Kenya: The Vampire State and the Moral Dimensions of Citizenship

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

Not Yet Uhuru
Monday, June 4, 2007.
Kenya is many things to many people, a dizzying blend of communities and individuals; not a single entity with a common understanding of itself.
A friend of mine recently asked: How does Kenya arrive in your village, at your doorstep? As a friend or a foe? In the case of the Pokot, or the Digo, the Mitumba dealer, the Hawker, the people of the Northern provinces or a Somali-Kenyan in Eastleigh, Kenya is an attacker.
The government’s innate drive is to consolidate its powers through relentless centralisation. In its every action, whether to build schools or to suppress free speech, the goal is to make government the fount toward which all our efforts and hopes are ever directed.
Small arms programs, presented as security measures, are in fact a way of disarming peoples who do not recognise its right to police them. So too the refusal for Kenyans to bear arms legally, a stance that has more to do with ensuring State House’s peace of mind than it does fighting criminals who already possess illegal weapons anyway. We have even heard of a colonial law, the Chief’s Act, being proposed to improve security. By John Michuki no less, who during the Emergency was nicknamed Kimondero or the crusher of testicles.
Lawmakers meanwhile have millions of dollars of government money in campaign fund, as part of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), and yet I recently met a Turkana guy who let me know that his MP will not visit their constituency because the road is too rough for his new car!
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Already the CDF is nothing more than a sinecure for the MPs’ relatives and friends. Wouldn’t it be better for taxes to be cut on the basis that Kenyans know what best to do with their money? Tax money is not government money, it belongs to people who have worked their fingers to the bone to earn it only for it to be handed to a fat cat who will not even visit his constituents.
There is a desperate need for a politics of small government in Kenya. The state does not need to only be reformed, it needs to retreat from entire swaths of Kenyan life so that being a citizen – which the majority of political publics in that country desire – is on the basis of attraction and not force.
This state governing us does a bad job not merely because of the greed of its leaders but because it was never constructed to do what it promises. Every aspect of government from marketing boards, parastatals, the policies in the North, hawkers and development to national parks and their animal and human inhabitants emanates from colonial Kenya.
And the reason for their creation in the first place – all those years ago – was two-fold: to advance uncompetitive, racist and mediocrity-loving White settler interests and to dampen African agency or resistance to colonialism.
What has replaced these goals is also two-fold, to advance elite and urban mwa-mwa-mwa interests (the Westernised middle class) and to keep the wider country politically and economically immobile so that the status quo is not threatened. There can be little doubt that the end of colonialism came, really, as an administrative change-over.
Thus the cry for yes to privatization, lower taxes and limited powers, without which Kenya will only become a poorer, more brutish place, is not a slavish miming of Western economic liberalism, it is actually a full-blooded call for decolonisation. There is no other path that I can see to Uhuru, to freedom – as a people and as individuals.
Then the next question that must be asked is whether there is a moral dimension to Kenyan citizenship. In no language other than English and Kiswahili can you say Kenyan citizen. Corruption, which is the popular enemy of the day, implies that there is something to corrupt. Yet well-known politicians who are known thieves and even murderers are widely voted for and considered leaders.
To the supposedly politically sophisticated Nairobi elite, this smacks of ignorance. But not really. It is more a lack of loyalty to the centre. Nairobi and the government is where you get things for yourself and your people, whoever those are. There are no moral claims it has on you outside of some rhetoric directed at NGOs and donors. So that to the people who are stealing, and the vast patronage network that looks to them, there is nothing to corrupt for they have imputed no purity or moral validity to the state or the nation.
The pressing issue then becomes how will Kenya, the nation not the country, and the state acquire a moral dimension so that even as we ponder citizen rights, we are ready to acknowledge obligations? How to meld all the political communities, which include tribes, ages, regions, urban groupings and classes, into a single moral entity?
These are the two issues that Kenyans need to engage with: the nature of the state and the moral calling of nationhood.
My thoughts on the latter have been drifting for the past year to the idea of transcendental spaces. Social spaces which by their nature urge a person to extend beyond present limitations to become ‘better’, that mold a common identity on the basis of faith and hope.
You guessed it: I have been suspecting that the moral citizenship that we seek will come via the church and the mosque. What Kenya needs is not a new constitution, we need a covenant between ourselves and our government. There is a difference between the two.
MMK is a London-based writer and academic. He blogs as African Bullets and Honey.
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