Time to break the jinx of Kenya's past regimes 60 years on

Thursday June 01 2023
ke presidents

Kenya's former Presidents from left: Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta and President William Ruto. PHOTOS | NMG


Kenya attained internal self-rule from the British on June 1, 1963, full of optimism for a bright future. Independence followed six months later. But with the 60th birthday of internal self-government this year, the nation’s congenital challenges are intact, thanks to an extractive and acquisitive State.

The independence top brass in 1963 put the country on an unstable path that Tom Mboya, one of the architects of Project Kenya, agonised about in his book aptly titled The Challenge of Nationhood.

President Jomo Kenyatta

President Jomo Kenyatta marks Madaraka Day in 1973 with First Lady Mama Ngina.

Six decades on, the challenges only seem to have blossomed into a difficult maturity. The lowest common factor is the role of sleaze in government, with the proceeds often going towards funding political competition, in a curious cyclic ebb and flow of national life.

Read: NGUGI: Kenya has good laws but irredeemably tainted leaders

To its credit, the independence State identified ignorance, poverty and disease as the three main enemies to be fought, in line with First President Jomo Kenyatta’s inaugural address. The rest of the ethos were captured in the National Anthem.


The canticle talks of a people dwelling in peace and unity in a just God-blessed land with massive wealth. It goes on to define service as an earnest endeavour, among a people firm to defend a homeland that is a heritage of splendour. The idyllic dream concludes by painting pictures of a common bond among a people who see themselves as builders of a glorious commonwealth in which the fruits of labour fill all hearts with gratitude.

The emphasis on the fruit of labour would seem to preclude celebration of financial tackiness and scandal of the proportions that Kenya has witnessed for the six decades. But does all this seem to have been for ink and paper fit only for the archives?

Read: Kenya under heavy debt, but millionaires rising

Once the business of government began in earnest, all the big dreams were placed on the back burner and eventually consigned into insignificant ceremonial relevance. Official functions in dozens of events across the republic begin and end with the National Anthem, virtually every day.

President William Ruto

They sing it in schools, at the local chief’s meetings and in sundry public activities and events. In police stations, life comes to a standstill twice a day as the national flag goes up at 6am and when it is pulled down at 6pm.

The ceremony evokes the significance borne in the anthem that often goes with it on other occasions. And at some of Kenya’s proudest moments, the anthem has been played to the silent attention of the whole world as the country’s world-beating sports stars receive medals of glory.

However, all that seems to be just that. It is a good glorious sound whose wider relevance has since been faded into insignificance by a history of extraction and acquisition in the ruling class.

Read also:Kenya on a wing and a prayer: On corruption, be afraid

Quite early on, Kenyatta was in the habit of chiding his detractors with the refrain “Even Independence did not come to us on the silver platter; we grabbed it”. He often used the Kiswahili expression nyakua (grab) to signify the path to comfortable living. He especially reproached three of his former inmates in a colonial detention camp thus: “Look at me. Look at Paul Ngei and look yourselves. See what we have done for ourselves. Were we not with you in Kapenguria (detention)? See what we have done for ourselves. What have you done for yourselves?”

This was followed by a string of stinging invectives that pointed out the way to Ramogi Achieng Oneko, Kung’u Karumba and Bildad Kaggia. The benefits of government were defined as leverage and extra-legal-to-illicit access to public coffers.

President Moi

President Moi inspects a guard of honour mounted by the army, navy and the air force on Madaraka Day.

Infamously, the Duncan Ndegwa Commission of 1971 on public service structure and remuneration allowed public servants to do business with the government. In principle, this is frowned upon today. We could even say it is outlawed by the Public Procurement and Asset Disposals Act, 2015, within the prism of conflict of interest. However, tenders for public supplies are some of the most sought-after opportunities. There has emerged, in Kenyan parlance, the term “tenderpreneurs”. These deep-heeled individuals are supposed to be legitimate suppliers to government, both at the national and county levels, of goods and services that are sometimes worth billions of dollars.

Read:Kenyan president likens graft lords to colonialists

Public finance, procurement and audit are the most valued assets by the political class. He who has them neatly sewn up together has a goldmine. When President Mwai Kibaki came to office in 2002, one of his first assignments was to shake up the three sectors and tie them up afresh.

Giving the aura of reform, his Minister for Finance, David Mwiraria, sent all procurement officers on compulsory leave, pending what was billed as a cleaning up of the system. It turned out, however, that it was all about replacing one system’s troops with those of a new one, for the same assignment.

President Kibaki’s renegade anti-corruption czar, John Mark Githongo, would later be quoted by author Michela Wrong as having been bewildered by undisguised assault on public coffers by the newly arrived political elite, with some of them proclaiming openly within the corridors of power: “It is our turn to eat.”

The need to eat has led to a succession of lopsided public service honchos. For a start, the appointing authority picks strategically from his tribe, with a sprinkling of compliant allies from a few other communities. The tribesmen should also be compliant to migration of public resources into selected private hands. It is a self-succeeding prebendal State, associated with numerous scandals.

In the early years of independence, there was the maize scandal, which played out around Cooperatives and Marketing Minister Paul Ngei. In the middle of a maize shortage in the country, Ngei’s ministry imported 250,000 bags of yellow maize to the now extinct Maize Marketing Board. His family became the sole supplier of the maize to retail outlets. While he was suspended from Cabinet for a few months, Parliament was arm-twisted into enacting a law that allowed Kenyatta to pardon and reinstate him.

Read: Kenyatta fires minister in mini cabinet reshuffle

But the President was also fond of telling off his detractors on the economy and cost of living with words to the effect that he had brought down an elephant. It was up to everyone to hone their knife and hive off their cut. It was not his fault that some had blunt knives, or no knives, or even that those with good knives did not know how to chop off a piece for themselves.

President Mwai Kibaki

Former President Mwai Kibaki and Chief of General Staff Jeremiah Kianga during the 48th Madaraka Day.

Hence, Kenyatta’s watch stumbled from one scandal to another—from maize to cashew nuts, and from cashew nuts to coffee smuggling and from here to gemstones and ivory theft and poaching in the game parks. In the Ken-Ren scandal of the 1970s, for instance, taxpayers would eventually lose Sh6.33 billion for fertiliser and farm chemical factory that never was. The State still harbours ambitions to build such a facility.

This philosophy has since seen the country lose prime public assets into private hands.

Dr Galava, a former managing editor with the ‘Nation’ and ‘The Standard’, is managing partner at Athari Communications. [email protected], @DenisGalava