Jubilee woes reveal the perils of entrepreneurial politics

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta at the Jubilee Party special National Delegates Convention (NDC) held at Ngong Racecourse Nairobi. 22/05/23

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | NMG

On August 22, 2018, Burton W. Folsom, the American historian and writer, released the seventh edition of his all-time bestseller, The Myth of the Robber Barons. A few months earlier, former President Uhuru Kenyatta courted a peace deal (‘handshake’) with the Raila Odinga-led opposition on March 9, 2018.

The common thread joining the two seemingly unrelated events is the perils of ‘entrepreneurial politics’ that has bedevilled both capitalist economies and political parties.

Certainly, entrepreneurs are the prime movers of capitalism. They were behind the phenomenal economic growth between 1850 and 1910 that put the United States firmly on the path to becoming a superpower in the 1930s. But entrepreneurs are never seamless.

Folsom identified a moral divide among the entrepreneurs—which accounts for the tragic failure of leadership and development in Africa. One divide, Lockean and blissful, is the ‘market entrepreneurs’ who draw their success and power from producing quality products that they sell at competitive prices in the marketplace.

The other—Hobessian: nasty and brutish—consists of ‘political entrepreneurs’ who derive their power from using the government, in a nasty instrumental fashion, to acquire strategic wealth such as land, gain subsidies, tax exemptions and to punish competitors. Political entrepreneurs are a drain on taxes, a burden to the economy and the real gravediggers of capitalism.

It is Karl Marx, the German philosopher, famously said that “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce”. In Kenya, recently declared by the World Bank as a lower-middle-income country, the history of entrepreneurial politics is repeating itself as a farce. 

In early May, former President Kenyatta was ousted as Jubilee Party leader and replaced by Nominated Senator Sabina Chege. 

On May 22, 2023, he convened a Special Delegates Convention of his faction of the former ruling Jubilee Party, which is affiliated to the opposition Azimio Coalition. 

A rival Jubilee faction aligned to President William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza coalition dismissed the conference as “illegal”. The battle for the soul of Jubilee seems destined to go down to the wire. But the intra-Jubilee war has pure entrepreneurial ends.

Jubilee typifies the fall of the ‘mass parties’ or ‘catch-all parties’ in the 1950s and 1960s and the rise of ‘the entrepreneurial parties’ of the 21st century. 

One-party state 

As an entrepreneurial party, Jubilee Party rose from the ashes of the authoritarian one-party state, the Kenya Africa National Union (Kanu), which started off as a ‘big tent party’ based on the nationalist consensus and pan-African ideology. From the late 1960s, Kanu quickly degenerated into a ‘cartel party’ that functioned as a ‘semi-state agency’, acting on behalf of the state rather than the diverse groups in society.

From its formation in 2012, Jubilee bore the birthmarks of the entrepreneurial parties. This genre of parties is not motivated by ideology, policy or the need to dispense public goods.

Instead, it largely centres on a charismatic political entrepreneur whose policies and interests it furthers. In its twilight years, the Jubilee Party tried to return to the mass party model of the 1960s. On September 8, 2016, its 11 affiliated parties merged into a single unified party. Soon after, the party started to unravel, tragically ending Kenya’s experiment with the mass party model.

As Jubilee went into the August 9, 2022 elections, it carried the indelible imprints of a typical business-firm party or personal party. Stated-financed and personalised, the ruling party was modelled along the top-down organisational structure of a corporation — with most of the regime’s movers and shakers drawn from the corporate world — rather than operating on the basis of internal party democracy.

Its top cadre played the ultimate role in selecting candidates to run in elections, managing the party’s assets and resources, and wielding party discipline over other politicians in the party. As an extension of the state, Jubilee was no more than a special purpose vehicle, dormant outside of campaign seasons, but lacking grassroots capacity and no active role in national development beyond the rhetoric of its twitterati and leaders. 

Jubilee has a mixed legacy. It had relative success in expanding infrastructure and services. But as an entrepreneurial party, its cadres and leaders used the government machinery to subsidise their businesses, industries and projects, gain profit through protectionism, government contracts and other favourable arrangements with government agents, and enacted legislations or regulations to harm their rivals. 

Snippets and tales 

Selective snippets and tales of the perils of political entrepreneurship in the Jubilee era are chronicled in the new book by Aden Duale, Kenya’s Defence Minister, titled For the Record: The Inside story of Power Politics, Lawmaking and Leadership in Kenya Politics (2023), which dons a foreword by President William Ruto.

In the 2022 elections, the vast majority of Jubilee’s political entrepreneurs threw their lot behind the Odinga-led Azimio coalition, hoping to win and continue using the state machinery to make a profit and safeguard their interests. 

But the Kenyan voter abhorred and voted against the culture of entrepreneurial parties. In the Mount Kenya region, the heartland of Kenya’s capitalism, the voter overwhelmingly elected William Ruto’s United Democratic Party (UDA), largely a splinter of the Jubilee Party. 

A new class consciousness signified by the ‘hustler-dynasty’ (poor-rich) mantra trumped ethnic-based cronyism as the axis about which electoral politics revolved.

In voting out Jubilee’s political entrepreneurs, Kenyan voters hoped that the new leadership would readily take the necessary risk and champion a people-centred development to lift the mass of Kenya’s poor from poverty. 

After its humiliating electoral defeat, the Jubilee Party might be inescapably joining the pantheon of former ruling parties: Kanu, Narc, PNU and TNA. But the legacy of entrepreneurial parties stubbornly lives on as rent-seeking continues to bedevil Kenya’s development.

In both UDA/Kenya Kwanza and ODM/Azimio political formations, political entrepreneurs are jostling to gain full control of the levers of power to protect and advance their business interests and those of their families and cronies and to make wealth through subsidies, protectionism, tax cuts and government contracts. 

The question remains: can the ruling elite overcome the legacy of ‘entrepreneurial politics’ and champion a people-centred development? The answer lies in the ‘class suicide theory’ of Amilcar Cabral, the liberator of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.

The choices are stark for the Kenya Kwanza stalwarts: commit ‘class suicide’ and champion the interests of the people or betray the ‘hustler revolution.’ Kenya’s hope of developing and joining the G20 lies in empowering ‘market entrepreneurs’ and ending entrepreneurial politics. 

Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and now Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute.