democratic state. My own work (“Kenya: Lessons from a Flawed Election [link]”) and my work with Njuguna Ng’ethe (“Kenya Tries Again” [link]), together with Gibson and Long’s article, chronicle Kenya’s return to multiparty politics in 1992, and then elections that followed in 1997, 2002, and 2007. Three of these elections (1992, 1997, and 2007) resulted in substantial interethnic violence. The reason: political parties form almost exclusively on the basis of ethnic constituencies. The violence following the 2007 election is explored in the Waki Report. The report led to the indictment of Uhuru Kenyatta, the scion of Kenya’s first president and a leading Kikuyu politician, and William Ruto, the leader of the Kalenjin community, by the International Criminal Court for their roles in the violence. These men were elected president and deputy president, respectively, in elections held in March 2013. The recently published article by Long and others details the run-up to the elections and the results. The briefing paper by the International Crisis Group discusses the aftermath of the elections, including the continuing cloud of uncertainty raised by the indictments for Kenya’s governance as their trials draw near.

Anatomy of a Crisis of Exclusion.” By Mwangi wa Githinji and Frank Holmquist. Journal of Eastern African Studies 2, no. 2 (2008): pp. 344–58.
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“Land and the Quest for a Democratic State in Kenya.” By John W. Harbeson, African Studies Review 55, no. 1 (2012): pp. 15–30.
Read
“Pilfering the Public: The Problem of Land Grabbing in Contemporary Kenya.” By Jacqueline M. Klopp. Today 47, no. 1 (2000): pp. 7–26.
Read
“Dying to Win: Elections, Political Violence, and Institutional Decay in Kenya.” By Susanne D. Mueller. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 29, no. 1 (2011): pp. 99–117.
Read
It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. By Michela Wrong. Fourth Estate, 2009.
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These readings deal with the enduring questions of Kenya’s slow transition to democracy. Mwangi and Holmquist, Harbeson, and Klopp explore why Kenyan democracy is so prone to breakdown. Mwangi and Holmquist write that the problem is the politics of exclusion, which has followed rising inequality between Kenya’s rich and poor in the wake of economic growth. Harbeson and Klopp agree that Kenyan politics are divided by class as much as by tribe. They explore Kenya’s most intractable political issue -- the allocation of land -- dating back to the colonial period.

Another problem is Kenyan politicians themselves. In her article, Mueller explores their lack of self-restraint, including the resort to violence and the damage it has done. And, as a contemporary companion to Ngugi’s Petals of Blood, Wrong’s book chronicles the heroic efforts of civil society leader John Githongo to curtail corruption following President Mwai Kibaki’s election in 2002.

The National Accord and Reconciliation Bill, 2008.
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Kenya’s Quest for Democracy: Taming Leviathan. By Makau Mutua. Lynne Rienner, 2008.
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Constitution of Kenya, 2010.
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Report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, Volumes I, IIa-c, III and IV, 2013.
Read

All this is not to say that Kenya’s prospects are entirely grim. Consider the National Accord and Reconciliation Act of 2008. The product of nearly two months of negotiations, the accord ended the violence that followed the 2007 elections, established a government of national unity that included the protagonists, and set the agenda for political reforms including a new constitution and land reform.

Kenya’s Quest, by one of Kenya’s celebrated public intellectuals, is an erudite discussion of the philosophy behind, and struggles around, the country’s new constitution. After a 20-year quest, the new constitution finally succeeded in 2010. If fully implemented, it will put an end to the imperial presidency by strengthening the legislature, restoring the judiciary, and establishing a quasi-federal system of government to the endemic conflicts between Kenya’s principal ethnic groups. The constitution also provides for an extensive bill of rights. Most important, the document has already established itself in the public mind as the legitimate standard for how the country should be governed, and against which its political class should be judged. If there is a silver lining to Kenya’s cloudy future, it is in the new constitution. Finally, the recently released (and much awaited) report of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission presents a detailed review of the human rights violations, political assassinations, economic marginalization, and land grabs committed by a succession of Kenyan governments, from Kenyatta through the first term of recently retired President Mwai Kibaki -- a sordid history that the 2010 constitution is designed to change as Kenya enters its second half-century as an independent state.

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