As its legacy, the fifth Kenyan state must restore democratic freedoms

President Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks at Jomo Kenyatta International Stadium in Kisumu County during Madaraka Day Celebrations on June 1, 2021.

Photo credit: PSCU

Two recent events have thrust into the public sphere the crucial debate on the best legacy a regime can leave for future generations.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s address during the 58th Madaraka Day fete, his last as President, took stock of the legacy of his regime. Front runners in the August 9, 2022 presidential race have unveiled their manifestos.

On June 7, 2022, Azimio presidential flagbearer Raila Odinga unfurled his 10-point agenda for development. And on June 30, Kenya Kwanza Alliance, led by Deputy President William Ruto, is slated to launch its own manifesto.

“If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of 10 years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people,” said Confucius.

A meaningful legacy to empower a people is a long-term enterprise. Here lies the important distinction between a scorecard and a legacy. One is a statistical record used to measure progress towards a particular goal, the other is a cumulative impact of past choices and deeds on future generations.

A legacy is more than a brick-and-mortar laundry list of development targets achieved! A legacy targets the software, not the hardware of society.

Kenya’s most cherished heritage is freedom. As such, the true legacy of the “Uhuru State” and the manifestoes of those seeking to succeed Kenyatta must be gauged against the yardstick of freedom.

Freedom was the raison d’être for the war of liberation from the repressive colonial state. However, past regimes have tended to erode rather than foster greater freedom.

The ‘Harambee State’ of Jomo Kenyatta morphed through three phases. Freedom thrived during the ‘soft power’ phase (1963-1966) when the Kenyatta state enjoyed total legitimacy that rested on four forms of authority. The first was charismatic authority.

Jomo ranks as Kenya’s most charismatic leader. Second, Kenyatta based his power on traditional authority. He was fondly referred to as “Mzee”.

Third, he relied on legal authority to the government’s bureaucracy. Finally, he tapped into African nationalism and pan-Africanism. With this authority, in 1964, the Kenyatta state succeeded in uniting Kanu and Kadu. It also fashioned Kenya’s future as a capitalist state.

Freedom dipped during the ‘hard power’ phase of the Kenyatta state (1966-1969). Cold War politics led to the fragmentation of nationalist elite, the collapse of the nationalist consensus, ethnicisation of politics and the rollback of Pan-Africanism. The battle for the soul of Kenya between Kenyatta and his deputy, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, gave rise to the ‘Deputy President’s rebellion syndrome’ .

‘Nyayo state’

Power shifted to the provincial administrators and the Gikuyu, Embu, and Meru Association (Gema), which replaced Kanu. The space of freedom shrunk during the ‘Nyayo State’ of Daniel arap Moi.

From its first phase (1978-1982) when it targeted corruption, the ‘Moi state’ became a perfect one-party dictatorship after the abortive coup of August 1982.

Opposition was outlawed. Power rested on a revitalised Kanu with power above Parliament and Judiciary, the provincial administration, a network of regional kingpins and a powerful ethnic aristocracy woven around Moi’s Kalenjin group, which had a vice-like grip on the military and other security forces. Despite Kenya’s return to multipartysm, politically inspired violence marred elections in 1992 and 1997.

The space of freedom expanded greatly under Kibaki. Attempts to give power to the provincial administration were thwarted. A new Constitution was promulgated with a devolved tier to manage diversity and decentralise resources.

As its legacy, the Kibaki state adopted Kenya Vision 2030. However, political bickering, corruption and the 2008 post-election violence tainted the administration.

Although Ruto was a co-ruler of the ‘Uhuru State’ (2013-2017), he eclipsed his boss in their first term. But in his second term (2017-2022), Kenyatta entered into a strategic handshake with Odinga to neutralise his deputy and fight corruption.

But taking advantage of Kenyatta’s perceived aloofness and refusal to play politics, Ruto dislodged his boss from Mt Kenya politics. But the strategy Uhuru adopted to contain Ruto saw led to the strident return of the Kanu-era ‘Administrative State’.

Career intelligence officers running key agencies turned off the revenue taps Ruto was using to create a war-chest.

The creation of the National Development Implementation and Communication Committee effectively prevented the DP from moving around the country launching or supervising government projects to advance his political future.

During Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party primaries in April 2022, civil servants were used to impose the regime’s favourites candidates in ways reminiscent of the Moi-era Mlolongo fiasco in 1988. Kenya’s ‘Fifth State’ must restore democratic freedoms.


Prof Kagwanja, a former government adviser, is currently CEO of Africa Policy Institute and adjunct scholar at the University of Nairobi and National Defence University

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