In Kenya and most of Africa, conflicts always benefit politicians

Protesters run away from water released by a police’s water cannon vehicle during a mass rally in Kibera

Protesters run away from water released by a police’s water cannon vehicle during a mass rally called by the opposition leader Raila Odinga in Kibera, Nairobi on March 20, 2023.

Photo credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP

It is widely recognised that the success or failure of development in any society is determined by politics.

And this is because politics is about activities of conflicts, negotiations, and even cooperation in the production, distribution, and use of resources.

Resources of all types, therefore, are at the heart of many conflicts and politics. We know this even by looking at politics in Kenya.

Our politics is about the distribution of power and access to resources. It is less about productivity. The ‘how’ to produce is left to bureaucrats, but what is produced is at the centre of political conflicts. Political elites fight hard to simply access power, which they use to control resources.

How these conflicts are managed determines the nature of development a country would have. In societies where the political elites fight for just distribution and use of resources, those societies prosper more than where the fights are about self-interest.

Those that grow fast are the societies that build strong institutions to manage these conflicts. The countries that do not prosper at all or stagnate in terms of development include those countries where political elites fight just to advance their selfish interests.

Unfortunately, Kenya appears to be one of those countries where self-interest dominates and prevails. On account of this, Kenya is likely to suffer more in political conflicts than some in the region. A political history of Kenya and its development provides sufficient evidence to support his argument.

Let us begin with the conflicts during the struggle for independence. The Mau Mau peasant uprising in the 1950s is one story told everywhere across the globe. It was a story of the British torturing the peasants simply because they decided to rise up against the colonial state and the ‘stealing’ of peasants’ land.

To effectively repress the peasants, especially in the Mt. Kenya region which was the main home of the Mau Mau, the colonial administration enlisted the support of the loyalists – the traitors in the villages who were keen to sell their own. These loyalists were also fortunate to have had education in schools established by the missionaries.

Their relationship with missionaries led to them having education and better opportunities than other people. This gave many of them an advantage in accessing new opportunities, so they began to aspire for politics too. Some of them joined politics when the colonial administration allowed political competition by Africans.


It was during the Mau Mau conflicts that the real traitors emerged. Those in close contact with the administration were mostly chiefs and their relatives. They betrayed others in the villages or assisted the administration to hunt them down, and assisted to kill them.

These chiefs would later groom their children for bigger opportunities by giving them access to education. In other instances, the admiration and the white missionaries assisted only their children to get scholarships for advanced education in western universities.

We, therefore, got independence at a time when loyalists and others who had betrayed their own were very well advantaged. They became part of the elites that would assume new power to lord over others.

Nothing changed after independence. If anything, the new politicians became worse than the colonial administrators in terms of the economic repression of the peasants. Many of the new elites exploited the society even more than the colonial administration. In fact, they would do double what the colonial government did. Grabbing of public land, among others, has origins in this greed.

First to show this greed was President Jomo Kenyatta. Immediately after independence, he became notorious for rebuking Mau Mau, often referring to them in Kikuyu as ‘imaramari’ – wanderers or vagabonds. Although they contributed to independence by fighting hard, the new Jomo Kenyatta did not see anything good in this. He turned against them very quickly on matters of land. He simply told them ‘hakuna cha bure’ when they demanded access to land in the white settlers' farms.

The land issue became thorny during the transition. The conflicts over land intensified with the peasants and landless seeking to have access to settler farms that many settlers were selling to leave Kenya. Again, it was the political elites who benefitted most from these acquisitions.

Some of them would get a letter from the Ministry of Lands directing that they be given this or that piece of land. They would use soft loans from the settlement fund authority to pay the settler or just use the authority of their office to get the land. But the political alliance was important in these acquisitions. You had to prove your loyalty to the powers that be.

Daniel Arap Moi, who later became the Vice President and then President for decades, was one of the beneficiaries of ‘free land’ just like Jomo. When Moi and allies dissolved their parties to join Jomo’s KANU, he and others got plenty of land in the Rift Valley.

They all got land owned by former colonial settlers – complete with houses where the settlers lived. Although they got the land on the pretext they would farm as the colonial settlers had, most of the land went into ruins. A few decades later, politicians elsewhere in Africa copied this approach.

In Zimbabwe, they would cite Kenya as one where their likes – politicians – benefitted with the assistance of their own government.

They too got land on the pretext that they would farm. Today, the farms they got are in ruins. In fact, one of the best exports in white farms in Zimbabwe, was Organge Mazoe juice – which was found in many shops in Southern Africa region. It went under when the African elites stole the land.

Prof Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi. [email protected], Twitter: @karutikk


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