Kenyan Politics Reading List

Several readers that came to this blog for information on the elections have asked for suggested readings on Kenya’s political history. Here is a short, and so in no way exhaustive, list of books that I think might provide a good introduction. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments section. 

  1. Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta: Many forget that Kenya’s first president was an Anthropologist (who studied under Malinowski, no less). In Facing Mt. Kenya, Kenyatta attempts to document and explain Kikuyu cultural practices. The book is not a politically neutral ethnography (and to be honest most, at least the ones I have read, never are); and is an apologist account of pre-colonial Kikuyu political system(s) and some practices that some may find questionable. Ultimately, the book is about what Kenyatta wanted the British to think of Kenyans, and that is why it is such a great piece of work. 
  2. Not Yet Uhuru, by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga: Mr. Odinga was Kenya’s first Vice President and father to Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The book highlights the post-independence disillusionment with the administration of President Kenyatta (with whom he fell out in 1966) through the tribulations of the elder Odinga. It is a poignant reminder of the extent to which economic motivations shape and define the cleavages in Kenyan politics, despite the manifestations of the same along ethnic lines.
  3. Defeating the Mau Mau, by Daniel Branch: Was the Mau Mau rebellion an anti-colonialism insurgency, a Kikuyu civil war, or both? Branch delves into the complexities that motivated and defined the Mau Mau rebellion. A fantastic read. 
  4. Decolonization & Independence in Kenya, edited by Bethwell Ogot: The book provides an excellent account of the Kenyatta and Moi years until the early 1990s. The reader might find it interesting to compare their projections on Kenya’s political future with the actual trajectory since the book was written. 
  5. Kenya: A history since independence, by Charles Hornsby: This is a sweeping account of the major political events in Kenya since independence. It is a good introduction to the historical dynamics and themes that have continued to influence Kenyan politics from independence to the present.
  6. The Rise of A Party State in Kenya, by Jennifer Widner: Although slightly more academic, this book is a good introduction to Kenyan politics for those who want to get more detail. It is especially helpful in understanding how the independence party KANU under former President Moi emerged as the “Baba na Mama” of Kenyan politics. 
  7. I would also recommend Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Detained, Michela Wrong’s It Is Our Turn to Eat, for an indirect peek into Kenyan politics, and and Angelique Haugerud’s Culture of Politics for an anthropologist’s take. 

Read on. 

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On Rwanda’s brand of Developmental Authoritarianism

Many, including yours truly, have a love-hate relationship with Paul Kagame and his RPF regime in Rwanda.

On the one hand, his adventures in eastern DRC; alleged involvements in the assassination of opposition figures both at home and abroad; and overall restriction of political space in Rwanda are cause for concern. But on the other hand, he seems to be doing a marvelous job on the economic front (see here and here, for instance).

Source: Kigali City Official Website

In the latest issue of African Affairs, Booth and Golooba-Mutebi explore the nature of state-led development in Rwanda, with particular attention to how state-run companies are “ice breakers” for private sector firms in different sectors of the economy. The paper also observes Kagame’s strict separation of state and private accumulation of wealth, a fact that is demonstrated by Rwanda’s comparatively good performance on corruption indices. It is definitely worth reading.

Here is part of the abstract:

This article addresses one thematic gap – the distinctive approach of the RPF-led regime to political involvement in the private sector of the economy. It does so using the framework of a cross-national study which aims to distinguish between more and less developmental forms of neo- patrimonial politics. The article analyses the RPF’s private business operations centred on the holding company known successively as Tri- Star Investments and Crystal Ventures Ltd. These operations are shown to involve the kind of centralized generation and management of economic rents that has distinguished the more developmental regimes of Asia and Africa. The operations of the military investment company Horizon and of the public–private consortium Rwanda Investment Group may be seen in a similar light. With some qualifications, we conclude that Rwanda should be seen as a developmental patrimonial state.

I often tell my friends that at the end of the day, really, all that matters is that we bring down infant mortality to under 10/1000 live births [this is a good proxy for quality of life] and improve the standards of living for the average person, everywhere.

With that in mind, the favored retort among anti-democracy crowds in Sub-Saharan Africa – that “you can’t eat democracy” – has some truth in it. I bet most people would rather live in authoritarian Singapore than democratic Malawi (feel free to disagree).

The point here is that good governance (and for that matter, democracy) are means to an end, and we should never forget what the end is – that is, the improvement of the human condition for all. And yes, I agree that democracy, i.e. political freedom, could also be an end in itself, with the qualifier that those most likely to enjoy freedom are those that are already fed, clothed and housed, with a little more time to spare to blog and read Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Okot P’Bitek.

China and Vietnam in Asia, and now Rwanda and Ethiopia in Africa, are cases that will continue to invigorate the debate over how to improve living standards for the largest number of people in the least amount of time.

For now my love-hate relationship with Paul Kagame and Meles Zenawi [of Ethiopia] continues….

rooting for ngugi

UPDATE: The nobel committee chose to go with this Peruvian author. May be next time.

So word is that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is billed as the front-runner to win this year’s nobel prize in literature. Ever since I read The River Between back in primary school I have always been impressed by the author. Ngugi was my first experience with Africa’s literary bloom that produced Soyinka, Achebe, Armah, Tutuola, P’Bitek, Liyong, Ba, among many others.

I am hoping Ngugi wins the nobel for his great contribution to English, Kikuyu, Kenyan and African literature.