Can liberal democracy take root in Kenya’s stony soil?

Having deemed ourselves incapable of achieving the best standards, we seem to have settled ourselves on “mediocracy”

kenya-vote (reuters)

By Nadrat Mazrui

Kenya’s economic development has been followed with keen interest after independence. For, unlike neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda, Kenya, under the leadership of Kenyatta, settled on a liberal economic growth as outlined in “Sessional Paper No. 10” of 1965, which spelt out Kenya’s long-term economic development – a paper that, despite outlining a blueprint for export-oriented capitalist growth, was given a socialist label (“Sessional Paper No. 10 on African socialism”) to appeal to the post-colonial rhetorical stance of breaking with colonialism.

Liberation from colonial rule had been predicated on undoing the economic structure on which colonialism rested, and within the context of the Cold War; it was an unstated article of faith that such a development would be incompatible with capitalist growth. It was therefore crucial to pay lip service to socialism as Kenyatta’s government demonstrated.

Engineered by Tom Mboya, who played a central role in the transition, the policy document “African socialism and its application to planning in Kenya” defined an export oriented liberal economic growth that was aimed at domesticating the structure of the economy inherited from the departing colonial government.

Export-oriented economic growth in the context of the post-war international economic boom thus became the hallmark of Kenyatta’s post-colonial regime. Democratisation was, however, deferred to a later date as the government sought to contain its critics through the instruments of the strong state, which the reasoning of the time held vital in the initial phase of national economic development.

According to the UNCTAD’s “Handbook of international trade and development statistics” (1972), Kenya was largely viewed by the adherents of the modernisation school as a stable polity that was well destined for a transition to a liberal democratic state. This optimism informed much of the discourse on development on Kenya as long as the post-war economic boom remained a feature of the world economy, and the country registered positive economic growth largely measured in liberal economic terms.

The “stability” of Kenya in 1971, on which it was so frequently congratulated by Western journalists, was an appearance that resulted directly from the assertion of state power by the currently dominant combination of classes, and did not reflect the underlying reality of increasingly sharp social and economic contradictions. Asserting that a certain outcome is good “by African standards” is inherently patronising and racist. An accumulating class existed in Kenya and since it was indispensable for capitalist growth, Kenya had a basis for capitalist development.

Kenya lacked a large internal market on which such a development could be predicated and the international conjuncture of events that provide the atmosphere in which the industrialised countries develop was simply not present. The heavy dependence of the Kenyan capitalist class on foreign capital meant that she could not undertake the necessary changes needed for national capitalist transformation.

Clear economic class had emerged out of the dust of the struggle for independence and this class had fast developed the awareness that it had to act politically to preserve the economic structure of benefits and privileges that colonialism had perpetuated, and which neo-colonialism is now re-enforcing in new forms. The failure of foreign aid to improve economic growth rates and development has not inhibited the calls for its increase. Ironically Kenya is still as much a beggar as ever.

Whereas the first decade after independence was very favourable to capital accumulation due to a growing international economy, the same was not the case when Daniel Moi took power in 1978. Even though the second half of the 1970’s registered economic growth in aggregate terms, there was a growing concern about rising unemployment and worsening conditions of the urban working class against the background of a population growth rate that remained one of the highest in the world (4.1 per cent). The consequences of the uneven economic development inherited from colonialism and fostered by the Kenyatta regime were becoming rather visible as Kenya approached the third decade of formal independence…

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