Government is not food for the ethnic and political elites

Saturday February 25 2023
Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua

Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua who recently compared government with a company. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG

It’sOur Turn to Eat, the book by Michela Wrong, deconstructs the idea that drives contestation for power in Kenya. This idea is that people contest for and assume power in order to “eat”. Government is seen as a huge meat roast.

The elites in power apportion themselves and their cronies the choicest cuts. The losers get offal, hooves and skin. The rest of the population is left to scramble for crumbs falling from the table.

The administrations of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi deluded their communities that power was being held on their behalf and that they would get the choicest cuts of the meat.


In reality, though, only the elites in those communities “ate”. The rest of the community remained as poor as everyone else. Despite this reality, people still vote for “one of their own” in the illusion they will get advantageous positions at the feeding trough.

The idea of government as food has even found its way in our political lexicon. The coalition government of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga was known as the “nusu mkate” (half-loaf) government. The political class regards a “nusu mkate” situation as unsatisfactory. The desired option is a “full mkate” government.


Unfortunately, we have bought into, and enthusiastically participate in, this vulgarisation of politics and governance. The tragic irony is that while political elites jostle for prime feeding positions in either a “nusu mkate” or “full mkate” government, the rest of us remain with hungry stomachs and thousands of other ills.


Recently, the deputy president of Kenya compared government with a company. As such, there are owners who have majority shares, others with just a few, while others do not own any. This is a slight variation of government as food.

However, the central idea is the same: the winners of an electoral contest are first in line at the feeding trough. This cynical concept of power is a vulgarisation of democratic theory.

In democratic theory, elections offer people the opportunity to choose from alternate policy platforms. Who among the contenders has better ideas about improving the welfare of people? Once in power, the sole objective of government is delivery on its electoral promises.

National vehicle

Government is not owned by anyone. Neither is it a loaf of bread to be shared among political or ethnic elites. It is a national vehicle whose purpose is to transform people’s lives and deliver a higher standard of living for all at the end of its mandate.

The leaders of Singapore or South Korea viewed power, government and governance as central cogs in the development machine. They mercilessly punished officials who thought government was a personal food source and those who treated their offices as personal property.

Africa can choose either to reinstate government at the heart of the development project or persist with the vulgar idea of government as food or as a company with owners.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator