Kenyans and the affliction of authoritarian sympathies

A closure of mind-sets, clash of beliefs, rejection of others, conformity and reverence that guarantees unquestioned obedience has become the sad understanding that authoritarianism is the only appropriate norm


By Leonard Wanyama

Are you shocked whenever Kenyans openly believe we might need a benevolent dictatorship for the sake of prosperity? Despite the humorous desire for a holiday, did the cheeky “Happy Moi Day” greetings strike your sensibilities as odd in the broader sense of the current democratic dispensation?

Do you think it’s sensible for people to believe that criminals deserve to be summarily executed by law enforcement agents? These questions point to the fact that a significant segment of Kenyan society and officialdom essentially support punitive force as a means of governance or security management.

This was clearly captured by the comments of Dr Mutuma Ruteere when he was interviewed for the Africa Uncensored documentaries Where are our children?, and Kifo cha Mende that aired on the Kenya Television Network (KTN). He said:

“It’s a popular thing to say let’s kill the criminals, let’s kill the terrorist, because that is what the public wants. The public wants to see spectacular decisive action. And what better way than say we have killed ten [criminals]?”

Why is this situation the case? How is it that there is so little belief in legal processes when it comes to ensuring law and order? Do Kenyans suffer from an authoritarian hangover? Is it really true that the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, hinders the delivery of security services?

For almost two decades, according to the Africa Uncensored documentaries, averages of between 150-200 killings take place every year. These incidences point directly towards societal inequalities in which Kenyans have allowed the extra judicial actions by the “dirty rotten few” as a legitimate crime-fighting option.

By running amok and offering vigilante justice, such officers inadvertently reinforce structural or systemic flaws that enhance the protection of the wealthy at the expense of poor members of the public, within a hierarchical and extremely stratified Kenyan society.

This allows well-off members of society to cast a blind eye. Nonetheless the question remains – why? Reading the 1997 paper in Political Psychology Journal by Stanley Feldman and Karen Stenner could offer some answers if we ask, like they did, why or how societies that are seemingly prosperous show tendencies towards “escap[ing] from freedom”.


By examining theories of authoritarianism, Kenyans have to ask themselves if they support punitive measures as a result of the myriad threats they face in their day-to-day lives, or whether it is a matter of socialisation.

Focusing on the former, a sense of peril arises from individual or societal events that breed anxiety, dogmatism, and intolerant conservatism. At the very extreme, this responds in violence in order to deal with the issues at hand.

This perspective is normally reinforced by political or religious positions, among other factors, that encourage authoritarianism in the face of perceived danger.

Commencing on this point of view, Feldman and Stenner explain why it becomes inappropriate to question security budgets despite the need to satisfy principles of accountability. It also explains extreme Kenyan fascination with the usefulness of power in the coercive sense – within social discourses and commentary.

Responses to every petty crime with punitive prison sentences, if not summary execution, do not seem to come out of the blue. Neither do suggestions with regard to the use castration or the death penalty, as voiced by members of the public, at the slightest provocation.

A precarious economic existence can be attributed as one of the major reasons driving people towards such authoritarian sympathies. Fear, as a result of individual or societal economic danger, helps construct such attitudes as a result of unemployment, low incomes, or biased sympathies of who is suffering.

Here, the issues of economic situations in comparison to the “demonic” others are vetted through the lenses of what it means to be comparatively unemployed in relation to the loss of a job or the lack of ability to find one. These issues are also examined through personal assessments in relation to others, to see whether one is better or worse off within the general state of the country.

With this in mind, Kenyans can then get to understand their negative perspectives of minority groups, highly polarised socio-political attitudes, support for the indiscriminate use of force, and differences over the war efforts in neighbouring Somalia.

Group thinking

The Kenyan tendency of degenerating debate that assigns negative traits in describing those perceived as lesser citizens then becomes clear. It extends societal blame games instead of examining who needs to be properly held to account. Sometimes, it leads to thinking that maybe the rights so painfully acquired through the reform struggle need to be reversed.

Group thinking, particularly in the tribal sense, afflicts individuals and whole communities due to the value of being an insider within the relevant entity and its patronage networks. This then demands a sense of prioritising order over everything else through conformity and loyalty.

Circumstances in which the sense of threat incubates arise out of the ideological or political distance of one group from another; the fears of diversity and angst towards political entities or leadership from opposing groups.

People then create narratives objecting to other citizens’ vision of a political horizon or alternative political choices. They construct reasons to prevent forms of interaction – which they see as loopholes – and advocate for the protection of dominant culture.

All the while, they become unconditionally intolerant and react negatively to the leadership of opposite camps. This is on the basis of the kind of characters they perceive them to be or their observation of something they did that arouses feelings they associate certain negative traits.

Ultimately, these interactions sum up to whether there is an acceptance or de-legitimisation of governance by the incumbent administration. The protagonists’ closure of mind-sets, clash of beliefs, rejection of others, conformity and reverence that guarantees unquestioned obedience becomes the sad understanding that authoritarianism is the only appropriate relationship between each other.

Sooner or later, as noted by Feldman, Kenyans could end up deciding whether they want to subordinate the individual to the masses, or the masses to the individual. History has to be our guide.

Author is a development practitioner and a part time lecturer of International Relations. Follow: @lennWanyama



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