Kenya’s capitalism has no soul; let’s fix our value system

A teller counts money at a Kenyan bank. FILE PHOTO |

What you need to know:

  • The victory of capitalism at the end of the Cold War, celebrated by Francis Fukuyama in his End of History, was short-lived.
  • In Africa, the jury is still out about the existence of a pre-colonial capitalism — and if it had a soul.

On September 20, 2018, Kenyans woke up to the horrid news of the brutal murder of a young entrepreneur, Monica Nyawira Kimani, in her apartment in the glitzy Lamuria Gardens, Kilimani Estate. In a deep intellectual and ideological sense, Monica’s grisly and brutal killing exposed the ugly underbelly of Kenya’s capitalism without a soul. While capitalism is defined as a cut-throat competition, Kenyans are literally cutting throats!

Indisputably, Kenya is a land of opportunity. And Monica was iconic of the new spirit of Kenyan capitalism. At 29, she had meteorically shot from a newspaper vendor in the streets of Nairobi who made a fortune in South Sudan to become a super millionaire with a huge ‘business empire’ over a span of five years.

But the celebrity’s tragic demise epitomised how Kenya’s 55-year old experiment with capitalism is going global — and going awry.


As a people, Kenyans are consumed in the iron and mortar business of development, paying little heed to the decayed national moral fabric, resulting in a tragic killer capitalism. Kenya must anchor the trilogy of capitalism, free market and democracy on a solid ethical foundation or perish.

Paradoxically, capitalism has a moral genesis.

In his classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the German sociologist, Max Weber, traces the rise of capitalism to an ethical origin.

According to Weber, capitalism evolved when the Protestant — particularly Calvinist — ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, accumulating wealth for investment, engaging in trade and developing their own enterprises.

In short, the ‘protestant work ethic’ was the moral force behind the emergence of modern capitalism.


But over the years, capitalism has lost its moral shine. The victory of capitalism at the end of the Cold War, celebrated by Francis Fukuyama in his End of History, was short-lived.

Capitalism is everywhere in a dire crisis. Despite lingering optimism in the world’s economic departments that “capitalism always survives”, in Western capitals and universities, debates have revolved around the “dying capitalism.”

In his recent book, How Will Capitalism End? Wolfgang Streeck unmasks the myth that the trilogy of capitalism, free markets and democracy leads to the happy-ever-after life, instead exposing the deeply disturbing illiberal, irrational and anti-humanist tendencies of contemporary capitalism. And there is no solution at hand for the declining growth, shrinking public sphere, institutional corruption, anxiety over migrations, global inequality and anarchic international liberal order.


Even then, some see a glimmer of hope in the liberal order, embarking on an ambitious rethinking of democracy and markets.

In their brand new book, Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, Eric Posner and Glen Weyl suggest that uniting the power of technology and markets can create a more egalitarian society.

In Africa, the jury is still out about the existence of a pre-colonial capitalism — and if it had a soul.

Be that as it may, colonialism disrupted African societies, destroyed their value system, planting the seeds for a brutal capitalist system.

Faced with a pitch-night crisis of the liberal order, African intellectuals are re-examining the philosophies and ideologies that African leaders and intellectuals have formulated to guide the post-colonial society.


Muxe Nkondo and Tiyambe Zeleza have explored the twin philosophies of ‘Ubuntu’ and the ‘African Renaissance’ as potential moral-ethical frameworks to underpin African capitalism.

In an insightful paper, The Relevance of Ubuntu for African Development, historian Peter Odhiambo Ndege, highlights the influence of Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser who advocated Pan-Arabism and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, who articulated Pan-Africanism.

In Consciencism, Nkrumah identified three main traditions that make up Africa: the Euro-Christian, the Islamic, and the original African, characterising traditional African society as essentially egalitarian and arguing that a new African philosophy must draw its nourishment chiefly from African roots.

Nkrumah inspired Ali Mazrui’s The Africans: A Triple Heritage, where the Kenyan scholar traced African heritage to three major influences: An indigenous heritage, borne out of time and climate change; the heritage of eurocentric capitalism forced on Africans by European colonialism and the spread of Islam by both jihad and evangelism.


Following in Nasser’s and Nkrumah’s footsteps, Tanzania’s first President, Julius K. Nyerere, espoused Ujamaa (familyhood) as the basis of “African socialism”.

Nyerere’s Ujamaa united Tanzania, but as Issa Shivji (1975) argues, it idealised the African past, using the state and party to exploit the very peasants it hoped to develop in the silent class struggle in Tanzania.

In 1985, Nyerere admitted that Ujamaa had failed as an ideology of economic liberation. Nyerere’s heirs jettisoned socialism, embracing capitalism.

In Kenya, President Jomo Kenyatta and his two youthful intellectual advisers, Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki, promoted “African Socialism.”

However, critics like Colin Leys (1975) argued that Kenya’s “African Socialism” formulated in the famous Sessional Paper Number 10 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya was neither African nor socialist, but an attempt to rationalise and perpetuate colonial capitalism for the benefit of the international and indigenous African bourgeoisie.


To be sure, Kenyatta popularised the Harambee spirit or pulling together, a Kenyan tradition clarion call for self-help, to neutralise the excesses of Kenya’s capitalism. But soon, Harambee was reduced to a public display of wealth and glitz in the elite power games.

As President Uhuru Kenyatta celebrates his 57th birthday, his real legacy must be fixing the decaying moral fabric of our killer capitalism where, in a Hobessian sense, life is extremely short, nasty and brutish.

Prof Kagwanja is former government adviser and currently Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.