Kenya’s ethnic diversity has the potential to create a more resilient country. Instead, since the country’s independence in 1963, Kenya has seen a number of leaders come and go who have aggravated ethnic tensions. With elections approaching later this year, Martin Namasaka, looks back at a history of cronyism in Kenya, and suggests an alternative path where Kenyans hold their leaders accountable for their actions.  

There is a growing strand of literature focussed on the relationship between ethnic diversity, the quality of institutions, and economic growth in post-colonial Africa. Most of these studies posit that a high level of ethnic diversity implies a lower level of investment. Some suggest that ethnic diversity is one of the factors explaining the quality of government. Others postulate that ethnic diversity has come to be seen as detrimental to economic management. While there appears to be a consensus that ethnicity plays a role in the development process, perspectives on the subject differ greatly on the question whether ethnic identification is a vestigial hindrance, a sign of a more primitive order, or a fundamental human need which development must accommodate.

A few country anecdotes such as Kenya’s help give a flavour of how ethnic divisions can foster growth retarding policies in the international dataset. Using Kenya as a good case in point, I argue that in poor Africa economies, ethnic diversity contributes to corruption and may not be very beneficial to inclusive development due to unwillingness to share public goods and resources. In line with the social identity theory, the potential benefit of heterogeneity comes from variety in production, while the costs come from the inability to agree on common public goods and policies which might hamper economic development. More heterogeneous societies may exhibit higher productivity in private goods production but lower taxation and lower production of public goods. The benefits in production from variety in skills are more likely to be relevant for more advanced societies.

To begin with, Kenya has more than forty ethnic groups. Yet, Kikuyus control 25% of government jobs while the Kalenjins, control 17%. Luhya, Luo and Kamba are ranked third, fourth and fifth respectively with 14, 12 and 9%. The five least represented communities include Basuba at 0.01%, Taveta (0.04), Nubi (0.05), Mbeere (0.12) and Gabra at 0.13 %.

Barkan and Chege (1989) analyse the allocation of road building investments in Kenya between what they consider to be the home regions of former President Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi ethnic coalitions during their respective governments. After Moi took over in 1978, the road building investment share of the Kenyatta coalition home regions fell from 44% in 1979-1980 to 16% in 1987- 1988. During the same period, road construction in Moi’s coalition home regions rose from 32% to 57%.

Source: Joel D. Barkan and Michael Chege (1989). Decentralising the State: District Focus and the Politics of Reallocation in Kenya.  The Journal of Modern African Studies, 27, pp 431-453.

A classic big man, Moi plastered his image on bank notes, ordered his portrait hung in offices and shops, enriched tribal cronies and allegedly stashed billions of dollars in his overseas bank accounts. To bolster his grip on power, Moi also embarked on the gradual Kalenjinisation of the public and private sectors from the 1980s. Moi is a Tugen, one of the smaller Kalenjin ethnic groups. He began to “de-Kikuyunise” the civil service and the state-owned enterprises previously dominated by the Kikuyu ethnic group during Kenyatta’s regime. He created Nyayo Tea Zones (NTZ), Nyayo Bus Company (NBC) and Nyayo Tea Zones Development Corporation (NTZDC).

In 2002, Mwai Kibaki was elected President and was largely considered the agent of Kenya’s redemption from ethnicity. However, Kibaki was hardly an inspiring figure. He stocked his cabinet with fellow Kikuyus — known as “the Mount Kenya Mafia” — who were eager to enjoy the spoils of power after years in the wilderness. Like the Kalenjins who preceded them, the newly ascendant Kikuyus were driven by a crudely avaricious philosophy: “It’s our turn to eat.” 2013 saw Uhuru Kenyatta ushered in as the 4th President of Kenya. During the recent “State House Summit On Governance And Accountability”, Uhuru, whose extensive familial wealth supposedly inoculated him from the scourge that has bedevilled Kenya since his father Jomo, deflected responsibility and accountability for the corruption that is rife in his government.

Overlooked in the President’s self-congratulatory contortion is that his Deputy Mr. William Ruto, a Kalenjin, who has been implicated in more than one scandal during his term, is still safely ensconced in office. Also overlooked is that it took him a lifetime (in political terms) to acquiesce to his Secretary of Planning and Devolution Ms. Anne Waiguru’s request for “lighter dutiesafter Sh791 million scam. The latest episode of gross malfeasance under Mr. Kenyatta’s presidency involves the alleged misappropriation of KSh.5Billion (~$50Million) intended for free maternity care in hospitals across the country; a cause near and dear to the First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.

In contexts where there is abject poverty like sub-Saharan Africa the state should be the prime mobiliser of resources for the people. But when the state is hijacked by one or more ethnic groups, upward social mobility becomes a preserve of such groups, who use the state machinery for selfish ends as opposed to national development concerns. In this sense, a predatory state emerges whereby, clientelism and nepotism are used as yardsticks in the acquisition of state contracts and tenders. Ethnicity in its negative form negates development. It becomes a powerful force that leads to the vices that in turn defame the redistribution of a country’s resources.

In Kenya, selfish politicians and the political elite have used diversity in multi-ethnicity to balkanise the country and plunge it into violence, culminating into the kind of political crisis that was witnessed in late 2007 right through to early 2008. This kind of negative ethnicity, which was overtly exhibited in hate speeches, took centre stage in the voting patterns that were witnessed in the 2007 general elections. Ethnic voting leads to a formula some Kenyans call the “tyranny of numbers”; the biggest ethnic groups dominate politics and the winner is expected to let his fellow tribesmen “eat” at the trough of public funds. Others fight for scraps.

Overall, politics of ethnicity has been the dominant determining factor in electioneering at the national level in Africa. To curb the anomaly of ethnicity in electoral politics, Africans must start holding their leaders to account by insisting on the creation of viable political parties that prioritise issues and policy programs that address the problems of the people at the expense of identity. This will need efforts from both the populace and the leadership. This calls for the creation of democratic “inclusive institutions” and not “extractive institutions” that will allocate and ensure the sharing of resources equitably. When this happens, it would not matter who becomes President or Prime Minister. The people deserve and expect equal share of resources, jobs and infrastructural development without any regard to their race, ethnicity, gender or religion.


Martin Namasaka holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he was a Programme for African Leadership (PfAL) scholar. He is an International Development Specialist with a number of years of experience working with a wide range of organizations drawn from diverse countries in Africa (Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda).

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.