Benjamin Kipkorir, among the first generation of Kenyan intellectuals, has served in both the public and private for decades, variously working as a teacher, chair of the Kenya Commercial Bank and Kenya’s ambassador to the US. Among his major publications are The Marakwet of Kenya: A Preliminary Study (1973) (co-authored with Fred Welbourn) and Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic (2009). He spoke to Tom Odhiambo and Parselelo Kantai, a few weeks to his passing on the morning of June 20, 2015.
Odhiambo: The first question I’m interested in is that of nation-formation; what are your reflections on nation-state formation in Kenya?
Kipkorir: First, I understand that independence came to most African countries suddenly and too early for the countries to have any time to forge any kind of national consciousness. In Kenya’s case, independence was so abrupt as to be traumatising. I was in Eldoret and working on a temporary job at the District Education Office after finishing my high school and awaiting joining Makerere, when there was a Congo Exodus. Nationalism in Congo crystallised in one weekend when King Leopold decided to grant independence to the Congolese. Yet Congo then had at most seven graduates, maybe one doctor and not more than a hundred who had been to high school. Then what happened abruptly is that there was an exodus of the whites who were running everything and the quickest way out for them was through Uganda and Kenya. Kenyan nationalists said that if Congo could be given independence, what about Kenya? So, Kenya’s independence was accelerated, though not as abrupt as the Congo’s – it came three years later. Secondly, when you ask me as a historian to address the issue of nation-formation, I have to tell you that I used to teach a course called “The Making of Kenya.” The first thing I told my students is that Kenya is a feature of European colonialism; there isn’t a nation called Kenya that is historical. And you can start visualising the Kenyan state from the time the colonial boundaries were established and various peoples were beaten together into a colony and became part of a colonial process and at independence became part of the Kenyan nation. That, in summary, is my thinking about African nations. There are very few African nation-states proper. They are just creatures of colonialism.
Odhiambo: So, when it comes to 1963 and the government is formed, it starts well. What do you think was done well enough in that period into the 1970s, and what could have been done better?
Kipkorir: Unless and until you brought in this politics of land, there was little conflict among African leaders. It was when you brought in the issue of land that people began to conflict; the Kikuyu community itself was conflicted. If you’ve read the literature on Mau Mau, you know that it was more of an internal conflict among the Kikuyu than a conflict between the Kikuyu and the colonial rulers. But the Kikuyu had been agitating for their rights a lot longer than most of the other communities because they were most intensely exposed to Europeans both in terms of habitation and the forces of change. Fortunately, the historical accident of establishing Nairobi as a capital city was because the railway line came through Nairobi and the engineers had to reorganise themselves to descend the escarpment to go to Rift valley and Kisumu. Nairobi was the heartland of Maasai territory and it brought the Kikuyu to Nairobi. But when the first settlers came, they wanted to originally settle in Ukambani. So the first settled areas were Coast then Ukambani. The first White Highlands were Kamba Hills but then the Europeans realised they were not as well watered as the Kikuyu lands and that made them encroach on Kikuyu lands. That brought about conflict between the migrant European community and the native Kikuyu community. So land became a major issue. But the whites brought with them something else: education through missionaries. And the first people to embrace this thing in significant amounts were the Kikuyu, and the Luo. Over time, the Kikuyu leaders became more prominent than any other leaders. And the most significant of these leaders was Kenyatta. So, to answer your question, it starts well till you bring to the fore Kenyatta, and therefore the politics of Central Kenya.
Odhiambo: Post-1963, how does land come to the public space?
Kipkorir: Very simple. The colonialists had a divide-and-rule method. And I recall at school being told by some of the teachers that “the Kikuyu want to dominate”. So we look around because we are about two hundred students and the Kikuyus are about fifty percent. But in terms of capacity, there was no question anyone would dominate. It was a question of numbers. There was an issue that we would be dominated by the Kikuyu and that must have got into people’s psyche and before independence everyone was concerned with their territorial rights. For instance the Coastal people were looking at the possibility of the Coast being hived off to Zanzibar because the ten mile Coastal strip was said to belong to Zanzibar. The Northern Frontier District, now the counties of Wajir, Mandera and Garissa had begun agitating to join mainland Somalia, which was also nearing independence then. The Maasai and the Kalenjin called themselves pastoralist communities and most of the white highlands were on their territories. And that’s how the concept of Majimboism came up, probably fed with propaganda material definitely from the settlers. Then it became “grabbiology”, a horrible word to use.
Kantai: Let me take you back… you as emergent young elite, for which Kenyatta is like a sound track of your bid to get development. He’s a symbol of the liberation struggles, and he’s now taking on a monarchical kind of personality. How is this playing out as far as your perception of him is concerned?
Kipkorir: I can only answer that by asking you to consider what has happened to Luo land. If there is one community to facilitate the coming of independence, it was the Luo leadership. So, obviously, Nyanza is filled with bitterness, but what can you do? Because most of the first generation of African rulers just went through this route. Mazrui’s depiction of Nkrumah as a Leninist Tsar would equally apply to Nyerere. The only difference with Nyerere is that he can’t be accused of self-aggrandisement. But in terms of grabbing power, utilising it totally and without contradiction, Nyerere wasn’t different from the others. He may have had policies like Ujamaa, etc., but he used force – think of the Preventive Detention Act – as brutally as Nkrumah and Kenyatta did. In Kenya’s case, the people around Kenyatta used the opportunity to enrich themselves and oppress those who didn’t agree with them. The other collaborators were from the periphery.
Kantai: We are now well into what Reverend Njoya, in an interview, recommended that the rest of us dispense with the struggle of trying to remember each one of our presidents and break it down into Kenyatta 1, 2, 3, because they are just extensions of each other.
Kipkorir: No, I wouldn’t do that. Kenyatta preserved the colonial state and used colonial instruments and a bit of diplomacy. And you must credit him with that. With the help of the OAU, he managed to fend off Somalia’s claims to half of the country, and with the help of the British, he managed to fend off the claim of the Sultan of Zanzibar and thus preserved the colonial state. Is that a good thing? Because if it wasn’t, where would we be? We must all agree with one of the very first OAU declarations that we must treat colonial boundaries as sacrosanct because if we were to dispense with them, we would descend into anarchy. We may say Moi was Kenyatta 2, but he tried something which Kenyatta didn’t do. He did tremendous social engineering, like his efforts in education and health, trying to spread the allocation of national resources. You can’t take this away from him, no matter what else he did. He socially re-engineered Kenya and extended education throughput the length and breadth of the country. So you can’t regard Moi as Kenyatta. Kibaki, for all his ills, did two things for which we must credit him. He allowed us to have open space to express ourselves, criticise the government, speak our minds and freed us from Kenyatta 1 and 2, where you couldn’t criticise the government. We also had a new Constitution. Second, he opened up the economy, which had been constricted, not necessarily by Moi but by donors too. Where we are now? Are we in Kenyatta four? Do we expect Uhuru to behave like his father? He may try but I don’t think so.
Kantai: Going back to the point you just made about Kenyatta 1, and maintaining the old colonial boundaries and that preventing us descending into anarchy, what are your thoughts on whether in the age of free expression and devolution we can continue with the unitary state?
Kipkorir: We no longer have a unitary state. We have a nation that has embraced devolution. At independence, devolution was built in the constitution in form of counties and regional governments. Mboya and Oginga joined Kenyatta to fight Majimboism because it was creating tribal fiefdoms. I have argued that Kenyatta’s reasons for objecting to Majimboism were purely selfish, because all he wanted was access to resources which he wanted to give to his community. This was also seen in Kibaki’s time: the allocation of resources to benefit one community. You can say this would have happened in this regime too only for devolution to be cast in the 2010 Constitution. It had been assumed that once the 2013 elections were held, people would scuttle devolution, and I think there may have been attempts at it, and I think even the people who were expected to oppose it in Central Kenya have embraced it fully. But do we have a proper devolution? No. I think we have too many governors. We could have divided the country into about 15 counties; it could have been easier.
Kantai: Your book, Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic features quite prominently your experience working in county government. Could you talk a little bit about the nature of county government then and now as you see it?
Kipkorir: At independence, devolution was entrenched into the constitution at three tiers: national, regional and county governments.Before independence, there were local authorities in African areas, called African District Councils; in European areas, they were called European District Councils . At independence these two were merged. The county became responsible for primary education, primary healthcare (but not the hospitals) and for all the highways in the country, trunk and subsidiary roads, markets, local agriculture and land control. The central government was responsible for hospitals, security, forests and natural resources. The problem of the county governments at independence was that the financing was wrong. The county government was to derive funds from taxation, graduated personal tax, grants from the central government and fees. The central government eroded the county governments’ capacity to raise tax by promising to provide free services in county establishments without making the provisions. So local authorities were discredited, very rapidly undermined and deprived of sufficient grants from the centre. In one parliamentary session in a single day, all the functions of the local authorities in the country were transferred to the central government. This is one little disgusting historical event. It was followed by a commission of inquiry which Kenyatta himself had appointed in 1966, called the Hardacre Commission, to discuss the viability or utility of the provincial administration in an independent dispensation. And I suspect Kenyatta expected the recommendation to come that there weren’t enough human resource persons to run the services in the counties; that some of the counties weren’t viable and needed the provincial administration to sustain. Unfortunately, Hardacre and the commissioners recommended the opposite: that in an independent society, there is really no room for anyone putting on a uniform and a crown and demanding that people salute him yet we also have a democracy.
Kantai: So they recommended abolition of the provincial commission?
Kipkorir: Yes, that it be gradually phased out and for the national government to use counties as its instruments. But the report was quickly shelved and forgotten. So, the provincial administration was reactivated.
Odhiambo: But the classical question is how the provincial administration has managed to sustain itself very effectively. Isn’t this the age-old problem of a civil service and bureaucracy that is in place?
Kipkorir: Even the civil service itself finds the provincial administration an anathema. Imagine you are in charge of provision of education, formulating education policy and you want to see it applied throughout the country and decide the modules for its application and you have your offices right down at the grassroots working in tandem with the local authorities to ensure the policy is implemented and you have provided the finances. Then you find the thing called the provincial administration, which tells you that “at the local level, I represent the President and so what you want to do, I must also have a say in it”.
Odhiambo: What do you think can be done to increase capacity at the local level?
Kipkorir: As soon as the county leadership understands its functions and what it needs to do, it has to go and get the human resources from wherever. We’ve got to ensure that the county governments have county services which are independent of and shielded from politics; provided they’re doing their job on the basis of qualifications, they are secure. Another issue I want to address is this: when I joined the County Council in 1965, the highest paid public servants were local authority staff. The County Clerk earned more than a Permanent Secretary. At the same time, the highest paid in Nairobi were university professors; they earned more than the permanent secretaries and earned a lot more than MPs. But who are the highest paid today? Politicians. Leadership is something you volunteer for because you have a vision, a commitment, and a vocation. It should be a missionary thing, but the idea of paying Permanent Secretary a million shillings a month, and the Medical Officer in charge of Kakamega District, maybe a hundred thousand shillings a month, is absurd. If I’m leaving you any message, it’s that we have to pay our professionals what’s commensurate to their jobs.
Odhiambo and Kantai are founder-researchers with Native Intelligence Trust, Nairobi, Kenya. E-mails: Tom.email@example.com and Parselelokantai@gmail.com